Putin’s “Peace” Plan

by Jonah Shepp

The Russian president has unveiled a seven-point plan to end the fighting in Eastern Ukraine, which he claims to have arrived at after consultations with his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko (NYT):

Mr. Putin said he and the president of Ukraine, Petro O. Poroshenko, had a similar understanding about what was needed, and he urged Ukraine and the pro-Russian separatists in the east to reach a settlement at talks scheduled for Friday in Belarus. The primary conditions on Mr. Putin’s list are that the separatists halt all offensive operations and that Ukrainian troops move their artillery back out of range of cities and large towns in the rebel-held area. Mr. Putin also called for Ukraine to cease airstrikes; the establishment of an international monitoring mission and humanitarian aid corridors; an “all for all” prisoner exchange; and “rebuilding brigades” to repair damaged roads, bridges, power lines and other infrastructure.

Or in other words, according to Armin Rosen’s interpretation, the plan is for Ukraine to retreat and Russia to invade:

The proposal would formalize the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine while requiring the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from their internationally recognized territory in the Donbas region, where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting Kiev’s forces since February. This proposal, which both Ukraine and the international community are unlikely to accept, amounts to Russian annexation of eastern Ukraine — Putin would be able to secure and develop the region, and Ukraine would be forced to accept a new reality on the ground. This follows Moscow’s longstanding game plan from other conflicts on the Russian periphery. For instance, the Georgian separatists regions of South Ossetia and Abhkazia are secured with the help of “peacekeepers” from the Russian army, even though both areas are internationally recognized as part of Georgia.

Also, the plan notably omits any mention of the status of the territories in dispute. But Leonid Bershidsky argues that there is “nothing here to which Poroshenko might reasonably object”. He believes the plan should be implemented simply because the fighting needs to end before any other progress can be made. The tricky part, in Bershidsky’s view, is what comes after the peace:

Putin will not want to give up a measure of control over eastern Ukraine. Although it might be tempting for Poroshenko to declare it a Russian-occupied territory and wash his hands of it, he won the presidential election in May on a promise to keep Ukraine together. Hence, there will have to be further negotiations on issues that are much harder for both sides to agree on than Putin’s lenient cease-fire terms. There is every chance that the cease-fire will break down as the political talks fail, and that Poroshenko’s plan to hold a parliamentary election in October will fall through. For now, however, the steps Putin proposes must be taken.

Must they? Those particular steps, in that order? Yes, the fighting must end first and foremost, but ending it on Putin’s terms could mean walking into a trap. Either way, Ukraine appears not to be taking the bait:

“This latest plan is another attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the international community ahead of the NATO summit and an attempt to avert the EU’s inevitable decision to unleash a new wave of sanctions against Russia,” [Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk] said in a statement. “The best plan for ending Russia’s war against Ukraine has only one single element — for Russia to withdraw its troops, its mercenaries and its terrorists from Ukrainian territory.” His comments come despite Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko saying he and Putin had agreed on the peace plan aimed at ending the near five-month conflict in eastern Ukraine.

That makes it sound like the Ukrainian leadership is divided over how to respond. That wouldn’t be surprising: after all, Poroshenko is known to be a bit friendlier to Russia than Yatsenyuk, and indeed that’s why some people think he’s the best man to make peace. But then there’s the question of whether Putin can actually get the rebels to stop fighting in the first place:

The insurgency clearly does not represent a unified organization with a central command, and furthermore Moscow’s interaction with its leaders is varied, according to Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy head of the Institute of Political and Military analysis, a Moscow-based think tank. “Following rebel advances, the Ukrainian government is ready to make certain concessions. Moscow sees this as a window of opportunity to exploit and come to terms, with the captured territories becoming autonomous within Ukraine. Hence, Purgin came up with the plan,” he told The Moscow Times in a phone interview. “The problem is that many insurgents do not want to settle anything now that they have got the upper hand in the military conflict. It is naive to believe that the Kremlin controls everything there,” he said.

Meanwhile, the West has finally shamed France into suspending a delivery of warships to Russia, and aggressive military posturing continues on all sides. The US and NATO allies are going ahead with a joint military exercise in western Ukraine later in September, while Russia’s defense ministry has announced a 4,000-soldier drill, also this month, by the forces in charge of the country’s nuclear arsenal:

RIA news agency quoted the ministry as saying the exercises would take place in Altai in south-central Russia and would also include around 400 technical units and extensive use of air power. The agency quoted Dmitry Andreyev, a major in the strategic rocket forces, as saying troops would practice countering irregular units and high-precision weapons, and “conducting combat missions in conditions of active radio-electronic jamming and intensive enemy actions in areas of troop deployment.” He said enemy forces would be represented in the exercises by spetsnaz (special forces) units.

Surely this is just in case the “peace plan” doesn’t work out.