The other day, someone on twitter said it felt like the news was working up to an end-of-season finale, a big finish for the longest running of TV shows. On Thursday, as Yanis Varoufakis and Wolfgang Schäuble were failing to agree on whether or not they agreed in Berlin, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande were heading in their respective Airbus A310s to Kiev and then Moscow. Diplomats must be delighted at times like this; suddenly the job is as important as they spend their time making out it is.
As it turned out, Merkel and Hollande‘s mission only resulted in agreement to look at a draft ceasefire implementing the Minsk agreement from last year, a document widely considered to be a dead letter. The new content in it seems to have been more concessions of territory to the pro-Russian side.
All this diplomacy was triggered by the Americans floating the idea of providing Ukraine with modern armaments. Back in Germany, Merkel was rather sceptical about the idea at the NATO security conference in Munich, saying variously that there seemed to be plenty of weapons around and that no amount of them would impress Putin. (There may be plenty of AKs, tanks, and artillery, but the US proposal focuses on communications and electronic warfare, and perhaps anti-tank guided weapons.)
In general, the level of anxiety about the situation seems to have spiked in the last few days. Hollande has been saying that he fears total war. You might well ask what on earth is happening in the Donbass if it’s not war, but the fear is that it might get worse, moving from a so-called hybrid conflict confined to the area around Donetsk to a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Carl Bildt thinks it is possible; Anders Fogh Rasmussen thinks it is possible; former NATO deputy supreme commander Sir Richard Sherriff thinks so, and wonders where the British prime minister has got to. (Good question.)
Here’s a question. Hollande and Merkel are working from the assumption that handing over a bigger area of territory to the separatists would end the conflict, and that their territorial control reflects the wishes of the population. On the other hand, though, they are also working from the assumption that it’s not the separatist leadership who decides. Hollande and Merkel didn’t address themselves to Alexander Zakharchenko in Donetsk, but rather to Vladimir Putin in Moscow. In a real sense, they clearly believe that it’s Putin who decides what happens there.
If the Ukrainians were to accept such a proposal, and offer to give up the whole Donbass, would Putin accept it? I am not sure he would.
A DNR entity of real size and contiguity, a Republic of Novorossiya, would be disturbingly big and independent, and likely to make trouble. It would, however, still be small enough that the Ukrainians might hope to take it back one day. It would also set a precedent Putin would hate – as well as orange-clad protestors occupying city squares in the hope of joining Europe, he would have to worry about sovok or natsbol types with AKs hoping to join the Soviet Union, as it were, by setting up their own novorossiyas. Insurgency would have become an option for his own constituency. Annexing it to Russia would be massively provocative and would pose the question of how to demobilise and disarm the DNR.
Further, if you want to join NATO or the European Union, the rules are clear – you have to leave your irredenta at the door. The precondition of membership is that you wind up any geopolitical conflicts you have open. Nobody wants to attach the trigger of the NATO air forces to a checkpoint dispute outside Luhansk – it’s too risky. So long as the conflict in Ukraine is not resolved, Ukrainian membership of NATO is ruled out. The little green men are the guarantee. On the other hand, a Ukraine reeling from the loss of the Donbass would be very likely to do anything at all to get under the NATO security guarantee for the rest of the country.
Just keeping the conflict going, however, suits Russian interests rather well. Anyone who has an interest in the matter has to go to Moscow first. Ukrainian NATO membership is ruled out. The DNR stays deniable, but also dependent, so the level of violence can be turned up or down as is expedient. As some people from Transdniestria turned up in Crimea, it could act as a pool of proxy fighters for use elsewhere, in the Caucasus, the Baltics, or against Russian dissidents. And the horse may sing; the option of a counter-Maidan movement based there is kept open, although the chances of that happening must be minimal now.
Polling seems to suggest that a solution keeping the Donbass in Ukraine has strong public support, including in the rebel zone, although it’s not obvious to me how they surveyed it. If it’s a matter of a form of words that grants Donetsk what might be termed devo-max within Ukraine, though, I can’t help doubting anyone would fight for that so tenaciously, or with such means – main battle tanks, artillery in such quantity that the shells are delivered by the trainload. And such a deal has been on the table for months. Clearly, it’s the conflict that matters, not any particular political arrangement, and it seems there is only one man who can call a halt.
On the other hand, arming the side fighting against what looks more and more like the Russian regular army is a frightening prospect. No-one should doubt that for a moment, and I imagine the Russians will take care to remind us on a regular basis. Also, we need to think hard about getting the Ukrainians some money before they run out of foreign exchange completely.