Now that the rebels of Donbass have jumped off the bus driving towards reintegration with Ukraine, is Moscow about to throw them underneath it?
Today, a crowd of angry citizens of Donetsk gathered to protest against the bombing of their homes, and to demand an end to the war. After going out to meet them on crutches (due to a foot wound suffered in February), the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Aleksandr Zakharchenko, told them that, ‘The DPR is an independent state and will never join Ukraine, blood has flowed between us.’
This isn’t the sort of message which the Russian government wants to hear. It may explain why the Kremlin’s front man for Ukrainian affairs, Vladislav Surkov, was recently reported to have engaged in a shouting match with Zakharchenko. Now, the Ukrainian newspaper Vesti claims that Moscow has made a behind the scenes offer to the Ukrainian government to bring the war to an end by ditching the rebel leaders. According to Vesti, Moscow has proposed that
A special regime of local self-government will encompass all the territory of Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts, including those under the control of Ukraine, but this autonomy will be headed by people agreed by Kiev, Moscow, and other participants of the Minsk process. In this way, as well as expanding the special territory of Donbass, there will be leaders who will return the region to Ukraine with very expanded rights. In these conditions, all those in the armed formations of the people’s republics will be amnestied, some of them formed into people’s militia, and the rest disarmed.
So, is Moscow really preparing to throw the rebels under the bus? It certainly isn’t the first time that this claim has been made. When the rebellion started, Igor Strelkov, commanding the rebel troops in Slavyansk, regularly complained that Russia had abandoned him. Later, he claimed that Surkov had tried to sell Donbass out in a deal to surrender Donetsk to oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. Later still, both the Minsk-1 and Minsk-2 peace agreements were seen by many as halting the rebels when they were advancing militarily in return for almost no political gains. The ‘fifth column’ in the Kremlin supposedly wants above all to get Western economic sanctions on Russia removed so that its oligarch friends can go back to making money and taking their holidays in Europe. If abandoning Donbass is the cost, so be it. Or so it is said.
Like all good conspiracy theories, this one has some basis in fact. Putin and his colleagues are the government of Russia, not of Donbass. Of course they put Russian interests first. It would be absurd to expect Russians to sacrifice themselves for the sake of people who may speak the same language and share a similar culture, but aren’t actually fellow citizens. When the interests of the Donbass rebels conflict with those of the Russian government, the latter will win. Furthermore, the Russian government has made it clear, again and again, that it does not want to annex Donbass, or to see it become independent. In this instance, the aspirations of the rebel leadership do run counter to the wishes of Moscow, and we should not be surprised that Moscow is seeking to end the war on terms which suit Russia, but may not suit the DPR.
Still, domestic politics impose limits on how far the Kremlin can go in ignoring the desires and eventual fates of its Eastern Ukrainian clients. Were the rebels to be militarily defeated it would be an enormous humiliation for the Russian government. The latter will, therefore, not allow it to happen – thus the provision of military supplies to the rebels. Similarly, whatever political settlement eventually ends the war has to be one which Moscow can accept while saving face. Furthermore, however dependent they may be on Russia, the rebel leaders do have some degree of independent agency – they can only be pushed so far. Russia has not provided the DPR with what it needs to win a decisive military victory, but it has enabled it to build up a substantial military force and to create the foundations of a proper state system. Throwing the rebels under the bus isn’t a simple operation.
Finally, even if the Vesti story is true, Russia’s proposals do not appear very far removed from those put forward by the DPR itself, and so they are likely to be considered unacceptable by Kiev. And while the call for a leadership agreed between Ukraine and Russia could be seen as a means of abandoning the rebel leaders, it could also be seen in the opposite light – a compromise which will ensure some rebel inclusion in the post-settlement order.
Overall, the Vesti story does not strike me as implausible. But neither is it surprising – a peace which sees Donbass rejoin Ukraine but with special status has been Moscow’s objective for a long time.