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Donbas Conflict: New Strategy

In his article “Never has this happened, and yet again” (ZN.UA, No.26 dated July 6), Serhiy Nemyrych asks many right questions, answers to which will determine Ukraine’s future. 

Author, however, offers just a few answers. In fact, there are few of them. Our current situation, unfortunately, leaves us little room for maneuver. Our excessive dependence on foreign partners, weak economy and aggressive Russia deprive us of opportunity to move independently towards achieving our own national interests. 

However, answering tough questions is a challenge and a task for Ukraine’s intellectual community. History teaches us that a country can find solutions, which open up new opportunities, even when a situation seems hopeless. For two years, our Institute has been actively elaborating a new Ukraine’s strategy on the Donbas conflict. After simulating all possible scenarios and studying international experience, we want to present our strategy for a wide debate. Of course, this strategy was submitted to the new president and his associates who failed to present new approaches despite their promises and are becoming increasingly dependent on international agenda obtruded by Russia. In our opinion, however, it is perception of decisions by Ukrainian society, which is the key to the conflict resolution. Any approach or strategy lacking the society’s support will be doomed to failure.

The impossibility of peace

Achievement of peace has very clear and obvious parameters: 1) peace is achieved when one of the parties wins; 2) peace is achieved when the parties change their interests regarding the conflict; 3) peace is achieved when causes of the conflict disappear or general situation of the conflict is changed. Unfortunately, we can observe none of the above at this stage of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Ukraine and Russia hold positions, which rule out the possibility for compromise and achievement of peace. Putin’s key interests in the conflict consist in achieving a major deal with the West on division of spheres of influence, which will result in returning Ukraine and a number of other countries to the Kremlin’s area of interests. To do this, he needs weak and unstable Ukraine, which will reduce the West’s expectations to build strong democracy here, which would ultimately give a push to this great deal. For Ukraine, return to pre-conflict status quo, with equal terms for Donbas and autonomy of Crimea, is not a mere priority, but a matter of survival. A compromise of these interests can only lead to further destabilization and chaos. 

Russia is playing the long game. Putin knows perfectly well that it will take a long time to persuade the West to give up its values and interests. His strategy is based on the belief that Western countries must realize steadiness of Russia and its interests, as well as impossibility of resolving local conflicts without taking into account Russian interests. The Kremlin does not want to be the enemy of the West; it wants to be an equal partner. Putin wants to sit at the table on equal terms and not to be an outcast. He is reasonable enough to understand that he needs time and persuasion, instead of weapons to achieve this. However, while in foreign policy time plays in Putin’s favor, in domestic policy time plays against him. Depression and stagnation of the late Soviet Union are already looming on the horizon of Russian politics. Institutional fatigue, multiplied by the crisis of positive expectations, is increasingly threatened by political crises and inevitable political renewal of Russian authorities.

Respectively, time plays against Ukraine. Tectonic shifts in favor of the Russian Federation are beginning to occur in international politics. Lack of economic and political breakthroughs made by Ukrainian authorities during the recent five years is becoming more and more disappointing for Western partners and disturbs their confidence in Ukraine as a successful state. Situation in the PACE and Nord Stream 2 will be only the first warning signs in the coming years. The West is living in anticipation of a new wave of financial crisis, which makes its attitude towards Russia extremely pragmatic. In such a situation, sanctions are perceived as an annoying “spoonful of tar” associated with Ukraine. Therefore, we cannot rule out that 2019 and 2020 will become years of search for quick hybrid solutions and agreements between the West and the RF without taking into consideration interests of Ukraine. This puts additional pressure on the government to invent new strategies and approaches. In terms of internal situation, however, time plays in our favor. We need time to make all necessary upgrades in varies areas: from economy to the army. Only these upgrades can strengthen our position on international arena and get partners’ confidence back. Wasting time is a crime against our future. 

Minsk deadlock

This year, Minsk agreements will celebrate five years of their non-performance. Actually, even their first clause — cease-fire — was not implemented. It is unlikely that five years after one can expect for fulfillment of these agreements, however, it is the Minsk that our Western partners stick to as a key path to peace. Sanctions against Russia are associated with it, too. Today, these agreements serve as a truce architecture and, unfortunately, deadlock in achievement of peace.

As above analysis of Ukrainian and Russian interests in the conflict shows, the Minsk agreements contradict each of the parties, and, therefore, had no chance to be fulfilled from the very outset. After all, text of the agreements itself immediately put the Russian Federation on a “trip wire”. Fulfillment of the very first clause, namely “cease-fire”, will mean that the Kremlin has indeed complete control over the occupied territories and its position to try to persuade to negotiations with guerrilla’s leaders will be non-relevant. At the same time, if cease-fire will do occur after such official negotiations between the Ukrainian party and the guerrillas, it will provide Russian propaganda grounds to talk about a civil nature of the conflict. 

However, “A Bad Peace Is Better Than a Good War”. It is this logic that works for the West (and Ukraine, too) in the Minsk context. It is clear that this logic will lose its meaning over time, and the moment when it becomes clear that achievement of peace needs architecture is not far off. Minsk will allow Ukraine to win time it needs, which, among other things, should be used to launch future new format for achievement of peace. Therefore, the RF’s refusal to fulfill the first clause of the agreements gives us an opportunity to develop our own strategy without violating existing configuration.

New strategy 

“People First”

“Anticipation of quick solution” is one of the key features of the Donbas conflict. Although, even considering five years of its duration, it can already be considered a long-term one. This leads to wrong behavior patterns of all key actors. On the one hand, the West hopes to remove this headache and get Russia back at the table. On the other hand, Ukraine has been unable to solve colossal problems of migrants and infrastructure of the government controlled territories for years. Short-term strategy is being built on an assumption that occupied territories will somehow come back soon. 

Therefore, declaring the conflict a long-term one is the first and the key clause of our strategy. Russia’s failure to ensure cease-fire shall be the reason for such declaration. Moreover, its passportization policy additionally indicates its unwillingness to follow the path to peace. Accordingly, when accusing Russia of impeding the peace process, we have the right to declare the conflict a long-term one until the first clause of the Minsk agreements is finally fulfilled or until political power in Russia is changed.

Such step gives us a number of advantages. Firstly, we cut off all possibilities of backstage agreements without our participation and remove ambiguities in our position. Secondly, we define Russia responsible for occupied territories and indicate that it will have to pay for these territories for a long time. Thirdly, we can proceed with activities to buy some time – start reconstruction of front line regions and their economy, launch large-scale infrastructure projects and, most importantly, start returning people from occupied territories.

Main goal of our strategy is to reintegrate migrants, pull people who were forced to leave their homes out of occupied territories and Russia. Our institute held focus groups on occupied territories last summer. The research showed that our citizens’ life under occupation is awful. Even though it has stabilized from pecuniary point of view, people feel themselves abandoned, deprived of prospects or future. Unfortunately, percentage of positive attitude towards Ukraine is low, too, and, contrary to popular belief, not due to Russian media. During the recent years, we did not demonstrate any need in these people, any signals that we were fighting for our citizens. “They need territories, not us”, — said a resident of occupied Donetsk during the focus group. This must be changed. 

We have to start implementation of a large-scale policy of pulling people out of occupied territories. It’s not only our obligation to our fellow citizens, but also a pragmatic calculation, which will facilitate achievement of peace. Reduction of the occupied territories’ population, especially workers, will increase the cost of their feeding. In fact, absolute lack of economic vitality of the ORDLO results in appreciable financial losses for the Kremlin, and these losses will become very significant at some point if it continues to play the long game. 

Besides, favorable conditions for transportation of labor have arisen in Ukraine. Significant migration to Poland has resulted in labor shortage all over the country. According to the Employment Service data, number of vacancies registered in June 2019 is 10% higher than in June 2018. Foreign investors, which built production facilities during the recent years, show large demand for labor, too.

In order to implement this policy, it is necessary to create a Reintegration Fund that will be filled up jointly by Ukrainian budget and international partners. Declaration of the conflict a long-term one will make it possible for many international organizations to make a shift from operational project to long-term ones. Purchase of housing for people from occupied territories and its transfer into leasing is a key objective of the Fund. Availability of migrant’s employment agreement will serve as a ground for him/her to buy housing. In addition, the Fund shall also arrange funding of necessary infrastructure for residents of occupied territories. This includes, in particular, upgrading entry-exit checkpoints to full value checkpoints with ASCs, offices of pension fund and social protection services and everything our citizens who arrive from the occupied territories need. 

In this context, there is another problem to be solved — blockade. At the time of adoption of the decision on economic blockade, it was a response to illegal take-over of our enterprises. However, the logic of the blockade was absolutely wrong, and we must correct this now. The goal of the blockade was to punish the guerrillas for thefts and force them to return the enterprises. In the meantime, in fact, the blockade became a revenge on all hostages of the terrorists. We propose the following logic: residents of occupied territories may freely purchase and take to occupied territories everything they need in any quantities. There shall be no restrictions on goods movement from government controlled territories to occupied territories. As far as trade on government controlled territories is concerned, only enterprises registered here shall have the right to trade. Moreover, a ban for deliveries from “stolen” enterprises and any cooperation with them shall be in place until restoration of Ukrainian owners’ rights.

In addition, it is important to launch large infrastructure projects. Under conditions of short-term expectations of the conflict resolution, the state does not want to invest into construction of new roads, bridges and railways. Playing the long game, however, requires taking government controlled territories out of logistics deadlocks they were caught in due to occupation of the regional centers. Moreover, the RF’s aggression in the Azov Sea forces to search for new infrastructure solutions for Mariupol and Berdiansk. Water supply through the occupied territories is not least important issue to be solved. Other issues include structural transformation of economy of government controlled territories taking into consideration dislocation of large number of military men and machinery.

During discussion of mentioned considerations, we often face one simple question: What to do in case of new aggression of the RF? Our answer is simple: New aggression will bring all diplomatic efforts of the RF aimed at lifting the sanctions to nought. Economic crisis that slowly draws near Russia makes it think about diplomatic fixing of success, instead of military operations. No doubt, scenario of military aggression indicated by accumulation of military forces at the border with Ukraine remains quite realistic. At present moment, however, we consider it an “extremity” for Russian establishment. 

Proposed steps are merely a part of much bigger and deeper document developed by experts of the Institute. Our proposals are based on significant analytical assessments: from military scenarios to descriptions of infrastructure projects. We believe that developed strategy offers Ukraine a new maneuver and taking over initiative in unfavorable international environment. The worst thing for Ukraine and new government is to wait for solutions from our Western partners, especially against the background of the RF’s unconditional return to PACE

Victor Andrusiv, Director of Ukrainian Institute for the Future