Why the Volker-Surkov talks on Donbas cannot succeed
The negotiations between Volker and Surkov may continue for a long time, but one should be cautious when hoping for any success. It is important to understand that no real “thaw” is possible because Russia’s confrontational policy towards the West is its main and unchanging feature, which originates from the very nature of the Russian regime.
Contrary to heightened Western expectations, negotiations on the deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission in Donbas are doomed to fail. The current situation surrounding the conflict is not ideal for Moscow, but it also has no reasons to make any concessions to neither Ukraine nor the West. Therefore, it is important to understand the game Russia plays and its real goals.
January’s round of American-Russian negotiations which focus on the deployment of a UN mission in Donbas for the first time have caused relatively optimistic commentaries from both sides. US Special Representative on Ukraine Kurt Volker said that his meeting with Vladimir Putin’s assistant Vladislav Surkov was “rather constructive”, in contrast to the previous one in November, when “all was different”. For his part Surkov commented that “This time, the American has brought much more constructive proposals,” adding that the package of US initiatives “looks quite realizable”.
What the US will try to achieve
It seems that the key point in the US strategy towards the regulation of peace in Donbas is based on forcing Russia to understand that the continuation of the conflict would be unfavourable, as it leads to the opposite goal to the one to which the Kremlin – according to Washington’s perception – wants to reach. This is how Kurt Volker interprets it: “The current situation does not give Russia any benefits, it is not favourable for them. Russia wants to get a benevolent government in Ukraine, improve the attitude of Ukrainian society towards Russia. They want to see Ukraine as a part of the ‘big Slavic family’”. At the same time he claimed: “In fact everything is happening in the opposite direction – due to the Russian occupation, the Ukrainian identity has become stronger and pro-western moods are growing. Russia really loses from participation in this conflict and nothing there is positive for them.” At the same time, he explains what the negative consequences are for Moscow: “I’m talking about the EU and US sanctions and about the money they [Russians] spend on civil administration [of the occupied Donbas territories], about the military expenditure, the reputation of their country, and the dead Russians.”
Everything that the American envoy has noted is actually taking place, but it is worth remembering that the Russian Federation has been living with sanctions, high military expenditures and a damaged reputation for four years now. Nevertheless, Moscow, Volker claims, has not made any decision whether it wants real peace in Donbas or not.
To give Russia the opportunity to leave eastern Ukraine, save face and create conditions for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, which are quite beneficial to the Kremlin, the US proposes the idea of installing UN peacekeepers in the conflict zone – a proposal originally put forward by Putin in September 2017. The idea of a peacekeeping mission is also supported by Ukraine.
Kurt Volker is an experienced diplomat and he has few illusions about the hidden goals of Russian policy. He readily admitted that he saw no reason to hope that Russia is ready to accept the UN mission. His perception of what is (and what is not) beneficial to Russia are the assessment of a rationally thinking person. But the truth is that the Kremlin thinks quite differently.
Moscow’s position – no concessions
The Russian regime is unique for many reasons. The interests of the ruling elite lie not in mutually beneficial co-operation with the West but, on the contrary, in conflict. Moscow perceives its interactions with the world, predominantly the US, as a zero-sum game. This approach is particularly characteristic for Russia’s policy towards countries that it regards as its “near abroad”, which implies their limited sovereignty. In this approach Ukraine occupies a key place.
Therefore, Moscow may accept a peacekeeping mission exclusively on its own terms and only if this accelerates the implementation of the Minsk Agreements and allows Russia to retain influence in crucial areas, including control over the Ukrainian-Russian border. If it does not work out, this will not be a problem for Russia. The current situation in eastern Ukraine is not ideal from the Kremlin’s perspective, but – paradoxically – for the time being, for Russia there are more benefits than losses from this conflict.
Moreover, during the conflict in Donbas, Russia has actively intervened in another war – in Syria. By taking this step Moscow has increased its military expenditure but also damaged its reputation, not to mention the loss of life. What does it tell us about Russian policy? It seems that according to the Kremlin’s decision-makers, the advantages from these conflicts still outweigh the disadvantages. And it is very important that western policymakers understand this. The policy of the US and the EU conducted over the last three and a half years of the war in Ukraine brought little effect. It is constructed on a false understanding of the goals that Russia wants to achieve through this conflict.
Putin’s goal is not only Ukraine. The subordination of Kyiv or strengthening the Assad regime are only stages in achieving Russia’s ultimate goal – a new international order, and regaining the status of a world superpower. Moscow is one of very few countries in the world (and the only one in the “nuclear club”), which considers the use of armed forces as a normal foreign policy tool. In the last ten years it has demonstrated this three times – in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria. Military power can, at least partially, offset Russia’s diminishing role in the global economy. At the same time Moscow understands very well that even after the limited use of weapons by Russia, the West is not ready to respond in kind.
Thus, in order to achieve its international goals, Russia needs conflicts in which it is officially a third party, but whose outcomes largely depend on it. And in the last few years Russia successfully created or helped to create these conflicts while the West ineffectively has tried to persuade the Russians to be more constructive.
The belief that Russia wants to “improve the attitude of Ukrainian society towards itself” is also false. The Kremlin grabbed Crimea. It occupies Donbas and has expelled millions of Ukrainians from their homes. It organises anti-Ukrainian propaganda and hysteria among Russians. After all these events it would be very naïve to expect that Ukrainians can quickly change their attitude towards Russia. Any future Ukrainian authorities, even a pro-Russian one, would not be able to return Ukraine to the “big Slavic family”.
By capturing Crimea and starting the war in Donbas the Kremlin initially planned to break up Ukraine in order to destroy the statehood that emerged in 1991, rather than simple subordination. Actually, this was the original idea behind the so-called Novorossiya project. It was openly said many times by Kremlin-backed political technologists. One of them who is close to the FSB former prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Boroday, declared: “The establishment of the people’s republics [in eastern Ukraine] has a direct and immediate purpose – the liquidation of Ukraine as a hostile state to Russia.”
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 – it 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 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.”
Russia, unlike the West, understands very well that Ukraine, due to internal reasons, cannot fulfil the Minsk Agreements. The consequences would be domestic conflict and a serious destabilisation of the country. Hence Putin needs unconditional guarantees that the West will force Kyiv to do this. In the meantime, the Kremlin simply waits, expecting that in any scenario, Ukraine will fall under the weight of war, corruption and internal political fighting. The goal is to wait for the right moment when the internal political situation will develop in such an unfavourable way that Kyiv cannot refuse to implement the Minsk Agreements. And this would inevitably provoke a large-scale civil conflict. Then Russia would really introduce its troops, but they will be called peacemakers.
The negotiations between Volker and Surkov may continue for a long time, but one should be cautious when hoping for any success. Currently, the escalation of the Donbas conflict is not in Russia’s interest because the presidential elections and the FIFA World Cup are approaching, which contributes to a temporary stabilisation of the situation. Hence, the purpose of the talks is to hold the talks themselves, and Russia is just playing for time. Russia can demonstrate its allegedly good intentions and strengthen the anti-sanctions camp in the EU at the same time.
It is important to understand that no real “thaw” is possible because Russia’s confrontational policy towards the West is its main and unchanging feature, which originates from the very nature of the Russian regime. 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 is the head of the Centre for Donbass Social Prospects Researches (CDSPR) in Kyiv.
Wojciech Konończuk is the head of the department for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw.