“It’s a mechanism to distract and destabilize the government in Kiev,” Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told me recently. “They can ratchet pressure up or ratchet it down in eastern Ukraine to cause problems for the government in Kiev.”
But ultimately Russia wants to get the separatist territories reintegrated into a hyper-federalized Ukraine as a fifth column, with the ability to veto any attempts by the government in Kiev to integrate with the West. And these efforts are failing—and the Kremlin is flailing as it searches for an alternative.
“The bottom line is that Russia has no good options in the Donbas, and that really is the key. It is the owner of the region and whoever owns the territory is the loser,” Alexander Motyl, a professor at Rutgers University-Newark and commentator on Ukrainian affairs, told me.
Ukrainian officials and pro-Moscow separatists went through the motions in Minsk again this week, just as they have been doing for months since the ceasefire was signed in the Belarusian capital in February. They pretended to negotiate about the future status of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and how they would be reintegrated into Ukraine. And they didn’t reach a solution, but they did agree to continue the farce via Skype. They didn’t find a solution because there isn’t a solution. The problem is irremediable.
The government in Kiev wants the region reintegrated only after separatist fighters disarm, after Russia withdraws its troops and weapons, after the border is returned to Ukraine’s control, and after free, fair, and internationally supervised elections are held. The Kremlin and its Donbas proxies want the territories reintegrated into Ukraine with autonomy so broad it would make the region a de facto Russian protectorate. They want the current separatist leaders legitimized as the region’s rulers and the separatist fighters instituted as its police force.
There is no compromise here that could satisfy both sides. It’s a deadlock—and a deadlock essentially favors Ukraine.
“Freezing the conflict is one of the better solutions for Ukraine and is actually bad for the Russians,” Motyl said. “The reason is that the Donbas enclave that is occupied by Russian and separatist troops is an economic mess. … It is [to] Ukraine’s advantage to keep that out of its control for as long as possible and for as much as possible, and it is to Russia’s disadvantage to be responsible for it.”
So if a deadlock favors Ukraine, then Russia understands that it has to break the deadlock. If Russia decided to issue passports to residents of the rebel-held territories in eastern Ukraine, it would change the nature of the conflict overnight.
And last week, Ihor Plotnitskiy, leader of the self-styled Luhansk People’s Republic, said separatist leaders were in talks with Moscow to do just that. And the announcement got a fair amount of traction in the Russian press, suggesting that it was being taken seriously. In a lengthy article on the news site Lenta.ru, Gevorg Mirzayan of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies noted that the move would mark a significant shift in Kremlin policy.