By Nataliya Bugayova and Franklin Holcomb
Key Takeaway: Recent Russian maneuvering in Ukraine poses a growing risk to U.S. interests as Vladimir Putin presses to capitalize on his intervention. Russia may have assessed that it does not require a full-fledged separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine anymore, as it sees a political opportunity to force Kyiv into accepting and legitimizing the occupied territories of Donbas on Russia's terms. Putin continues setting conditions to advance his political objective of creating a pliable, pro-Russian, anti-Western Ukraine, and to shape how the West should respond to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. The U.S. must recognize Putin’s game and seize the initiative, including by boosting support for a sovereign Ukraine, rather than let the Kremlin transform the region toward its own destabilizing ends.
Tripwire: Russian leader Vladimir Putin sees an opportunity to ‘cash in’ his military gains to get closer to his objective of reinstating a client regime in Ukraine.
Russia has recently shown little interest in preserving the combat effectiveness of its proxy forces. First, Russia has allowed a continuous purge of the separatist leadership. In the past two weeks alone, there have been three deaths of high-profile separatist leaders, including Mikhail “Givi” Tolstykh, a senior commander, notorious for his brutality against Ukrainian forces. Second, Russia allowed the separatists to suffer major losses in the most recent Avdiivka escalation. The Ukrainian Army was able to easily repel separatist attacks and force the dispersed, low-quality separatists from their positions. These defeats followed months of setbacks for separatist forces in the Svitlodarsk Arc, where Ukrainian forces had counter-attacked, driven separatist forces from their positions, and thereby threatened their supply lines. Ukrainian armed forces also killed or wounded several high profile separatist commanders, a previously rare occurrence. Russia chose not to provide the backing the separatists would have required to make major gains. This suggests that Russia was not primarily focused on separatist battlefield victories.
Having the most heinous separatist leaders out of the picture gives Russia additional framing leverage vis-à-vis Kyiv in the peace negotiations in Minsk. Their absence may weaken Kyiv's argument that Ukraine cannot consider direct negotiations or any form of legitimization of the occupied territories while the war criminals, who tortured and killed Ukrainian soldiers, are in power. It might also make it easier for Russia to sell legitimization of its proxies to the international community if the separatists are perceived as 'beheaded' and weakened.
Additionally, various political actors inside and outside Ukraine have changed their rhetoric about what is possible in the context of Donbas peace deal. Yevhen Marchuk, Ukraine’s representative in the Minsk talks group, said in a Feb. 6 interview that Ukraine is approaching a “painful stage” in the peace talks, during which it will have to compromise. German Ambassador to Ukraine Ernst Reichel stated that elections in the non-government controlled areas in eastern Ukraine are possible while there are still Russian forces in the area. Meanwhile, Russia has intensified its various false narratives[i] about Ukraine in the West.
Timing: Uncertainly about the new U.S. administration's policy vis-à-vis Russia has opened two cracks for the Kremlin to exploit.
First, some European countries are delaying taking strong stands as they await the new U.S. administration's first move. The pause gives Russia time to exploit any divergences and shape a new narrative about the potential peace deal with Ukraine.
Second, the fear among some decision-makers in Kyiv that the U.S. will 'abandon' Ukraine and leave them dealing one on one with Putin allows the Kremlin to coerce them into a deal. There have been informal reports that such a back door deal is already in the making.
Lastly, Russia needs to make a decision about the cost-benefit of further investment in the separatist forces, which have continued to degrade in capability and have shown signs of little improvement over three years, while the Armed Forces of Ukraine have grown increasingly effective.
Most dangerous course of action:
- Russia gets its preferred deal. It forces Ukraine into accepting local elections in the occupied territories that will bring representatives of these separatist territories into the Ukrainian parliament. Russia might also push for the creation of transitional local authorities in these regions and amnesty for the insurgents.
- Russia manages to conceal its true intentions and frames these events as major concessions in the eyes of Europe and the U.S.
Such arrangement places a permanent 'Trojan horse' inside Ukraine—an institutionalized political lever in the form of semi-autonomous regions and, potentially, their representation in the legislature. Russia would have gotten a 'foot in the door' and will expand on it until it reinstitutes its client regime. Moreover, the deal would be considered a betrayal by a large part of the Ukrainian population and might lead to violent internal confrontations and, if taken to an extreme, full political destabilization.
Most likely course of action: A major push back from many decision-makers in Kyiv and the Ukrainian population will prevent Russia from getting its preferred arrangement at this time. Many top government officials in Ukraine reaffirmed that elections held in the non-government controlled areas of eastern Ukraine are inadmissible and impossible.
However, if unimpeded by the West, Russia is still likely to get a deal that includes some form of legitimization for the occupied territories. It is also likely to get European sanctions related to Donbas lifted. Russia still will have managed to get 'a foot in the door' and will continue expanding on it until it reinstitutes its client regime.
Russia is likely to continue advancing its proxy war in eastern Ukraine in the event that a strong alignment between Kyiv and the West prevents Russia from gaining increased legitimacy for its proxies or global pressure forces Russia to halt its military ambitions in Ukraine.
Significance for U.S. policy:
- Such a deal would get Russia closer to its objective of restricting Ukraine's movement toward the West. It would increase the risk of having a non-U.S. friendly government in Kyiv in the future.
- Such a deal would also mean that Russia will have achieved most of its objectives in Ukraine without paying a serious long-term price.
- Removal of the European sanctions related to Donbas would ease Russia’s access the debt market and allow the Kremlin to finance continued military expansion and challenge other strategic U.S. positions around the world.
It is critical that the U.S. understands exactly what kind of gains Russia is making in Ukraine and what ‘concessions’ Russia claims, but is not making, as the U.S. considers its strategic options.
Recommendation: A core element of U.S. policy needs to be a focus on strengthening a partner in Kyiv that can resist Putin’s pressure campaigns. The U.S. must in this instance prevent any non-transparent back door deal between the Kremlin and one or more factions of powerbrokers in Kyiv. The U.S. should also develop a more effective effort to strengthen Kyiv using its full range of tools, including political, military, and economic assistance. The U.S. should simultaneously avoid premature concessions, such as weakening the sanction regime on Russia or ruling out options for increasing economic pressure. The U.S. administration should seize the moment to send a strong signal to Ukraine, Europe, and Vladimir Putin. It has an opportunity to do so this week with Defense Secretary James Mattis scheduled to attend a NATO Defense Ministerial Conference and the Munich Security Conference.
[i] “Escalation in Donbass manifests Kiev’s gross violation of Minsk Agreements-Lavrov” TASS, February 10, 2017, http://tass(.)com/politics/930102