Vladimir Putin’s options in Ukraine appear to be diminishing as the war in the Donbas continues, despite an official ceasefire initiated on June 20 by Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko. After almost four months of conflict, which began on March 1, when Russian forces occupied Crimea, the impetus for further dramatic changes in revising territorial boundaries in Ukraine has slowed notably.
A survey conducted by the fund Public Opinion, reveals that today over 50% of Russians want Putin to run for president of Russia after 2018, when his current term expires. The survey points out that the increase in the president’s popularity stems directly from the annexation of Crimea. The direct costs to date have been serious without being dangerous. Ukraine refers to the situation as one of “temporary occupation.” The UN resolution on March 27, which stated that the Crimean Referendum “cannot be the basis for any changes of status” of the peninsula, received the support of 100 member countries out of 193, with 11 opposed, and 58 abstentions. The costs of the occupation will likely prove severe in future (up to 1 trillion rubles over four years), and building the bridge over the Kerch Straits alone will amount to R283-349 billion—around $8.3-$10.3 billion. These future impositions will eventually take a toll on the Russian economy, but may not affect Putin’s popularity for the immediate future.
But if Crimea has necessitated acceptable sacrifices, the situation in Eastern Ukraine has been more problematic from Moscow’s perspective. Despite intensive propaganda directed at local residents, there is little to suggest that the local population supports the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) or the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). Moreover, while nebulous concerning details, Poroshenko’s peace plan has acknowledged the need for decentralization of authority to the benefit of these regions. On the basis of a new Constitution, he declared, new local councils will be elected and form executive committees, which elect their own leaders. The proposed amendments would allow regions wide rights in the spheres of historical memory, cultural traditions, and language policy, and local communities in the Donbas will enjoy the right to use Russian, along with the state language (Ukrainian). The president also added that the program would create new jobs in the region with the assistance of the EU, but no investments would be forthcoming until warfare ended. Poroshenko is willing to talk to those who joined the separatists, but not those involved in acts of terrorism, murder, or torture.
Putin showed some signs of willingness to support the ceasefire, requesting the Federation Council to withdraw the resolution permitting military intervention in Ukraine. Valery Bolotov, head of separatist military forces in Luhansk and Aleksandr Khodakovsky, commander of the Vostok battalion, both took part in the press conference in support of the ceasefire, which was to expire on June 27. Three former presidents of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma (he has been Poroshenko’s designated mediator in discussions with Russia), Leonid Kravchuk, and Viktor Yushchenko had earlier sent an open letter to Putin, demanding that he end aggression against Ukraine and start negotiations. Kravchuk remarked that without Putin, no peace proposals implemented by the Ukrainian side could be implemented. On June 22, Putin made a conciliatory statement on the need for a compromise acceptable to all sides, including the people of south-east Ukraine “who should feel they are an integral part of this country,” which taken literally would imply that the Russian president no longer recognizes the authority of the separatist regimes.
The difficulties, however, lie at the heart of these quasi-regimes and their self-appointed leaders. The “people’s governor” of Donetsk Oblast, Pavel Gubarev, proposed his own plan to resolve the conflict in southeastern Ukraine, which he posted on his Facebook page. It demanded that all Ukrainian troops be removed from the two breakaway republics and Kyiv should recognize their legitimacy, as well as the creation of conditions for a referendum in other regions of “Novorossiya.” He also stated that Ihor Kolomoiskyi (governor of Dnipropetrovsk), Arsen Avakov (Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs), and Oleh Lyashko (leader of the Ukrainian Radical Party) must voluntarily give themselves up to the militia, while oligarch Rinat Akhmetov must return everything he has “stolen from the people,” gather his belongings, and leave the country. On June 21, at Lenin Square in Donetsk (i.e. the day after the ceasefire was introduced), the armed forces of the breakaway regions took an oath of loyalty, attended by “Prime Minister” Aleksandr Boroday, former MP Oleh Tsarev, and the head of the Novorossiya party, Gubarev. These are hardly the actions of people in a mood for compromise.
The same can be said of the head of the armed forces of the DNR, Igor Strelkov (Girkin), who stated in an interview with LifeNews on June 25 that he was prepared to observe a ceasefire only on three conditions. First, that the Ukrainian army should move 10 kilometers from the main army garrisons of the DNR and LNR; second, flights of Ukrainian military planes over zones controlled by rebels must stop; and third, artillery fire on settlements and separatist bases must end. While Strelkov has declared his gratitude to Russia for the provision of weapons, which have undoubtedly been used at his base on Slovyansk (resulting in the deaths of 49 military personnel after the shooting down of a Ukrainian plane in mid-June), his frustration with his ostensible masters in Moscow has been evident for some time. Further, the demands of both Strelkov and Gubarev are far-fetched in a situation where the Ukrainian president would prefer not to deal directly with those who wish to break up or challenge the territorial integrity of his country.
Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov maintains that Putin has betrayed the Russian mercenaries, who went to Ukraine brainwashed by propaganda. He points out that “Putin’s channels” (on Russian television) talk constantly about the heroic fight against “Fascists and Banderites” but they do not show Strelkov. The latter had been among the first to be obsessed with the anti-Ukrainian propaganda and had taken up guns and traveled to Slovyansk. His example was followed by hundreds of fighters from Russia, who became the backbone of resistance to the Ukrainian army. But whereas all television propaganda focused on Strelkov’s armed detachments, the leader himself was kept in the shadows. Nemtsov’s theory is that after the war, Strelkov and his companions will return to Russia incensed at Putin for his betrayal of them, and their next actions will not be in Slovyansk, but in Moscow. The implication is that they would want Putin removed from power for inciting them to action and then withdrawing support.
Nemtsov’s analysis, while perhaps overblown, nonetheless delves into the heart of the dilemmas facing Vladimir Putin. He gained a surge of popularity for the successful annexation of Crimea, but the intervention in Eastern Ukraine—the concept of the so-called “Novorossiya”—has run into serious difficulties and cannot be sustained without a full-scale Russian military invasion. In one operation alone, Ukraine’s anti-terrorist forces killed over 250 separatists, and while costly in terms of casualties and impact on the local population, the sustained, if error-strewn drive in place since Poroshenko’s inauguration has effectively ended prospects of separatist victory assuming the current array of forces is maintained. In that respect the ceasefire may have been somewhat premature. For Putin, however, a desperate situation is masked behind what seem to be “peace maneuvers.” In reality, without further escalation, the Russian leader will lose control over the forces he has created.
In this respect, Putin’s fatal mistake was less his encouragement of the likes of Strelkov, and rather his intervention into Crimea on March 1, which at one stroke changed a border in place for sixty years. At present none of these events seems to pose an immediate danger to the Russian president, but he is wise enough to recognize that his position is deteriorating. His actions have incurred human losses, great expenses, the alienation of much of the international community, and the lasting enmity of the vast majority of Ukrainians, all of which he might have been prepared to sustain if the result had been the end of Ukraine’s move toward the West or the self-rule or independence of its eastern territories. But none of this has happened, and separatists in Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, and other Donbas towns are now in peril. They cannot agree to a ceasefire because it will signify the end of their mission and the Russian leader seems to have abandoned them. In turn, Putin has no wish to initiate full-scale war and face the quagmire of another Afghanistan. If he deluded himself into the view that he would receive widespread support in Eastern Ukraine, he recognizes today that any major conflict would be protracted and costly. His actions on March 1 are now coming back to haunt him.
Photo: AFP PHOTO / POOL / CHRISTOPHE ENA