I am in Toronto this week to deliver a couple of talks: first at the Royal Canadian Military Institute on Wednesday on the topic of ‘Deterring “Russian Aggression”‘; and then on Friday at Ideacity on the subject of how the world is not more dangerous nowadays than in the past. Details here and here.
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.
Yesterday I attended a reception in honour of Russia’s national day, at which schoolchildren sang the Russian national anthem, the music to which is the same as that of the old Soviet anthem. In recognition of this, today’s object is a record of the national anthems of the Soviet Union and its constituent republics.
Having climbed on board the bus of constitutional reform and proposed amendments that would make Donetsk and Lugansk ‘inseparable parts of Ukraine’, rebel leaders in Ukraine have now leapt off the bus and are backtracking from their own proposals with remarkable speed. Today, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Aleksandr Zakharchenko, told Life News, ‘I do not envision the DPR being part of Ukraine.’ ‘For me personally, the DPR’s future is as a free, independent state,’ he said, adding that, ‘the blood which our compatriots have shed cannot be forgotten. There can be no talk with Ukraine about any type of autonomy.’
This, of course, completely contradicts the suggestions for constitutional reform put forward by the DPR’s representative to the so-called ‘Contact Group’, Denis Pushilin, which I analyzed in another post yesterday. How can we explain this contradiction? According to Pushilin today, the DPR has no intention of rejoining Ukraine, ‘This would, of course, be for us a form of suicide … nobody intends to go in this direction. But negotiations within the framework of international process is possible and is not excluded.’ In other words, the DPR made its proposals not because it actually wants them to be accepted, or even because it expects Kiev to respond to them, but because ‘international processes’ (i.e. the Minsk agreement of February 2015) require that it propose something. In short, the DPR is going through the motions.
The question is why it bothers to do so. It cannot be because the Ukrainian government is forcing it to, or because the French and German governments (which were largely responsible for the Minsk agreement) are forcing it either. The only possible explanation is that the pressure to at least go through the motions is coming from Moscow. This would mean that the proposed constitutional reforms, which would see the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk acquire ‘special status’ but remain within Ukraine, represent the wishes not of the rebels but of the Russian government.
The recent G7 meeting reiterated demands that Russia abide by the Minsk agreement, suggesting that it was not doing so and threatening additional sanctions if it did not change its behaviour. But if the above is correct, Moscow is actually trying hard to make the rebels conform with that agreement’s requirements, while Kiev is failing to live up to its own obligations by refusing to negotiate the ‘special status’ for Donbass as mandated by Minsk.
Point 11 of the Minsk-2 agreement which is meant to provide a road map to end the conflict in Ukraine, states that the Ukrainian government should undertake:
Constitutional reform in Ukraine, with a new constitution to come into effect by the end of 2015, the key element of which is decentralization (taking into account peculiarities of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, agreed with representatives of these districts), and also approval of permanent legislation on the special status of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in accordance with the measures spelt out in the attached footnote, by the end of 2015.
In a previous post, I mentioned that representatives of the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR) had laid out their suggestions for the required constitutional amendments. Until today, we only knew the broad outline, but the DPR’s press agency has now published the complete text. The key proposed amendments are as follows:
Article 1391: The regions, towns, and other populated points of Donetsk Province form a separate region with special status. The regions, towns, and other populated points of Lugansk Province form a separate region with special status. … the principles of this status are to be defined by a separate Ukrainian law. … The separate regions with special status are inseparable parts of Ukraine, and within the limits of their powers, defined by the Constitution, separate agreements, and any agreements about the division of powers among these regions … they will independently decide those questions which are brought before them.
Article 1292: The separate regions with special status will form electoral commissions on the territory of those regions. The electoral commissions of the separate regions with special status will be independent and not subordinate to the organs of the legislative and executive powers or other electoral commissions.
Article 1393: The state will guarantee the financial independence of the separate regions with special status by 1) strengthening the budgets of the separate regions with special status with sufficient sources of finance to guarantee the balancing of the budget. … and 6) introducing a special economic regime.
Article 1394: The organs of local self-government … have the right to create organs to protect public order (people’s militia). These organs’ leaders are to be nominated to and removed from office by the organs of local self-government of the separate regions with special status.
Article 1395: The organs of local self-government of the separate regions with special status will regulate the following matters: 1) agriculture, land resources and ownership … 2) land improvement, 3) social work, charity, 4) urban construction, 5) tourism, 6) museums, libraries, theatres, and other cultural institutions, 7) transport, 8) hunting and fishing, 9) health service, 10) use of the Russian language … 13) economics and investment within the framework of the special economic regime.
Article 1396: The following matters will be considered by the separate regions with special status: 1) carrying out referendums, elections of members of local councils … 7) guaranteeing the right to use Russian and other languages … 8) preserving and constructing memorials … 10) concluding treaties with foreign states on questions linked to the activities of the separate regions with special status, 11) collecting local taxes.
Article 1397: Justice in the separate regions with special status will be administered by courts which are part of the court system of Ukraine. The creation and dismantlement of courts, and the appointment and dismissal of judges, will be carried out with the agreement of the organs of local self-government of the separate regions with special status. …
Article 133: The administrative territorial system of Ukraine consists of: the Autonomous Republic of Crimea; the separate regions with special status of Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces; the provinces, regions, towns, regions in towns, settlements and villages. … The cities of Kiev and Sevastopol and the separate regions with special status of Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces have special status defined by Ukrainian law.
In addition to these amendments, the document also states that ‘It is proposed that the Constitution of Ukraine be amended with the words “Ukraine will not join military blocs and alliances, will remain neutral, and will refrain from participating in military actions outside its own territory.”’
In reviewing this, the Russian press has focused on the fact that the document lists Crimea and Sevastopol as part of Ukraine, as if this somehow means that the rebels are distancing themselves from Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol. This supposedly constitutes some form of scandalous political retreat. In reality, the rebels must know that they cannot get the Ukrainian government to amend its constitution to remove the references to Crimea and Sevastopol. What matters is the proposed inclusion of Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces as ‘separate regions with special status.’
The language used here is significant. There is no talk of ‘autonomy’ or of turning Ukraine into a ‘federal’ state. Rather the phrase ‘special status’ corresponds with the demands of Minsk-2. If the rebel proposals were to come into force, Ukraine would remain a unitary state, albeit one in which two provinces had unique local powers. Furthermore, the statement that the two provinces are ‘inseparable parts of Ukraine’ is extremely important. The labelling of the rebels as ‘separatists’ no longer fits the facts.
The powers requested by the rebels for the ‘separate regions with special status’ are not insubstantial. Even if the word ‘autonomy’ is not used, the proposed amendments would in practice make Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces very largely self-governing. That said, the proposed competencies of the separate regions are not out of line with what one can find in the states and provinces of many Western countries. Beyond the issue of neutrality, the suggestion which would be most likely to cause serious difficulties is that of creating a special economic regime for the separate regions. It would seem that in proposing this, the rebels have in mind the maintenance of close economic ties with Russia. The problem is that a special economic regime for one zone of Ukraine is not compatible with the country’s ambitions to join the European Union (which allows for no such regimes).
Still, a deal along the lines suggested by the rebel document would allow all sides in the conflict to save face: Ukraine would preserve its territorial integrity, while the Ukrainian government could claim that it had successfully resisted attempts to federalize or confederalize the country; and the rebels could say that they had won significant autonomy. Even if some details might prove problematic, overall the rebels’ document is not unreasonable as a foundation for negotiating a peace settlement.
Unfortunately, as I pointed out in my previous post, the Ukrainian government does not appear to be interested in negotiating. Despite the fact that Minsk-2 specifically states that the required constitutional reforms should include ‘special status’ for Donetsk and Lugansk, the government is insisting that they will consist only of a general decentralization of powers to all Ukrainian regions and will not involve any such ‘special status’ for Donbass. Ukraine’s Western allies should press it to reconsider.
My recent biography of Russia’s First World War Supreme Commander, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, ends with a description of his tomb in the crypt of the Church of St Michael the Archangel in Cannes. It was, until recently, adorned with Russian flags and icons and bore a plain inscription, giving the Grand Duke’s name and his title – ‘Supreme Commander’
My description is now out of date. A month ago, the remains of both Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich and his wife, Grand Duchess Anastasiia, were taken from France back to Russia, and reburied in the Bratskii Military Cemetery in Moscow. Speaking at the reburial ceremony, the Mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, said, ‘Today the Supreme Commander of the Russian Army during World War I returns to his soldiers … may his remains lie in peace.’