Russian President Vladimir Putin’s current visit to Crimea, accompanied eventually over a two-day trip by representatives of all factions in the Russian State Duma, underscores the Kremlin’s development of a strategy to bring a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine crisis.
The Kremlin plans to advocate strenuously at the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union for a humanitarian cease-fire in Ukraine to permit the International Red Cross and other organizations to relieve the besieged populace in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. Moscow believes that once the bombardments are replaced by relief columns, the mass violence of these last months will not reignite.
The Kremlin’s plan includes Berlin’s supporting Russia for the humanitarian cease-fire in order to lead a German-Russian effort to stabilize and rebuild the damaged Donbass. Berlin understands that the violence must end quickly in order to secure the energy resources needed by Ukraine and western Europe, where the winter weather will close quickly in the fall. Berlin sees that there are no guarantees for Europe’s weakened economies until and unless there is a cease-fire in Ukraine.
The Kremlin and Berlin have been working on the cease-fire and a resolution to the crisis since the first week of July, when, I am told, Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to a confidential comprehensive agreement for all the troubling issues of Ukraine.
For example, the agreement confirmed that Crimea would remain a part of Russia. It confirmed that Ukraine would not join NATO and that the United States should not dominate Ukraine negotiations. It also stipulated that Germany and Russia would rebuild Ukraine, starting with a long-term gas deal for the country as part of an arrangement guaranteeing Russian energy supplies to Europe – no more threats of interruptions or turning to Asian customers.
Importantly, the July agreement put Merkel and Putin in charge of Ukraine’s rebuilding and future prosperity. This partnership would strengthen the Common Eurasian Home theme — the idea that Europe and Asia are linked by common interests that can be shaped by the core countries of Russia and Germany — which Merkel and Putin have been developing since at least 2009.
The agreement was so much to the satisfaction of all parties that Merkel communicated the plans to Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev. I am told that the communication to him was forceful, like an ultimatum, and that he was informed that he could either cooperate or be replaced.
But the Merkel-Putin agreement went awry with the tragedy of the Malaysian Airlines flight shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17.
Poroshenko and the Kiev government have done their part to undermine the chances of a cease-fire. Since late spring, Kiev’s strategy has been to launch so-called volunteers in the hastily formed National Guard against the Donbass region. The recent indiscriminate shelling, mortar fire and rocketing of the major city of Donetsk is part of a strategy to drain the morale of pro-Russian Ukrainians.
The Kiev plan includes undisciplined violence by paramilitary units such as the shadowy Azov Battalion, which is reportedly camped on the Sea of Azov at Berdyansk, approximately 80 miles southwest of Donetsk. Members of the battalion include foreign nationals recruited by a self-described former French legionnaire. Many of the non-Ukrainians boast of their far-right ideology. The Ukrainian members reportedly identify themselves as ultra-right Ukrainian nationalists and wear symbols meant to be associated with neo-Nazis, such as the Celtic cross.
Time favors the Kremlin. Winter does not delay its arrival because of EU meetings, gambits by the US or debates at the UN Security Council.
The most outspoken member of the Azov Battalion is Swedish national Mikhail Skillt, who says that he was a member of the Swedish neo-Nazi party Svenskarnas and that the Russian separatists have placed a bounty on him.
The Kiev plan of provocation and depredation has dominated the civil war reporting in Ukraine with a mix of aggressive bombardments of population centers, indifference to civilian suffering and a demand that the Russian separatists surrender with a white flag before there can be a cease-fire.
The United States has backed Kiev to date. There is indication, however, that the determined Russian call for a humanitarian cease-fire is forcing Kiev and Washington to adjust.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power warned the U.N. Security Council against Russia’s ambitions, saying Moscow was seeking to impose its will on Ukraine under the “guise” of relief. She used confrontational language, warning that any “unilateral intervention by Russia … would be viewed as an invasion of Ukraine.”
Secretary of State John Kerry echoed Power’s argument in a telephone call to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week. According to the State Department, Kerry “conveyed that Russia should not intervene under the guise of humanitarian convoys or any other pretext of peacekeeping.”
On Aug. 11, Lavrov said that authorities in Moscow and Kiev agreed on a relief operation for eastern Ukraine, to be carried out by the Red Cross, Itar-Tass reported. The same day NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said it was probable that Russia will intervene militarily in eastern Ukraine under the guise of a humanitarian operation, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty reported.
Kiev is now threatening to block a Russian convoy of more than 200 trucks that the Russian Emergencies Ministry says contains 2,000 metric tons of food, medicine and drinking water. A Kiev military spokesman asserts that the convoy contains military supplies masquerading as humanitarian relief. Poroshenko appears determined not to permit Russia to send supplies to the deprived population of the Donbass.
Moscow believes, I am told, that if Kiev refuses entry to the supply convoy, the Kremlin will regard this as proof of Kiev’s and Washington’s hostile intentions, instead of relief and reconciliation, for the Donbass.
Nonetheless, Kiev is feeling pressure to claim that its approval of open-ended violence by paramilitary units is not supported by the Europeans. Poroshenko has announced that he has asked European Commission President José Manuel Barroso to put the Ukrainian issue on its agenda for discussion at the next meeting, on Aug. 30. Poroshenko indicates he is willing to discuss a cease-fire, humanitarian relief, monitoring by the OSCE and other reconciliations with the separatists.
According to my sources, the Kremlin will continue with its plan to win a cease-fire under any circumstances in the Donbass, and it will especially bring economic arguments for a settlement to the fretful Europeans.
Kiev knows this as well, which may explain why it is now threatening to interrupt the transit of Russian natural gas through Ukraine to Europe.
Berlin comprehends the Ukraine crisis is a threat to Europe’s prosperity and has countered the Kiev rhetoric by emphasizing that Merkel has continued her dialogue with Putin even after the downing of Flight MH17 and the blanket of suspicion that it threw over Moscow’s conduct.
Time favors the Kremlin. Winter does not delay its arrival because of EU meetings, gambits by the U.S. or debates at the U.N. Security Council. The U.S. lost the advantage it held in the early summer because Kiev’s forces, including the so-called volunteers, have not subdued the separatists and cannot secure the peace.
Putin’s speechifying in Crimea comes at a useful moment to announce generous funds for development as well as to hold out a model of reconciliation that the Europeans — especially cautious, beleaguered Berlin — not only can embrace for the whole region but also can depend on to secure vital Russian energy.