Having chosen the military machine as the main instrument for achieving its foreign policy goals, the Kremlin became dependent on the power block, what started to determine its foreign and domestic policies. "Coup d'état" in the puppet "LNR", where the change of power occurred on the basis of a public clash of political and power blocks, exposed the struggle of their curators in Moscow. It also showed that security officials have the superiority. This and a number of other facts show the erroneousness of Washington's strategy, based on the belief that Moscow wants to leave the Donbass and is only looking for ways to save its face. It seems that Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, with whom U.S. special representative Kurt Volker holds negotiations on Donbass, no longer has that influence on the decision-making on Ukraine which he used to have before. This makes the idea of resolving the Donbass conflict by introducing the UN peacekeeping mission there unpromising.
In turn, the aggravation of relations between two largest factions of the Ukrainian parliament, forming the ruling coalition, makes it impossible for the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko to fulfill the obligations he undertook in Minsk. Even if Russia unlocks the Minsk process by exchanging prisoners and ceasefire, Putin's initiation of renewal of prisoners' exchange allows admitting such tactics of Moscow, aimed at accusing Kyiv of defeating the Minsk agreements and lifting European sanctions. This will allow the Kremlin to retain control over the occupied territory, but mitigate its responsibility for this. In turn, such scenario will be an incentive for the aggressor and a proof of the helplessness of the West before the violations of international norms by the Kremlin.
Situation on the peaceful settlement has reached a deadlock because of Moscow's unwillingness to really end the conflict. Nevertheless, the need for decisive actions can arise in connection with the increasing risk of ecological disaster in the region where uncontrolled flooding of mines takes place.
Situation in the "DNR-LNR"
The events that former head of the puppet "republic" Igor Plotnitsky called "coup d'état" occurred in the so-called "Luhansk People's Republic" during the reporting period. The long-standing conflict of Plotnitsky with "Minister of State Security" Pasechnik and "Minister of the Interior" Kornet resulted in the blocking of "government" buildings in Luhansk by unknown people in camouflage, Igor Plotnitsky himself and the arrests of his entourage. The conflict arose because of the struggle for control over the smuggling of coal, cigarettes and alcohol to Ukraine and Russia. Plotnitsky publicly evicted the "Interior Minister" from the house, which he illegally seized three years ago. After that, Plotnitsky with the support of the People's Council ("parliament of the republic"), announced the resignation of Kornet under the court decision. In turn, Kornet refused to resign and accused Plotnitsky’s entourage in staging a coup d'état, as well as in cooperation with Ukrainian special services. All this happened just a week after Putin had personally called Plotnitsky with a request to unblock the exchange of prisoners with Ukraine within the framework of the Minsk process. Apparently, this gave Plotnitsky confidence in the Kremlin's support when he announced the resignation of Kornet. However, shortly thereafter, Plotnitsky was forced to leave for Moscow and write a statement about his resignation from there. He allegedly called "Minister of State Security" Pasechnik his successor, what contradicted the "Constitution of the LNR", since according to it, in case of resignation of "head of the republic", the responsibilities should be fulfilled by head of the People's Council of the "LNR". After that, the People's Council of the "LNR" changed the "Constitution", having legalized the right of Pasechnik to take the office of "head of the republic".
If Moscow had plans to eliminate Plotnitsky from his post, it could have been achieved by its order, without armed men on the streets of Luhansk. The entourage of Vladislav Surkov showed a desire to keep Plotnitsky in power via the media, while other Russian media conducted a campaign against him. This conflict or rather, its emergence into the public sphere, showed that political and power blocks of the "republics" have different curators in Moscow, who are in competition between themselves and struggle for control over financial flows from the puppet "republics". The victory of power block in the conflict with political block suggests the growing influence of the military and the FSB in the Kremlin. It seems that Vladislav Surkov is no longer as influential in the Kremlin as before. Also, this conflict has showed that Russian security officials are not interested in a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and will in every way hinder and sabotage the real cessation of war in the Donbass, even if Kyiv implements the political part of the Minsk agreements.
Against this background, the Kremlin is trying to prove to the West that the Minsk agreements are more alive than dead. One can interpret Putin's actions to unblock the exchange of prisoners in this way. Also, his call to the "heads" of the "DNR" and the "LNR" about the exchange can be regarded as a signal to the West about Moscow's readiness to officially recognize the self-proclaimed republics, if the West does not increase its pressure on Kyiv to implement the political part of the Minsk agreements.
The transfer of power to the law enforcers in the "LNR" (the "DNR" law enforces have authority by now) also means a tendency of further infringement of rights and freedoms in the territories, occupied by Moscow. So, right after Pasechnik came to power, the Ukrainian segment of the Internet was blocked there.
Intensification of repressions in the occupied territories is necessary for Moscow to suppress the protest social activity of population in the face of worsening economic and environmental situation. So, according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories, 80% of the drinking water sources in the occupied territory have already become unsuitable for use because of the high mineralization, caused by uncontrolled flooding of mines and rising of mine waters to the surface.
Regardless of the Kremlin's attempts to take Ukraine under political control with the help of the Minsk agreements, the Russian military machine continues to prepare for a possible military campaign:
- According to Ukrainian intelligence, the Russian Federation set up military bases in Belarus that allow Russia to deploy powerful offensive military grouping on the territory of Belarus in a short time.
- The Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation decided to reduce the amount of recycling Soviet armored vehicles, which, instead of melting, will be sent for repairs and upgrades (about 10 000 units of military equipment). It is "suitable" for use in neighboring territories, but it is vulnerable to Javelin anti-tank missile systems, which is why Moscow is making efforts to prevent Washington from giving these anti-tank missile systems to Ukraine.
- The Ministry of Transport of the Russian Federation made a statement that by the end of 2017, all Russian railway trains would bypass Ukraine. Also, the Russian government is making maximum efforts to create ways to transport all gas to the EU bypassing Ukraine.
- V.Putin urged all Russian economic enterprises to be ready to martial law. Although this step can be considered to be a part of an informational, not a military, campaign.
Against this background, Ukrainian experts predict a partial lifting of sanctions against Russia in 2018 in connection with the elections in several European countries. Statements of Secretary General of the Council of Europe Thorbjørn Jagland on the need for Russia's participation in the PACE (that is, actual abolition of one of the sanctions) also fit in this trend. The sanctions were the only argument that allowed the Ukrainian authorities to explain their adherence to the unprofitable for Ukraine Minsk agreements. The lifting of sanctions will make the Minsk process meaningless in the eyes of Ukrainians, and will make its implementation impossible once and for all.
Ukrainian domestic political factor
The conflict between parliamentary factions – colleagues in the ruling coalition – the Petro Poroshenko Bloc and the People's Front can directly affect the policy towards Donbass.
Informal leader of the People's Front, Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Arsen Avakov publicly struck the president in one of the most sensitive places – he sharply criticized the Minsk agreements, to which Poroshenko "sees no alternative" for almost three and a half years. Avakov stated the following: "Minsk agreements are dead and we should not talk about them".
After that, there can be no question of implementation of the Minsk agreements into the Ukrainian legislation. In fact, Poroshenko has been put in conditions when he is unable to fulfill his promises to the leaders of Russia, Germany, France and the USA in terms of implementation of the Minsk agreements by Ukraine and can no longer effectively shape his own policy regarding the Donbass. Therefore, the earlier the President of Ukraine and the West begin to search for real ways of resolving the conflict, the less chance Russia has of accusing Ukraine of not fulfilling its obligations and continuing the hybrid aggression without punishment in the form of sanctions. It is necessary that Ukraine and the West stop acting within scenario of the Minsk agreements, imposed by Moscow, and take the initiative to find real options for ending the war.
Centre for research of Donbass social perspectives
The review was prepared with the support of GPD Charitable Trust