Today is the day US President Joe Biden said Russia would invade Ukraine. Except of course that’s not the case. In fact, this is the day when some Russian troops were withdrawn. The Russian Defense Ministry released a video of weapons leaving Crimea through the Russian Bridge to the Homeland.
It’s a move from the Kremlin and actually a very smart response to Biden’s extremely vocal “it’s about to kick off” comments because it makes the United States look stupid. Of course, there were several “blinded Russia” take on the events, but given the widespread disbelief at the invasion in the first place – and not only bne IntelliNews which was argue from the start that an invasion is “highly unlikely” – there have been surprisingly few.
The other big news yesterday was the Duma’s (non-binding) vote to recognize the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbass region.
Its a threat. If Putin approves this law, it will effectively kill the Minsk II process and see Donbas leave Ukraine forever. It would also likely lead to an escalation in fighting as the rebels control both cities, but they would like to remove the entire Donbass region from Ukraine, part of which is still controlled by Kiev.
It’s a carrot and stick strategy. Troop withdrawals ease military tensions, but the Duma’s Recognition Law increases the threat of further dismemberment of Ukraine – and by theoretically peaceful means. The Kremlin has been planning this scenario for ages and has already distributed more than 700,000 Russian passports to around half of local residents to lend some legitimacy to this decision.
I wonder if that wasn’t the plan from the start: make an impossible demand for “no NATO” and raise tensions to the horn level, but use it to restart the Minsk II process, then relax as the West, not Russia begins to exert strong pressure on Kiev to push through the deal.
The beauty of this plan is that everyone, except Kiev, wants the Minsk II agreement to be implemented and keeps saying so. If this passes, the result is that you have imposed a humiliating concession on Kiev, but which theoretically maintains the territorial integrity of Ukraine and also ends the fighting in the East. On the surface, it will look like a bargain because all the boxes on both sides will be checked, except that in reality Kiev will have lost control of Donbass, which will have a veto over the membership of the Ukraine to NATO.
Credibility was added to this theory today as Kyiv Independent reports that French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz were pushing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to accept the Russian version of the interpretation of the Minsk II agreement. If true (very likely), then the EU is doing Putin’s dirty work for him.
In short, the problem here is that the Russians want the constitution changed so that Donbas becomes a fully-fledged autonomous region inside Ukraine, while the Ukrainian version is just “decentralization”. where Kyiv retains control of local legislators. (For a more in-depth discussion on this, watch our “Ukraine from the Ground Up” webinar with Jock Mendoza-Wilson hereor listen to the podcast version here.)
Having been very pessimistic, I now feel more encouraged as I can see this plan working. The bottom line is that Europe really doesn’t want a war in its backyard any more than it cares about Ukrainian pride. It’s an ugly solution, because Russia has been a bully and ends up getting what it wants, but as I said, superficially the West can also say that it has protected its values and even that technically, Ukraine’s NATO membership is not irrelevant when it comes to practice.
Moreover, our correspondent Neil Hauer was in Mariupol, the major port on the Sea of Azov just 10 km from the front line and filed a mail about what life is like there. The other practical result of implementing the Minsk agreement is that while politically ugly, peace will transform things on the ground for cities like this and Ukraine should prosper. He’s getting almost no investment at the moment because of all these issues, but the market and investors won’t care who decides if there’s peace and predictability. Peace at any cost? Well, maybe in this case.
This article first appeared as a blurb in bne IntelliNews’ EDITOR’S CHOICES, a daily e-mail digest of the best stories from the past 24 hours, delivered free to your inbox. Click on here to view past issues and to subscribe.