Putin Plays Peacemaker, But His Act Is Getting Old
By Paul Gregory (Hoover Institution and University of Houston)
Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, released his fourteen-point peace plan on Saturday, June 21. In his address to the nation, Poroshenko did not mention Russia until the very end, when he stated that “President of Russia Vladimir Putin also positively evaluated the decision of Ukraine to cease fire and supported concrete steps of my peaceful plan on the settlement of the situation in Donbas.”
Poroshenko’s peace plan set off a predictable flurry of diplomatic activity, culminating in a three-way phone call between Putin, Angela Merkel, and Francois Hollande on June 22, in which the two European leaders urged their Russian counterpart to facilitate negotiations. The Ukraine peace plan and Putin’s response to it will be a main agenda item in this week’s meetings of NATO foreign ministers and European leaders in Luxembourg and Brussels.
Putin’s first reaction to the Poroshenko plan a few hours after its unveiling was to plant the seed that Ukraine does not intend to abide by the ceasefire. After expressing support for the ceasefire and the intent to reach a peaceful settlement, the Kremlin declared: “Mr. Putin considers it unacceptable when after a ceasefire has been ordered, the confrontation continues and shells from the Ukrainian side land and explode on the Russian territory…”
At his 12:30 June 22 press conference the next day, Putin answered a reporter’s question on the Poroshenko plan as follows (my italics): “It is important that this ceasefire open the way to a dialogue between all of the parties to the combat, so as to find solutions that will be acceptable to all sides…”
When Vladimir Putin talks, we must listen carefully. But diplomats and press often takeaway what they want to hear – “Putin welcomes Ukraine peace proposal” or “Putin supports negotiations to end Ukraine conflict – and do not read between the lines. In this case, Putin had little choice but to utter words of support. He could not let Poroshenko outflank him as a man of peace. Putin played the peacemaker in Geneva and at Normandy to good effect. Why not try it again? Putin has learned that words are cheap, but his words may be buying less these days. The skeptical European foreign ministers are talking about sanctions again if Putin does not stop his propaganda war and the flow of mercenaries and heavy weapons across his border. (See AP report.)
Do not get excited about prospects for peace. What I wrote two weeks ago still holds. Russia and Ukraine remain miles apart and no peace is in sight. If anything, Poroshenko’s 14 point plan and Putin’s between-the-lines response leave the two sides, if anything, further apart.
In capsule form, Poroshenko’s peace plan removes Ukraine’s territorial integrity from the negotiating table (without mentioning Crimea) and rules out autonomous-republic status (a la South Ossetia or Transnistria) for the Donbass “People’s Republics.” A new decentralized form of government will be negotiated as amendments to the constitution – and supervised by the European Union – with legally elected representatives and members of civic organizations from east Ukraine participating. Ukrainian separatists are to be amnestied after laying down their arms, liberating hostages, and evacuating occupied buildings and removing road blocks. Terrorists can “escape” via a safe corridor into Russia but must leave their weapons behind. All Ukrainians will be free to use Russian as their language of choice. The economic reconstruction of war-savaged towns and cities in the east will proceed under plans and assistance from the European Union. The peace plan calls for a seven-day cease fire to end June 27.
Poroshenko warned that, if rebel forces take advantage of the cease fire to bring in new troops and equipment, Ukraine is prepared to go to Plan B, whose details are not spelled out. Poroshenko ended his address with the declaration that his peace plan has the support of Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Francois Holland, the UN general secretary, the OSCE chairperson, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, and others. Poroshenko appears to have covered his bases. He is by no means a novice to foreign policy.
Although Putin welcomes the cease fire that he has been lobbying for since Ukraine anti-terror operations began (and will take advantage of it), he will certainly reject the core elements of the peace plan as unacceptable for the following reasons:
First, Putin’s all parties to the conflict must negotiate demand means that Ukraine must include the self-appointed civil and military leaders of the self-declared separatist People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk – or their proxies – in negotiations. In Ukraine’s eyes these are terrorists, who have little or no ties to Ukraine. They are Russian agents (and most appear to be Russian citizens) working for Putin. They demand separation from Ukraine and are scarcely reasonable partners with whom to negotiate Ukraine’s future. Poroshenko requires that those invited to the negotiating table be legally elected representatives or recognized leaders of civic organizations. I imagine there will be a flurry as all kinds of “civic organization fronts” are organized throughout eastern Ukraine. This used to be a specialty of the KGB. A warning to Poroshenko: Any inclusion of terrorists or their front organizations will be a tacit recognition of them and the legitimacy of their demands. I assume that Poroshenko understands this basic point.
A Ukrainian civil rights advocate warns that Putin has already been quoted as welcoming “information about the beginning of preliminary contact with the leader of the civic movement ‘Ukrainian Choice,’ Viktor Medvedchuk, in Donetsk and Luhansk.” Medvedchuk, it should be noted, has been a consistent supporter of the breakup of Ukraine as a unitary state. Without his own stooges at the table, Putin will do everything in his power to prevent the negotiations from going forward. Ukraine cannot afford Putin’s proxies at the table.
Second, Putin will insist that negotiations address “federalization,” not European-Union style “decentralization.” Poroshenko’s decentralization means power sharing between Kiev and the regions as integral parts of a unitary state, while Putin’s federalization means the creation of autonomous regions free to establish their own political and economic arrangements with other countries, e.g., the end of Ukraine as a unitary state. Poroshenko firmly rejects the Putin model (already applied to South Ossetia and Transnistria) of the Donbass becoming a “self-declared republic not recognized by anyone.”
Third, Poroshenko’s peace plan looks west, while Putin demands that Ukraine look east, as an integral part of a Greater Russia. Poroshenko prominently held out Europe as an advisor for the reform of Ukraine’s government and as a co-architect of east Ukraine’s reconstruction. To add insult to injury, Poroshenko intends to sign the EU association agreement on June 27, the day the ceasefire expires. In effect, Poroshenko is asking east Ukraine: Do you want to be a part of Europe or Russia? He is convinced that Europe is the more attractive offer.
Putin’s general strategy over the next days and weeks is predictable. He will continue to voice words of support for the peace process while actively undermining it. His actions in the run-up to Poroshenko’s announcement of his peace plan already preview how he intends to sabotage it.
First, Putin moved Russian troops away from the border, after numerous unkept promises to do so. Now they have returned – a nice gesture of peace! The Washington Post reports a new build up of two airborne divisions, an airborne assault brigade and a motorized rifle brigade on the Ukrainian border, what the NATO Secretary General calls “a very regrettable step backward.” A senior NATO military officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Associated Press that the Russians are issuing misleading statements to cover their troop movements — as they did with Crimea and earlier along the border with Ukraine. They could be readied for anything, such as an invasion of peace-keeping forces into Ukraine, even wearing blue helmets for all we know.
Second, as Echo Moskvy reports, columns of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and GRAD missile launchers, marked with insignias of a separatist militia, transited the city of Luhansk on June 20 where they were videotaped by remote traffic cameras (citing the date and time of day, June 20, 5:24 AM) and by a Luhansk family from their balcony. NATO sources confirm the movement of heavy military equipment across the border using aerial surveillance on June 12, and RFE/RL reports that the Obama administration has concluded that Russia is preparing to deploy “additional” tanks to separatists in eastern Ukraine currently battling the central government.
Third, there are signs that Putin is preparing “black operations” to blame Ukraine for breaking its own cease fire, for representing a danger to Russia itself, and for creating chaos in east Ukraine. Russia has already complained about the incursion of a lone Ukrainian military vehicle 1,500 meters into Russian territory. And Putin himself groused in a statement of June 20 that a Russian customs official was injured in a firefight at the border.
In actions reminiscent of Hitler’s “Operation Himmler” prior to the invasion of Poland, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council reported on June 21 that military hardware, including tanks with Ukrainian identifying insignia, as well as servicemen dressed in Ukrainian Armed Forces uniforms, have been seen in Russia near the village of Millerovo, of the Rostov region. The Council fears that they could be aimed at “committing provocations in Ukraine or even in Russia.” Just consider the possibilities: These “false flag” Russian troops could commit atrocities in east Ukraine or they could pretend to attack Russia and give the aggrieved Russians a casus belli to invade Ukraine.
Fourth, the Ukrainian foreign ministry and defense ministry, in a joint communiqué, report that separatist gunmen and terrorists are blatantly violating the ceasefire. On the night of June 22 alone, illegal armed groups opened fire eleven times at Ukrainian positions near Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, Artemivsk and other cities. During the following day gunmen launched mortar attacks on Ukrainian border guards in the Lugansk region. Provocations continue. They conclude with the plea: “Gunmen’s assaults aimed at escalating the situation require strong and immediate international condemnation.” Ukraine, you may have to wait a very long time for this.
Inquiring minds might venture to ask why Russia is even at the table. After all, Putin announced (at his June 6 press conference) that “Russia is not a party to this conflict.” If so, why is he weighing in on peace proposals addressed to pro-Russian separatists in another sovereign country?
We should also raise a practical problem: How can the warring parties reach a diplomatic solution when one party cannot be trusted? The U.S. State Department dispenses with diplomatic language in listing Russia’s false claims about Ukraine. NATO officials report that “Russian officials have been repeatedly misleading and evasive regarding their roles in both Crimea and eastern Ukraine…” Even the cautious defense minister of Germany told Der Spiegel, that “Russia has destroyed a massive amount of trust … Currently, Russia is not a partner. Partners adhere to joint agreements.” Deutsche Welle reports even franker talk from the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Ukraine: “They (Russia) should just stop with the lies and speak plainly: This is a war, and Russia is a party in this military conflict.”
Europe and America must understand that, as one Russian historian puts it, Putin is as obsessed with Ukraine as Stalin was with Poland and Hitler was with the Jews. If he accepts defeat in east Ukraine, Putin’s propaganda machine will sputter, the glorious return of Crimea to Mother Russia will be forgotten, and returning mercenaries will shout to the rooftops that macho Putin abandoned them on the field of battle. It could be the end of Putin.
Putin cannot and will not give up. We are left with two possible outcomes: Either Putin continues to dominate Ukraine or Ukraine and the West raise the cost of Putin’s Ukraine adventure to such heights that they become unbearable even for a zealot.
Reposted from Paul Gregory’s blog.