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A Russian Ruse, or Real Policy Shift on Ukraine?

A pro-Russian activist waves a Donbas Republic flag over a crowd celebrating the capture of an administration building in the center of Luhansk, Ukraine, one of the largest cities in Ukraine's troubled east, April 29, 2014, as demonstrators demand greater autonomy for Ukraine's regions.

The Kremlin appears to be touting a major shift in policy on east Ukraine and possibly preparing local pro-Russian separatists for the reintegration of the disputed region of the Donbas into Ukraine.

A local news site in separatist-controlled Donetsk reported midweek that the Kremlin is likely to engineer the replacement of the current military-tilted Donbas leaders with two former Ukrainian lawmakers, both onetime allies of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, currently in exile in the Russian capital.

The news site, Novosti Donbassa, also reported that Vladislav Surkov, a key member of the inner circle of advisers of Russian President Vladimir Putin, visited Donetsk last month and warned local pro-Russian leaders to start to “prepare for reintegration” with the rest of Ukraine.

Notably, too, in recent weeks, a Russian TV talk-show host, Vladimir Solovyov, whose commentary is taken to reflect Kremlin thinking, has been suggesting on his popular evening program on Russia’s Channel One that Russia would be better off without the Donbas.

Donbas region, Ukraine
Donbas region, Ukraine

Hints of a policy shift

In Kyiv, officials say the media hints of a major policy shift, along with Putin’s surprise support for the deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force to the Donbas, are part of a sophisticated ruse designed to persuade U.S. policymakers not to supply Ukraine with lethal arms.

Last month, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said the Trump administration was actively reviewing whether to supply Ukraine with lethal, albeit defensive, weaponry. Ukrainian officials note that Putin first broached the idea of a U.N. peacekeeping mission at a summit where he also issued dire warnings about the U.S. arming of Ukraine.

They worry the more steadfast approach adopted recently by the West towards Russia could fall victim to the ruse.

US sanctions

In recent weeks the U.S. unilaterally strengthened its sanctions regime against Russia, and European leaders have also been tougher in their rhetoric in the wake of cyberattacks and mounting evidence that Moscow has sought to upset European politics by mounting an information war against the West.

But some analysts suspect a policy shift may be in the offing.

“There is a sense that a window for more meaningful negotiations…might be opening, and that this signal is being sent from Moscow,” said Gwendolyn Sasse, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment, a U.S. policy research group.

In a recent commentary, she said, “there is a possibility that the economic and medium-term political costs of controlling parts of the Donbas feature in the calculations of key figures in Moscow.”

UN peacekeepers

Ukraine has long called for a U.N. peacekeeping mission, arguing it could serve as a major step in the reintegration of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.

Russia until last week adamantly opposed the deployment of a Blue Helmet force. But Sept. 5 it submitted a proposal for the U.N. Security Council to consider sending lightly armed peacekeepers to patrol the so-called contact line between Ukraine’s military and the separatist and Russian forces in the Donbas.

The Russian proposal underlined also the importance of Ukraine’s territorial integrity as well as support for the 2015 Minsk accord. The Minsk accord outlined principles for a resolution of the conflict, but implementation stalled almost immediately after it was agreed by the so-called Normandy Four of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany.

Western reaction to the Russian peacekeeping proposal has been hesitant and colored by skepticism. President Donald Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, was cautious in response.

Germany has been the most welcoming.

On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department gave a guarded nod with spokeswoman Heather Nauert, saying, “We believe the possibility of a U.N. peacekeeping force for eastern Ukraine is certainly an idea that’s worth exploring.”

Richard Haass, a former U.S. diplomat and now president of the Council of Foreign Relations, said Putin’s peacekeeping offer “may be the start of negotiations.” He told VOA in the margins of an international conference in Kyiv, “I like the fact something is now in play.”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko delivers a speech to parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sept. 7, 2017.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko delivers a speech to parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sept. 7, 2017.

Speaking in Kyiv Friday at the same conference, Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko delivered a hard-hitting anti-Putin speech, saying, today’s chaos in the world started with Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

“History teaches us that Russia can’t be trusted,” he said.

Border patrols

U.S. officials say any U.N. peacekeepers deployed to east Ukraine also would have to patrol Russia’s border, across which, Kyiv and Western powers say, Russia ships weapons and military personnel into the Donbas. Putin in a recent phone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly suggested he wouldn’t oppose broadening of a peacekeeping mandate to include monitoring of the Russian border.

Western wariness — U.S. and European diplomats say they have been involved in many fruitless attempts to negotiate a resolution before — is matched by a large dose of Ukrainian suspicion.

Some Ukrainian officials say the peacekeeping proposal, along with stories of a change of local leadership in the Donbas, which would see a shift away from the gunmen to more civilians, risks sapping Western resolve.

“His overall objectives are to divide the West, destabilize Ukraine and to get it back under Russian influence; he could continue driving towards those goals with the Donbas back in Ukraine,” an Ukrainian official told VOA.

In 2019, Ukraine is scheduled to hold presidential elections, and the voters of the Donbas could be crucial in changing the political landscape of the country by helping to vote Poroshenko out of office and securing possibly a more pro-Russian leadership in Kyiv, according to Tetiana Popova, a former Ukrainian deputy information minister.

Sanctions hurting Putin

While remaining highly skeptical that Putin is serious about the reintegration of the Donbas, she says Western sanctions on Russia are hurting him.

“He really does have a problem with sanctions and may want to take the pressure off,” she said. Reintegration on Putin’s terms involving granting the Donbas special status would prove highly divisive in the Ukrainian parliament.

“I don’t think there would be the votes there for that to happen,” she added.

Former Ukrainian intelligence officer Alexey Arestovich agrees sanctions may be causing Putin problems and says he needs the pressure on him reduced ahead of Russia’s presidential elections next year.

“The Donbas republics are becoming expensive for him and he fears a new wave of sanctions. So he has to throw a bone for the Western allies so they won’t bark at him but quarrel among themselves,” he said.