• The Kremlin's intention of preserving its policy of "managed chaos" as an instrument of influence over Ukraine was reflected by the reappointment of V.Surkov to the post of V.Putin's aide overseeing Ukraine matters. The move indicates the Kremlin's disinterest in ending the conflict before Russia gains control over Ukraine.
• Inspired by the "success" of his talks with the DPRK, President Trump can be manipulated by the Kremlin to put pressure on Kyiv to accept Moscow's conditions "for the sake of peace".
• The marked growth of civilian casualties is being used by pro-Russian political forces in Ukraine to call for a halt to the war through direct negotiations with the "DNR"-"LNR". This fully corresponds with Moscow's aim of transforming the conflict into an "intra-Ukrainian" one; suggesting Putin is betting on the victory of pro- Russian forces in Ukraine's upcoming elections.
• Providing guarantees of Russian support, in the event of Ukraine's attempt to liberate the occupied territories of Donbass, Putin encouraged military escalation by militants and Russians, interested in the conflict. The militants are using scorched-earth policies to prejudice the population of the front-line settlements against the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
• The trend of CDDLO's self-isolation from Ukraine is increasing alongside the deterioration of the economic and humanitarian situation.
• Donetsk governor Pavlo Zhebrivsky resigned amidst a conflict with the commander of the Joint Forces Operation General Nayev. A concentration of power in the front-line region in the hands of the law enforcers is threatening a redistribution of the shadow business and financial flows from the "DNR"-"LNR" to the military.
Geopolitical influence on the development of the conflict
The reappointment of Vladislav Surkov to the post of V.Putin's aide overseeing Ukraine shows the Russian president is satisfied with his work, and Donbass developments. Accordingly, there is no reason to expect a change in the Kremlin's current policy regarding the settlement of the conflict with Ukraine, and the prologation of trench warfare with periodic escalations.
One of the possible reasons behind Surkov's rumored resignation plans of was that the stagnating situation in the Donbass. Rather, Surkov's tactics of preserving the conflict in the hot phase gave the desired result for the Russian Federation. The war in Ukraine have driven the EU and NATO further away from Ukraine It is weakening the country's economy and radicalizing society; giving pro-Russian supporters of "peace" i.e. federalization and the split of Ukraine to gain political points. Russia has become a major player in the international arena, thus the USA and leading countries of the world are forced to reckon with it.
The geopolitical situation is also changing in favor of Russia: the US- EU divide is growing; oil prices are rising; the influence of right-wing politicians (many on the Kremlin's payroll), calling for the lifting of Russia sanctions is rising within European countries. Despite the publication of investigation data on Malaysian Boeing's downing by Russians, the UN Secretary-General visited Moscow for the World Cup. President Trump declared his intention to meet with Putin and called for the return of Russia to the G-8. In China (a signatory of the Budapest Memorandum), the Russian president is awarded with an Order. All this gives grounds for Putin to regard geopolitical dynamics as positive for himself. Accordingly, Putin has no reason to be dissatisfied with Surkov and change politics towards Ukraine.
Despite the sanctions, the position of the Russian Federation regarding the deployment of the UN peacekeepers in the Donbass remains unconstructive. In fact, the Kremlin is just wasting time, offering initially unacceptable and senseless versions of the peacekeeping mission to serve as a guard for OSCE representatives. At the same time, Moscow continues to insist on direct negotiations with the so-called "republics" of Donbass, thereby relieving themselves of responsibility for aggression and converting the conflict in Donbass into an "intra-Ukrainian" one.
The international sanctions for the Kremlin are incommensurable with the benefits it receives, and hopes to receive, by the subordination of Ukraine.
For Moscow, Donbass is not a goal, it is only a tool of influence on Ukraine. After Ukraine freed itself from total energy dependence on Russia, the conflict in the Donbass became the Kremlin's main tool for influencing Kyiv. Russia will keep the conflict in its current form at least until it gets other tools (in the form of a controlled Ukrainian president, parliamentary majority and federalization).
Surkov's reappointment means the continuation of the policy of "controlled chaos". "Do not be afraid to make mistakes, they are sold well", - Surkov said in an interview. In Surkov's article "The Loneliness of the Half-Breed (14+)" his reaction to the distancing of Russia from the West and Western values was manifested, expressed in the concept of the "third way" - "geopolitical loneliness, which should have long been accepted as our fate". This ideology of Russia's special role in the world is psychologically quite appealing to Putin.
Russia does not have a strategy for the Donbass. There is a goal - destruction of the Ukrainian statehood - and a set of tactics aimed at realizing this goal in accordance with the changing situation. War is among them. "War is also a way of communication", - Surkov wrote in his latest article.
Moscow's fixation in the game for Ukraine is turning its gaze to the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections.
According to the OSCE, in May alone the war in the Donbass took 11 civilian lives, 32 more were injured. Since the beginning of the year, this is the most striking trend of the conflict - an increase in the number of casualties among civilians. Russian-led militants either "create" these victims themselves, blaming Ukraine for this, or provoking the AFU to fire back, whilst positioned in residential areas. The more victims, the greater the threat of war, and the more grounds and public demand for rhetoric about the need to "stop the war". This rhetoric became the pre-election hobby of the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc. For instance, the disgraced but powerful Opposition Bloc's leader Yuriy Boyko asserts:
"People want the conflict to end and territories to be returned... We really see that the Minsk process is inhibited and therefore, we believe that it is necessary to move to direct negotiations with the Russian Federation and the so-called "people's republics" in order to stop the war". Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the "DNR", outlined the basic condition for ending the war, "Ukraine has begun to understand that the war cannot be stopped without a direct dialogue, it is unfortunate that the leaders of the opposition say this, not the leadership of Ukraine itself, but it is very good that they have already started talking about this... Now we will wait for the government of Ukraine to speak about it, then we will see."
War and casualties are needed to make the enemy talk about peace. Accordingly, there are no grounds to expect the cessation of the war until political forces, which agree to direct negotiations with terrorists and peace on their terms, come to power in Ukraine. "We render assistance to both unrecognized republics and we will continue to do so", - Putin said on June 7 during the "Direct Line with Vladimir Putin".
If Russia is betting on the elections one may ask why it is building up its troops. Russia's military signals and Putin's open political statement about "quite serious consequences for the entire Ukrainian statehood as a whole" is a threat, elements of psychological pressure designed to prevent Ukraine from ending the conflict by military operation, and not on Moscow's terms. By using the threat of force, Putin expects to narrow Ukraine's sovereignty, and for the West - to accept this fact.
It is significant that Surkov was reappointed to the position on June 13 - the day after Trump and Kim Jong-un met. Putin was certainly inspired by the results of this meeting, which showed the efficiency of the same policy used by him (under the influence of Surkov) and the North Korean leader.
The actions of the U.S. president were caused by the threat of use of nuclear weapons by the DPRK. At the same time, the DPRK leadership had to understand that the use of nuclear weapons against the nuclear superpower or its allies would provoke a backlash, disastrous for it and its country. The threat was impracticable from the get-go.
Nuclear weapons in the modern world are not so much a weapon as a tool of blackmail. However, the fear has worked. Trump "saved the world from fear" and Kim Jong-un received what he really wanted: direct negotiations with the U.S. president, meaning, in fact, international recognition; prospect of establishing diplomatic relations with the USA; security guarantees from the USA (actual securing of division of the Korean Peninsula); possible reduction in sanctions, that is, a way out of international isolation... Kim Jong-un, like Putin, sells fears. And the world buys these fears. Putin saw the efficiency of such policy and will continue it.
At the same time, Trump's "success" with North Korea (just virtual so far) will inspire him to be more active in resolving the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. He has already announced his intention to meet with the Russian president. Putin can use the American leader's need for the success of his peacebuilding, for putting pressure on Ukraine to force it to peace on the terms of its aggressor - Russia.
Situation in the Donbass
In the territories of Donbass occupied by Russia, the most striking trend in the first weeks of June was the continued isolation of the "republics" from Ukraine. It is deteriorating the economic situation and escalating confrontation with deliberate provocation of civilian casualties by the militants.
The propaganda machine working inside the occupied territory interpreted the expected, but failed, attack of the AFU on Donetsk as Kyiv's fearful reaction to Putin's threat of "drastic consequences for Ukrainian statehood".
In a live television broadcast about the possible offensive of the AFU Russian propagandist and a "DNR" ideologists "working" in Donetsk, Zakhar Prilepin, provoked Putin to give public guarantees of Russia's support for the "republics". Putin's threats towards Ukraine are uplifting to recently demoralized militants. “Reassured” that Russia will stand up for them in the event of the AFU's counterattack. They are motivated to intensify confrontation.
Against the backdrop of military escalation, the so-called "authorities" of the "DNR" and "LNR" are reinforcing the isolation of population they control. Checkpoints are intentionally fired at to stop their work. As a result, discouraging, multi-kilometer queues are created. One of the effects is that the population refrains from traveling to the free territory of Ukraine.
The campaign of provoking hatred of the Armed Forces of Ukraine based on its alleged shelling of civilians intensified in the local media. The militants are emploting the scorched-earth policy in relation to the territories taken under the control of the AFU. Within one month, 9 houses in the village of Chyhari near Horlivka, recovered by Ukraine, were deliberately destroyed by special illuminating shells and mines. In accordance with the Minsk agreements, they must be under the control of Ukraine. The purpose of this deliberately created humanitarian disaster in the village is provoking the residents of other front-line cities and villages to fear the presence of the AFU and protest against them.
Moreover, the spokesperson of Leonid Kuchma (Ukraines's representative at the MIsk negotiations), Darka Olifer, reported that Since 5 June, the territory under militant control is, again, deprived of mobile communication with Ukraine. "Within the framework of the economic subgroup, the Ukrainian party had once again forwarded proposals to CDDLO for repair works and taking inventory of property of Vodafone Ukraine in the uncontrolled territory. However, the emergency recovery work that must be carried out on the territory of CDDLO has been disrupted".
The economic situation in CDDLO continues to deteriorate as a result of the emigration of skilled workers to government-controlled Ukraine, and, Russia. As a result, even at those enterprises that the occupation authorities are trying to launch, there is either no one to work, or, unqualified workers lead to accidents and downtime.
Since May, there is an acute shortage of gasoline. It started in the "LNR" and moved to include the "DNR". It has also significantly gone up in price. This is due to a reduction in supplies from Russia. In turn, according to our experts, the reduction in Russian supplies is due to the conjuncture of external markets beneficial for oil traders: it is more profitable for traders to sell gasoline abroad than to transport it to the "fraternal republics" with an insolvent population. The rise in price of gasoline will inevitably lead to an increase in prices of other goods.
Internal political factor
The conflict between the two ruling factions (Petro Poroshenko Bloc and People's Front) continues to deepen. At a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers, Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman publicly stated that law enforcement "agencies" are preparing provocations against him and other members of the government. At the same time, he accused the unnamed law enforcers of backing illegal business and smuggling. "I emphasize that they wear shoulder straps today, they are acting representatives of the law enforcement system", - Groysman stated.
Whereas the Ministry of Internal Affairs is headed by Arsen Avakov, one of the leaders of the friendly People's Front, the accusation from the head of government apparently pertained to the SBU or the Prosecutor General's Office, which are controlled by the president. This escalation may be due to the fact that Groysman began a secret PR campaign in the media with propaganda of the achievements of "Groysman's government". It is unclear which elections it aims at, presidential or parliamentary, but the political activity of the prime minister could not but cause jealousy of the presidential team, as it deprives him of the opportunity to use positive changes in the economy for his own election campaign.
Concurrently, Interior Minister Avakov continued to attack the Minsk agreements, which President Poroshenko positions as one of his victories. "The Minsk process has played a role and at the moment it is dead. The Minsk process in its current form does not solve the problems of Ukraine. This is the situation of a protracted, frozen conflict." - Avakov stated at the National Expert Forum. The minister added that the negotiating position should be based on public discussion that is supported by the entire society. Hereby, the Minister of Interior intercepts the initiative of the president in the process of settling conflict in the Donbass.
It is within this setting that Pavlo Zhebrivsky, head of the Donetsk Regional Military Civil Administration, resigned amid numerous corruption scandals. The Cabinet of Ministers and the president accepted his resignation. The President awarded him an Order. Zhebrivsky is a long-time associate and personal friend of Petro Poroshenko.
According to our information, the key factor of his resignation was a conflict with the commander of the Joint Forces Operational General Serhiy Nayev. Accordingly, the influence of the military in the Donetsk oblast is growing. If a representative of law enforcers replaces Zhebrivsky, it may indicate law enforcement structures growing concentration of power in the Donbass. In turn, this can be considered either as one of the necessary factors for the preparation of an intensified military operation, or, as a basis for reorienting contraband flows from the "DNR"-"LNR" and illegal business with them to the military. The latter will provide "law enforcers" in the conflict power and income.
Centre for research of Donbass social perspectives
The review was prepared with the support of GPD Charitable Trust