Archive for September 11th, 2017

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Another glance at the occupied Donbas – and motivational questions

September 11, 2017

For the first time in a long time, a few days ago an entry appeared relating to the occupied Donbas and the slow withdrawal of Russia’s more expensive equipment deployed there.

While pondering the trigger for such a decision, mention was made that shortly after the expensive toys of war began to be removed, Russia tabled a proposal for UN peacekeepers.

That proposal got absolutely no traction with Ukraine, at least three of the Permanent Members of the Security Council (China’s position wasn’t particularly forthcoming – though abstention whatever the text would be likely), and also gathered very little support among the other members of the current Security Council either.

It in effect called for UN peacekeepers to be present at the “contact line”.  That in turn, while it may have brought about something approaching a ceasefire (for the first time) would also de jure put Russia in control of the occupied Donbas with some appearing to be a perverse international “legitimacy” to do so for some on-lookers.

Undoubtedly The Kremlin would have expected such a response – but the offer was interesting having previously pooh-poohed the idea of UN peacekeepers entirely.

Naturally, the next “concession” made in “goodwill” would also prove to be minor.

11th September saw an official German readout of a Merkel-Putin telephone call announce a shift in the initial Russian position.  The Kremlin apparently agreeing to the expansion of a UN Mission to protect OSCE observers where ever they are deployed under the Minsk package, rather than simply deal with the line of contact as initially proposed.

“The two discussion partners also discussed the Russian proposal of a UN mission in Donbass. The Federal Chancellor welcomed the Russian initiative in principle, but pointed out that changes in the mandate still had to be made. President Putin reacted positively and agreed to abolish the previous limitation of the planned UN mission to a contact on the contact line. Rather, it should protect OSCE observers wherever they are deployed under the Minsk package.”

Clearly the definition of “deployed” is open to interpretation.

Does that mean, the UN peacekeepers get to hold the hand of the OSCE around the contact line and when it visits official weapons storage points?  Does it mean the UN peacekeepers get to hold the hand of the OSCE to wander unobstructed by Kremlin proxies and Russian personnel throughout the occupied Donbas?  Is the definition yet broader – or far more restrictive than any of the above?

The devil is not only in the detail, but also the interpretation – and thus application.

Assuredly The Kremlin will have its (normally “unique”) interpretation – and others would have their own interpretations.  The Kremlin naturally expects others to adopt its interpretation as it does with the Minsk documents.  Everything on Moscow’s terms.

Naturally the first thought is, and remains, that since the Kremlin first raising the issue of UN peacekeepers,  that this is, and continues to be, nothing more than an attempt to convince certain nations that arming Ukraine is simply “not necessary”, or would be particularly “disruptive” with such “negotiations” on-going.

A reaction, perhaps, to Ukraine soon adopting legislation that would deem the occupied Donbas exactly that – “temporarily occupied territory” (and any legal ramifications beyond Ukrainian domestic legislation that may have)?

It may be that the timing is meant to influence the German election and this is “soft power”.  Not that The Kremlin can influence Mrs Merkel and her CDU party coming first, nor indeed the SPD coming second.  What matters in the German elections is the degree of victory by Mrs Merkel and her party – and also who comes third, and with what percentage of the vote.  Therein is the answer to whether a majority coalition requires the “Kremlin-understanders” within the SPD – or not.

It may be that simply adding 1% – 2% of votes to the SPD tally, or knocking off 1% or 2% from the Merkel tally, may prove to be sufficient to undo any chance of an easily manageable coalition with those parties that come third (or perhaps even fourth) without the SPD (and the “Kremlin understanders” within).

In short, the size of Merkel’s CDU Party victory, and the percentage of votes of the party coming third (perhaps even fourth if it is very, very close), matters more than the inevitable Merkel /CDU first, SPD second positioning.  Can The Kremlin affect that somehow?  Is this UN proposition a way to do it?

It may be that this a prelude to another political and diplomatic push to isolate Ukraine from some European capitals.  A matter of just how little can be conceded step by step before Ukraine’s supporters feel The Kremlin has gone far enough to pressure Kyiv into something that is not good enough, but ends the bloodshed and is framed as “as good as it will get (for years to come)”.  That would entail getting UNSC Members, France, UK and USA (with the anticipated Chinese abstention) to avoid a veto, plus lobbying of the other UNSC members.

Ukraine would, in the meantime, be lobbying hard to keep at least one veto-wielding UNSC Member on its side so as not to appear alone in its obstruction to the undoubtedly less than favourable Kremlin proposal.

However, when looking through the Russian domestic lens first – as is necessary with all Russian foreign policy, -it is perhaps that with Russian presidential election in March 2018, The Kremlin currently still has no convincing narrative for a blindingly successful reappointment of President Putin.

The result is naturally not in question.  President Putin will win by whatever margin The Kremlin decides upon.  What matters to The Kremlin is the size of the turnout at the polls.  To gain 70% of the vote from a 40% turnout is not the legitimacy The Kremlin desires for President Putin’s next term.  Whatever pre-anointed percentage victory from a 70% polling turnout would display far more legitimacy for the domestic audience.

“Putin the peacemaker” in “brotherly Ukraine” – or at least domestically perceived on-going “effort” at doing so, may be about the best available narrative – whether it would increase voter turn out is a different question.  The slogan doesn’t need to deliver after all.  The process would simply have to be seen to have be started for “electioneering” purposes and continue until after the elections have been “won”.

Indeed, even if the UN peacekeeping process somehow escaped Kremlin control and actually delivered Blue Helmets in the occupied Donbas, it will be a time frame that takes all parties beyond his reelection.  Mission parameters have to be negotiated and agreed far beyond these initial Kremlin “offerings”.  Finance has to be arranged.  Logistics put in place.  The composition and size of the UN peacekeeper contingent finalised (and undoubtedly Ukraine would refuse any Russian participation).

The possible drivers outlined above for The Kremlin’s latest move are of course not mutually exclusive – nor exhaustive.  They are simply the most obvious considerations.

How far The Kremlin is prepared to go in mini-concessions before they become a concession too far leading to a snap-back return to the situation we are in today remains to be seen – and that assumes a Kremlin intention to leave the situation where we are today at all.

The desire to resolve the occupied Donbas situation only on Kremlin terms has not changed – if resolution is even sought.

Whether the latest Kremlin actions are an indication that it has changed its terms is a different question – and the domestic Russian audience is the only audience that matters to it.

Nevertheless, unlikely as it is, a watchful eye should be cast upon these events, just in case The Kremlin actually needs – and not wants – this to go somewhere at some point.  That need is likely only to be domestically driven.

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