James Sherr
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
Is Moscow laying ‘the perfect trap’ for Ukraine?
Soviet statue destroyed by artillery in Nikishyne, Ukraine. Photo: Getty Images.Soviet statue destroyed by artillery in Nikishyne, Ukraine. Photo: Getty Images.

Since 5 September, much attention has been devoted to Vladimir Putin’s proposal to bring UN ‘blue helmets’ into Ukraine’s Donbas. His initiative is vintage Putin. It shifts the ground, reversing Russia’s rejection of a UN presence as recently as 2 September. It is double-edged, juxtaposed alongside threats of a wider conflict if the US provides lethal weapons to Ukraine’s armed forces. It outflanks the opponent, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, who has been calling for a UN presence since February 2015. It earns praise (notably from Germany’s outgoing foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, who called it a ‘change in [Russia’s] policy that we should not gamble away’). And it adds two problems for every one it solves.

What Ukraine proposes is a robust UN peace enforcement mission consistent with Chapter VII of the UN Charter (‘Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace and Acts of Aggression’). What Russia envisages is a tightly constrained deployment based on the more modest provisions of Chapter VI (‘Pacific Settlement of Disputes’).

The precedent of the 1994–95 UN-sanctioned but NATO-led peace enforcement operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina is at the heart of Ukraine’s conception. It is anathema to Russia, which calls for a lightly armed UN contingent, confined to the line of contact, thereby incapable of implementing their supposed mission of protecting the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission which, under the Minsk II agreement of February 2015, is entitled to unimpeded access throughout the conflict zone. That access has never been granted, and nothing in Russia’s proposal would alter this. Although both proposals are predicated on a full cease-fire and withdrawal of heavy weapons, under Putin’s variant the latter would be withdrawn solely from the line of contact between Ukrainian and ‘separatist’ forces stipulated under Minsk. Under Poroshenko’s, such weapons as well as ‘foreign’ forces would be withdrawn across the interstate border under supervision of UN troops, who Russia insists should have no role there at all. Russia also insists that the separatist ‘authorities’ must agree the composition of UN forces and the modalities of their employment.

There is no possibility that the West will accept Russia’s proposal in the form presented, and Moscow must know this.  Thus, Putin’s gambit is only an opening gambit. A radical question therefore arises: supposing his ultimate gambit is to meet the West’s terms?  A full cease-fire comes into effect, UN peacekeepers deploy throughout the territory, and, to all intents and purposes, Russian troops and ‘volunteers’ depart. In the view of Ukraine’s authoritative commentator, Vitaliy Portnikov, this would be ‘the perfect trap’. It would transform the target of pressure from Russia to Ukraine. Thus far, Kyiv has resisted implementing the political provisions of the Minsk II agreement on the impeccable grounds that free elections are impossible under foreign military occupation and in the midst of an armed conflict. Take away the occupation and the conflict, and you take away the argument. You also take away the argument for maintaining (non-Crimea related) sanctions and hand financial responsibility for the welfare of the territories to Kyiv.

Moscow has three sound reasons to consider such a tradeoff. First, Russia has almost nothing to show for four years of war. It has created new enemies and made no friends. Its proxies control four per cent of Ukraine. Unoccupied Ukraine has not unravelled but consolidated. Its Western partners have ceded nothing of substance to Russia, neither its ‘federalization’ nor its ‘neutralization’. Second, the war is costly, as is subsidising the separatist republics at roughly €1 billion annually. During the Battle of Avdiivka in January-February 2017, Moscow curtly rebuffed their entreaties for greater assistance. Third, there is the Trump administration, which has turned out to be a far tougher proposition than anticipated. However warm Trump’s personal feelings towards Russia, his national security team has shown itself to be orthodox in its grasp of US interests and unyielding. The administration’s willingness to intervene unilaterally, decisively and without warning, much as it discomfits NATO allies, is unnerving to Russia, which had grown accustomed to Obama’s predictable and disarmingly transparent approach. The soft-spoken but steadfast US special representative on Ukraine, Kurt Volker, is proving to be more than a match for his silver-tongued counterpart, Vladislav Surkov. Word on the Moscow street is that Sergey Lavrov believes it is time to wrest the initiative from Surkov and explore serious compromises.

None of this means that a breath-taking retreat of the kind suggested by Portnikov is imminent. ‘The devil is in the details’ is an axiom well understood by Lavrov, who is a master at drowning his opponents in minutiae.  Even if Russia accepts a robust UN deployment, the minutiae are daunting and critical. What will the composition and armament of the UN forces be? How will ‘foreign’ military personnel who have learnt to be indistinguishable from local ones now be distinguished? Which categories of weaponry will have to go, and which will remain? How much control will the republican ‘authorities’ have over these arrangements, and how many Russian vetoes will there be at the table? How will a level playing field be established between surrogates of existing political structures and the mainstream Ukrainian political forces, which have been excluded from the territories since 2014?

We might be approaching the time when Russia wants to get out of Donbas. If so, everything will then depend on the meaning of ‘Russia’ and ‘out’.

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