Given the poor quality of much commentary about Russia’s role in the war in Donbass, it was good this week to read something which was actually quite informative, even if I disagreed with some of its assumptions and policy recommendations. The report in question was published by the International Crisis Group (ICG) on 5 February and entitled ‘Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine’. The points which I found most interesting were these:
- After not doing much to aid the process of state formation and economic reconstruction in the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR), in the past 4-5 months ‘Moscow began to provide money for pensions, other social payments and government and military salaries. … There are indications that Russia … feels need for a tighter grip on the entities [DNR and LNR] as it considers options.’ The change in policy ‘indicates either that Moscow fears a deeply embarrassing humanitarian crisis … or is preparing to consolidate its position in the entities for a significant length of time.’
- The rebellion has a ‘limited support base’. ‘The strongest separatist constituency is probably pensioners, villagers and unskilled workers’, whereas ‘the social groups which do not support the separatist cause [are] the middle class, most businesspeople, entrepreneurs, and those with a tertiary education’. However, ‘Deep mistrust of Kyiv politicians and fear of the far right are still strong’ and ‘if easterners continue to feel Kyiv has no interest in them, acceptance [of the rebellion] will grow.’
- ‘Moscow seems to have thrown its weight behind the top leaders of both entities.’ These leaders ‘privately admit their total dependence’ on Russia, which provides most of the money for their budgets. Russian officers and bureaucrats (known as ‘kurators’ (‘curators’)) hold senior positions in the rebel army and civil administration. ‘Power is largely exercised through the kurators.’
- ‘The aim is to install more order and predictability in the two entities.’ Meanwhile, ‘For the past several months, military kurators have had another important role: to enforce the ceasefire, which they have mostly done rigorously. Separatist officials and officers regularly complain that if their fighters respond to Ukrainian fire, kurators threaten punishment or reduction of military supplies.’
- The rebels do not know what Moscow’s long-term intentions are. ‘A separatist official said, “we just do not know what they have in mind for us.’” Indeed, rebel leaders are not sure that Moscow even knows itself what its objectives are. ‘“There is one thing our kurators cannot explain”, one of the highest said. “That is what is happening in the Kremlin. They don’t know themselves.”’ Rebel officials complain of ‘constant in-fighting in Moscow’, and ‘A sophisticated DNR analyst views the opacity of its intentions as proof Moscow is not yet agreed on a way out of the eastern Ukraine morass. The inner core that makes final decisions on issues like Ukraine may be small, but it seems often divided … This is manifested on the ground by lack of both political and military coordination. Different “towers of the Kremlin” are fighting, he said … DNR leaders thus sometimes receive conflicting messages from their Russian supervisors.’
- Because of this, ‘DNR officials … do not rule out the possibility that Russia may ultimately forge ahead with implementation of Minsk, returning the entities to Kyiv’s control.’ However, Moscow may decide instead in favour of a ‘frozen conflict’, while a resumption of large-scale military operations can also not be ruled out. The impression is that, ‘Moscow is simultaneously examining several possible outcomes’, and is for the most part improvising rather than following a clearly defined objective.
I remain convinced that Russia’s preferred outcome is for Donbass to be reintegrated into Ukraine with some form of autonomy. The analysis above suggests, however, that Moscow is preparing for the possibility that this may not be achievable, as Kiev seems unlikely to make the constitutional changes required by the Minsk-2 agreement, let alone fulfil other obligations, such as granting an amnesty to the rebels. In light of this, the Russian government has realized that something must be done to restore good government and a functioning economy to Donbass, as the DNR and LNR may well turn out to be permanent fixtures. This should not be confused with actual preference. Rather, it is a reluctant recognition of reality.
The International Crisis Group’s report makes other important points. First, Moscow appears to want the Minsk agreements to work, as shown by the fact the kurators are enforcing the ceasefire. The Russian presence in Donbass is probably reducing violence, not increasing it. Second, support for the rebellion is not overwhelming, and so there is a prospect of convincing the people of the DNR and LNR to reintegrate with Ukraine. But the longer Kiev maintains its policy of blockading Donbass, the more remote this possibility becomes. Ukrainian policies are thus probably counterproductive. Third, Moscow is not pursuing some grandiose plan to restructure the international order, expand its empire, or any of the like. Rather, it is improvising in an effort to find a way out of a situation it does not want. This refutes claims that the war in Donbass is just a first step in a broader plan of Russian aggression, which must be halted now lest Russia be encouraged to advance further (e.g. into the Baltic states).
The ICG report merits praise for bringing all of this to our attention. Where it goes off the rails is when it tries to go beyond reporting the facts and make policy recommendations. The report states that Russia ‘wants to keep Ukraine under its pro-Western leadership unstable, embroiled in open-ended military confrontation it cannot afford.’ But no evidence is provided to justify this claim, which directly contradicts the report’s conclusions that the Kremlin is improvising, doesn’t actually know what it wants (or is at least divided on that matter), is doing what it can to preserve the ceasefire, and may well be willing to ‘return the entities to Kyiv’s control.’
The ICG finishes its report with a recommendation that ‘The EU, U.S. and allies must keep the pressure on Moscow to clarify and demonstrate its intentions.’ The problem with this suggestion is that nothing in the report indicates whether Western pressure on Moscow has had the desired intention in the past or is likely to in the future. No evidence is provided to show how such pressure would alter the internal dynamics of what is described as a divided decision making system within the Kremlin. Given that the report suggests that Ukrainian policy is counterproductive and that Russia might be willing to see Donbass reintegrated in Ukraine, it would surely also make sense to consider pressuring Kiev to take the steps necessary for such a reintegration to take place. This isn’t done; the ICG seems to assume that the solution to the Ukraine crisis lies solely in Moscow, without considering other possibilities.
The ICG’s recommendations thus seem somewhat divorced from the content of the report. Nevertheless, this is an interesting and informative document, and well worth a read.