A couple of days ago when I wrote about Ukraine for LobeLog, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had a deal on the table to call for a ceasefire with the separatists in the Donbas once Ukrainian government forces had retaken control of the country’s long land border with Russia. That’s obviously going to require either considerable military action or a capitulation by the separatists, so it’s not like Poroshenko was looking for a quick way out of the fighting, but it was a way for him to seem like the reasonable party in the situation. Well, Poroshenko had a long phone talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, and came out of it with a proposal that might be “reasonable” enough to keep Putin from lifting any more fingers to help the Donbas fighters.
Now, Poroshenko is touting a “14 point peace plan” that supposedly includes an immediate, unilateral ceasefire by the Ukrainian government, presumably without any major conditions like regaining control of the border. It’s pretty likely that a unilateral ceasefire was Putin’s main ask in his call with Poroshenko, so the offer almost certainly has Putin’s approval. The rebels, who don’t listen to Putin (or at least to what Putin is telling them publicly) when they don’t feel like it, summarily rejected the deal. This apparently means that the “unilateral ceasefire” is out the window, because Ukrainian forces and the rebels are now reportedly engaged in a major battle north of Donetsk, and the rebels are losing badly if their own accounts are to be believed.
It’s very likely that I’m totally off base here, or that I’m on to something but it won’t work, but I think Poroshenko is setting up a scenario where Putin can sort of wash his hands of the separatists, or at least of the more extreme elements of the separatist movement. The War Nerd wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago wherein he speculated that Putin isn’t so interested in conquering eastern Ukraine as he is in maintaining the separatist movement going at a level just high enough to keep Kiev off balance, the way Pakistan uses Kashmir to give Indian leaders continual headaches. Mr. Nerd doesn’t mention, but I will, the value that these kinds of long-term foreign grievances can have domestically. Any domestic crisis or loss of public support can be mitigated with an appeal to base patriotism in the face of foreign enemies. So having Donbas continue to be A Thing may be more valuable to Putin (and here it’s important to note that “Putin” is not “Russia”) than annexing the region would be.
Anyway, the War Nerd thinks Putin might be interested in eventually absorbing eastern Ukraine in the long run, but it seems to me that what Putin would really like in the long run is to rebuild enough Russian support to eventually have openly pro-Russia candidates contending for high office in Kiev again. That means keeping the insurgent fires high enough to destabilize the country but low enough that there’s no major further rise in anti-Russia resentment in the rest of Ukraine. It’s a very fine line to walk, and I have doubts that Putin (or anybody else) can walk it, assuming that’s what he’s attempting to do. But if that’s Putin’s plan, it does open up a window for Poroshenko to buy space for a forceful effort to put down the insurgency. He can say “hey, look, I offered exactly what Putin wanted, and these guys spat it back in my face.” Putin gets to say “hey, I tried,” maybe pitch a public fit at Poroshenko’s outrageous and dictatorial treatment of the poor Donbas folk. Also, though, he gets some of the more energetic elements of the separatist movement removed and/or dialed back, while the underlying complaint that the folks in Donbas have with Kiev still remains, or if anything is maybe juiced up a little more. Also too, the chance to shed a crisis that seems to be doing some tangible damage to Russia’s economy wouldn’t exactly be unwelcome from Putin’s perspective.
It’s a win-win, I guess, unless you’re one of the separatists who are likely to bite it while the two oligarch presidents play games with your movement.
Russian politicians are also rejecting Poroshenko’s peace offer as insufficient and some kind of trick, but it’s hard to know how much of that is just for domestic consumption. It’s just too coincidental that this new peace plan was unveiled right after Poroshenko and Putin had their little gab session to believe that Russia was in any way surprised by what Poroshenko offered. Russia also appears to be amassing troops on the Ukrainian border again, but that, too, could be all for show. Again, I could be totally wrong here and Russia may be about to intervene directly in the fight. But given the events of the past couple of days, I think Poroshenko and Putin have reached an understanding.