The U.S. strategy towards the ending of conflict in the Donbass is to make Russia understand that the continuation of the conflict in Ukraine is unprofitable for it, as it leads to the opposite goal, the one that Kremlin, according to Washington, wants to achieve.
"…The current situation does not give Russia any advantages, it is unprofitable for it. Russia wants to get a favorable government in Ukraine, improve the attitude towards itself in Ukrainian society, they want to see Ukraine part of the "big Slavic family". This is how Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine, sees this goal in a recent interview with the Ukrainian media.
"In fact, everything is happening the other way around: identity and pro-Western sentiments only grows stronger in Ukraine as a result of Russian occupation… Russia really loses because of its participation in the conflict – and there is no positive for it", - Ambassador Volker states. At the same time, he explains what these losses of Moscow are: "I am talking about the EU and the U.S. sanctions, about the means they (Russians – auth.) spend on civil administration (of the occupied territories of Donbass – auth.), about the military expenses, reputation of the country and human losses".
Everything that the American envoy listed has actually taken place, but sanctions, military expenses and reputational loss of the Russian Federation have been existing for 4 years. Nevertheless, according to Kurt Volker himself, Moscow still did not make a decision whether it wants peace in the Donbass.
In order to give Moscow the opportunity to leave the Donbass, saving its face, and create conditions for Ukraine's implementation of the Minsk agreements, beneficial to the Kremlin, the USA offers Putin the idea of introducing the UN peacekeepers into the conflict zone. But Moscow prefers war. This means only one thing: for now, it has more positive from the conflict in the East of Ukraine than negative.
Moreover, during the conflict in the Donbass, already bearing the whole burden of world indignation, Russia, nevertheless, is actively entering into another conflict – the Syrian one! By this step, it increases its military expenses, reputational and human losses by its own free will.
What do we have? The fact that the Kremlin's advantages from these conflicts still outweigh the disadvantages that arise from them. Consequently, Mr. Volker was somewhat wrong in the calculations. And the entire policy of the West over three and a half years of the war in Ukraine has had no effect, apparently, because it is built on the basis of misunderstanding of the goal that the Kremlin wants to achieve through the conflict in the Donbass.
Putin's real goal is not Ukraine. Subjection of Kyiv or strengthening the Assad regime are only stages of achieving the goal. Putin formulated and announced the ultimate goal in Munich in 2007 – it is a bipolar world, return of Russia to the status of the second world leader, the superpower, that she lost with the defeat of the USSR in the Cold War.
This goal can be achieved only when the security and well-being of entire regions depend on you. And today, the security and well-being of Ukraine, Syria, Moldova, Georgia and the Korean peninsula depend to a great extent on Russia. How did it achieve this is a rhetorical question.
In order to achieve its global goal, Russia needs conflicts in which it is supposedly a third party, but the destiny of which entirely depends on it. And all the last years after Munich-2007, it smugly creates them while the West tries to persuade it to be leaner.
Mr. Volker is also mistaken about the fact that Russia wants to "improve the attitude towards itself in Ukrainian society". The Kremlin cannot be so naive as to steal Crimea from the Ukrainians, occupy the Donbass, deprive millions of Ukrainians of shelter, organize anti-Ukrainian propaganda hysteria among Russians, and then expect an improvement in the attitude towards itself. After all this, no Kyiv authorities, even the pro-Russian ones, will be able to return Ukraine to the "big Slavic family", if Russia dominates it. If only because Ukraine itself is not homogeneous, and what, perhaps, will be forgotten in the South, will never be forgotten in the West, which was for the government the main source of the first wave of mobilization.
Russian politicians and political strategists have repeatedly said that they do not consider the western Ukrainian oblasts to be Ukraine. Planting a pro-Russian president in Kyiv or a pro-Russian majority in the parliament would end up with the next Maidan (the fate of the pro-Russian Yanukovych and his Party of Regions). That is, while the western oblasts are part of Ukraine, it is impossible to return Ukraine to the "family of fraternal peoples" even with the annexed Crimea and tens of thousands of victims in the Donbass. Putin understands this perfectly.
That is, seizing the Crimea and starting its adventure in the Donbass, the Kremlin initially relied not on subordinating Ukraine, but on dismembering it, destroying the statehood that emerged in 1991. Actually, the idea of creating the so-called "Novorossia" out of 8 southeastern oblasts of Ukraine was aimed at it. Russian political technologist and former "Prime Minister of the DNR" Alexander Borodai, close to the FSB, openly spoke about that. There is a video where at some conference in 2015 he declared: "The creation of people's republics has a direct and immediate meaning - the liquidation of Ukraine as a hostile towards Russia state".
It is now clear that the liquidation of Ukraine without full-scale external military aggression is only possible if serious internal conflict is provoked. The Minsk agreements are precisely such a provocation since – if implemented – they would lead to the creation of an explosive mixture of co-existence with two regions within one country, both with opposite geopolitical and ideological orientations.
But then the question arises: if Russia is interested in the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, why does it not agree with Volker’s idea of the UN peacekeepers which would create conditions for the accomplishment of these agreements by Kyiv?
The answer is simple – Russia understands that the internal political situation in Ukraine will not allow the Ukrainian authorities to implement Minsk. Putin has said this directly during an October 2017 meeting of the Valdai Club: “Everyone has long since realised that the current leadership of Ukraine is not in a position to comply with them [Minsk Agreements]. Now that the situation in that country has hit rock bottom both in terms of the economy and domestic policy … expecting the president of Ukraine to take at least a small step towards implementing the Minsk agreements is an exercise in futility. I am not sure how he can accomplish this”.
Putin still keeps a grudge against the West for the fact that the guarantees that the foreign ministers of Poland, France and Germany gave to Yanukovych in his agreement with the Ukrainian opposition in February 2014, were broken three days later by Maidan, as a result of which Yanukovych fled from Kyiv.
Having such an experience, when he had already seen Ukraine in his pocket, paid billions of dollars for it, and suddenly lost it, the Russian leader no longer intends to believe the West. He will stop the conflict in the Donbass only when the internal political situation in Ukraine is such that Kyiv will be able to implement the Minsk agreements, which will inevitably provoke a large-scale civil conflict on the borders of the EU and NATO. Or until Ukraine falls under the weight of war, corruption, and internal political strife, which is also Russia’s instrument in a hybrid war. Then Russia would really introduce its troops, but they will be called peacemakers, as General Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation, wrote. And then Moscow will really become the second or the third pole of the world, along with the U.S. and China.
Putin's goals stretch far beyond the Donbass and even Ukraine. Therefore, while the West is trying to solve the “Ukrainian crisis”, instead of the “Russian” one, neither the peacekeepers nor other initiatives to persuade the aggressor to change its policy will work.
Serhiy Harmash, Centre for research of Donbass social perspectives