Opinion | Why the Donbass is the Key to Putin’s Gambit in Ukraine

American Age Official

If you’ve been listening to statements coming out of the Kremlin, you’ve probably noticed that Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, repeatedly talk about something called the “Minsk Protocols” or the “Minsk agreements.” And you might also know that those agreements have to do with the status of two allegedly pro-Russian regions of the Donbass, a coal-mining region of Ukraine that borders Russia and that Russia has occupied since 2014. You might even be aware that some experts in the West consider those two regions something of a bargaining chip — perhaps, such experts think, letting Russia annex or control those two regions might be part of a compromise that could mollify Putin and prevent a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Putin wants you to think, and it’s a serious misreading of how he plans to use Donbass. What Putin knows (and the West hasn’t yet understood) is that any move by Ukraine to formally recognize some kind of “independence” for Donbass will set off mass protests across Ukraine.

According to my understanding of Russian strategy, which I developed in the national security sector of Ukraine including working with NATO to monitor and detect Russian threats, Russia’s real goal is to use such protests to internally destabilize Ukraine — to organize attacks on the government and military command-and-control system using attackers disguised as protesters and to assassinate top officials. Such chaos would disorganize the Ukrainian armed forces and justify its military invasion of Ukraine in the guise of restoring order. That would set off a string of events that would likely end in a partition of Ukraine.

This is why Ukrainians like me see Moscow’s emphasis on the Minsk agreements as disingenuous. Moscow’s efforts to force Ukraine to implement the Minsk Protocols and demands that the West do the same have little to do with the actual region of Donbass and everything to do with fomenting unrest across Ukraine that will give Russia a pretext to invade the eastern part of the country and install a compliant regime, likely centered in the city of Kharkiv.

To understand Putin’s gambit better, some background will help.

Immediately after the invasion of Crimea in 2014, Russia sent its own special forces and mercenaries into the Donbass to organize an anti-Ukrainian armed uprising. With little support from the local population, the anti-government forces were small and poorly organized. The Ukrainian armed forces launched an operation in Donbass that liberated several cities every day without undue effort. All indications were that the final liberation of Donbass from Russian occupation could be completed by October 2014.

In order to stop Ukrainian troops and finally capture the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Russia was forced in August 2014 to send a large part of its regular troops to Donbass. Despite its suddenness and significant losses on the Ukrainian side, the Russian offensive was unsuccessful. Russia failed to seize new territories, and much of the liberated cities remained under Ukrainian control. In September 2014, Russia launched the Minsk peace process in order to save face and use diplomatic means to deter Ukraine from further attempts to liberate Donbass.

In Kyiv and the West, these talks were seen as negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, as parties to the conflict. The main achievement of these negotiations was an agreement that Russia would withdraw all foreign troops, mercenaries and heavy weapons from Ukraine. In return, Ukraine was ready to adopt a law on the special status of local governments in Donbass and hold elections there.

It’s important to recognize that at the time, Kyiv did not see any special risks in this. Although many of the residents of this part of Ukraine spoke primarily Russian, they were not particularly pro-Russia. In 1991, during a referendum on the secession of Ukraine from the Soviet Union, more than 83 percent of Donbass residents voted for Ukrainian independence. (As it happens, so did residents of Crimea, who voted for Ukraine’s independence by 54 percent.)

The population of the part of Donbass that was eventually liberated by the Ukrainian army in June 2014 did not oppose Ukraine in any way; local councils were elected there and normal life was restored. So officials in Kyiv assumed that once Russian troops left, there would be no problem reintegrating the rest of Donbass.

Unfortunately, Russia was well aware of this, too, and not only refused to withdraw its troops from Donbass but significantly increased its presence. On the territory of Donbass, the Russians deployed two army corps, where they began to try to recruit local residents as mercenaries. Unable to find a sufficient number of people willing to fight for the Russian Federation in Donbass for money, it resorted to forced conscription of Ukrainian citizens into the ranks of its illegal armed groups.

Russia also installed puppet governments inside the two so-called republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. The local councils of Donbass elected before the war did not support Russian aggression, so Moscow created military dictatorships in the occupied territories, which initially were run by Russian citizens. Later, the Russians were replaced by local collaborators. Of course, these individuals were not legitimate representatives of the inhabitants of the occupied territories, but Russia insisted on the participation of these individuals in the Minsk process.

Over time, the Kremlin began to change the narrative of the conflict, to act as if Russia was not a party to the Minsk talks. Instead, they insisted the negotiations should be conducted between the Ukrainian government and the Russian proxies, and stressed that elections in Donbass should be held without restoring Ukrainian sovereignty to those areas.

In fact, today Russia demands several things from Ukraine: to recognize Russia’s aggression against Ukraine as a civil war; to allow Russia to legalize its puppet governments in Donbass through elections outside Ukraine’s jurisdiction; to recognize the Russian puppet regimes as legal representatives of occupied Donbass; to grant the occupied Donbass, led by Russian proxies, broad autonomy within Ukraine; and to grant an amnesty to Russian mercenaries and collaborators. Those moves will not stop the Russian occupation of Donbass, but will remove from Russia any international responsibility for it.

For Ukraine, such proposals are completely unacceptable. Ukrainians do not see Donbass as a bargaining chip, and any move to accept Russia’s version of the Minsk agreements will be understood inside Ukraine as a capitulation and prompt mass protests. Ukrainians were not ready to give up their legal rights and capitulate even in 2014, when Ukraine was not ready for war. Now, when the Ukrainian armed forces, together with an active reserve, numbers almost 500,000 people with serious combat experience, Ukrainians do not understand why they should surrender.

This is well understood in Russia, particularly since even less consequential moves have led to riots. For instance, in 2016, Ukraine’s parliament took steps to recognize local self-government in Donbass as different from the rest of Ukraine. Many Ukrainians saw this move as an attempt to federalize Ukraine, something that Russia wants because it could facilitate Ukraine’s continued occupation region by region. These moves prompted riots outside the Ukrainian parliament which injured dozens of law enforcement officers and killed four.

I believe that Russia not only understands that such protests will take place, but also wants them to take place, to justify occupying several regions of southern and eastern Ukraine. Putin first needs Ukraine to erupt into street protests over the Minsk agreements as a cover for its own operation to overthrow the Ukrainian government, which will be carried out by Russian special forces under the guise of a Ukrainian ultra-right coup. Protecting the Russian-speaking population of southern and eastern Ukraine from the “Nazis” who seized power in Kyiv will be an excuse for the introduction of Russian troops. Despite the fact that the Russians will face fierce resistance from the population there, the Kremlin hopes that in these regions there is at least a social base for the formation of occupying authorities.

Putin’s ultimate goal in this operation is to divide Ukraine, capture its east and south (from Odessa to Kharkiv), gain control of much of the defense industry (including intercontinental missile production), and deprive Ukraine of access to the Black and Azov seas.

Of course, Russia is not considering capturing Kyiv, as it is aware of the impossibility of its occupation due to the level of resistance it would inevitably face here. After capturing several regions of southern and eastern Ukraine, Russia is likely to ask for the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers, which would consolidate the status quo desired by Russia.

It is worth noting that attempts to divide Ukraine in a similar scenario by Russia have been made several times, in particular during the Ukrainian revolutions of 2004 and 2014. The fact that Russia has not abandoned its plans shows the complete failure of Western measures to deter it.

The reason for this failure is the lack of understanding of Russia, ignoring its expansive intentions and deceptive methods. Even now, as the West tries to avert Russian aggression from Ukraine, Moscow keeps talking about the Minsk agreements. There’s a reason for that. If the West fails to recognize the danger, the Minsk agreements will pave the way for Ukraine’s partition — which would turn Ukraine into the smaller, weaker nation that Putin actually wants.

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