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Título: The Ukraine - entering the end game
Texto: We have had an extraordinary succession of diplomatic move and counter move over the last two days.
1. Yesterday was the false announcement by Russian media agencies of supposed proposals by the NAF that would have allowed the DPR/LPR to remain if only nominally part of the Ukraine.
2. This morning we had the equally false announcement by Poroshenko's Secretariat that he had agreed a ceasefire with Putin.
3. This afternoon the Kremlin published its plan for a ceasefire. Whilst this purports to be limited to its technical aspects in reality it effectively gives the DPR/LPR what they have demanded all along and since before the ATO was launched, which is the removal of all Ukrainian forces from their territory. The Kremlin's ceasefire proposal throws in a no fly zone for good measure.
This flurry of announcements suggests moves in an end game, which is what I think we are looking at. So what is going on? First of all it bears reiteration that none of this would be happening were it not for:
1. The NAF's battlefield victories and the not so slow motion collapse of the Ukrainian army. Lugansk and Donetsk airports have now definitely fallen. The very latest reports suggest that Mariupol is totally surrounded and that Kiev has only the remnant of right wing militia battalions there and that it is likely to fall or be liberated by the NAF very soon. There are reports of more and more Ukrainian soldiers surrendering or deserting and the hoard of captured weapons in the NAF's hands is growing to prodigious levels. As the junta's military gets weaker the NAF grows stronger. Though Putin has said (echoing comments made a week ago by Zakharchenko - see below my discussion of his press conference on this Page) that the NAF has no plan to advance beyond the boundaries of the DPR/LPR, the main force of the Ukrainian army is now actually concentrated on the territory of the DPR/LPR. If the Ukrainian army disintegrates, which is now looking distinctly possible, it is not clear what organised military force the junta has left to bar an NAF advance on Kharkov, Odessa or even Kiev.
2. As I explained a few days ago (see below on this Page) the true story of the recent EU summit is that for all the talk of sanctions the US/EU has emphatically ruled out the one thing that might at the risk of a very dangerous escalation have made a difference to this situation. This was the possibility of western military intervention in the conflict to bail the junta out. Please note that by "western military intervention" I mean boots on the ground and air strikes. As Mark Sleboda has absolutely correctly pointed out talk of weapons being supplied to the junta is a red herring. The reality is the junta has been getting weapons for weeks from old Soviet stocks in eastern Europe and has never been short of weapons to fight this war.
Given the military disaster Poroshenko, the junta and their western sponsors have no realistic option other than to look for a diplomatic way out. As I said a few days ago (see below on this Page) that was what all the talk at the EU summit of the need for ceasefires and of "the situation being close to the point of no return" was all about. With the economy in freefall and the army disintegrating further prolongation of the war risks the junta's and the Ukraine's collapse (about this however see below).
Ending the war for the junta is however something a lot easier said than done. Having promised victory and having spurned three opportunities for a political settlement and a ceasefire (on 21st February 2014, 17th April 2014 and 2nd July 2014) the junta and its western backers now face the critical problem of how they are going to sell news of their ending of the war in conditions of total defeat to the Maidan movement and to the Ukrainian people as a whole.
The way they are trying to do this and to square this circle is as follows:
1. Firstly, they are trying to preserve the fiction that their war is with Russia rather than with the people of the Donbas and the NAF. It is far easier to admit defeat at the hands of Russia than at what began as a lightly armed self defence force just 4 months ago; and
2. Secondly by trying to achieve through diplomacy a peace settlement that preserves the appearance of Ukrainian sovereignty over the Donbas thereby letting the junta claim that the integrity of the Ukrainian state has been preserved.
If one understands this then the strange diplomatic moves we have seen over the last two days begin to make sense.
The reason Poroshenko said falsely that he had agreed a ceasefire with Putin is because (1) he needs a ceasefire in order to avoid a total disaster and (2) he cannot declare a ceasefire unilaterally since that would too obviously be a surrender and (3) he does not want to agree a ceasefire with the NAF since that would demolish his claim that his war is not with the NAF but with Russia.
The strange attempt yesterday to pretend that the NAF is merely seeking autonomy within a confederated Ukraine when the NAF leadership has repeatedly made clear over the last few weeks that it is seeking full independence from the Ukraine was clearly intended by someone to help Kiev save face by pretending that some sort of deal is possible that would preserve Ukrainian sovereignty over the Donbas. That these reports came from Russian news agencies suggests
(1) that there is a faction within the Russian government or Russia's political elite that still wants that solution presumably in order to limit the damage to Russia's relations with the west; or
(2) that there is still a body of opinion within the elite of the Donbas itself (possibly led by Rinat Akhmetov) that also still wants to maintain a link, however tenuous, to Kiev and which also is trying to help the junta save face and which still has some influence within the Donbas leadership or at any rate the NAF's negotiating team; or
(3) that these reports originated with the Lukashenko government which is hosting the talks in Minsk and which for various reasons also wants to help the junta save face whilst preserving at least the appearance of a united Ukraine.
Of course these three possibilities are not mutually exclusive and it is possible and even likely that all are true.
However the important point is that Putin is having none of it. He has made it absolutely clear over the course of the day that he did not agree a ceasefire with Poroshenko and that if Poroshenko does genuinely want a ceasefire he must agree it not with Russia but with the NAF. By publishing his ceasefire proposals Putin has also made clear that he supports the NAF's demand for a total withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from the Donbas as a condition for a ceasefire. Indirectly, by limiting himself to technical discussions about a ceasefire, Putin has also made clear that he and Russia are not prepared to get involved in political discussions about the Donbas's future and that as he previously said in Minsk this is something that will have to be negotiated directly with the NAF instead. Those who expect Putin to put pressure on the NAF to accept something less than full independence are on the evidence of the last few weeks likely to be disappointed.
In other words Putin is denying Poroshenko any hope of saving face by stripping him of even the appearance of wriggle room. That explains the dismayed reaction in Kiev to today's developments with all the wild talk from Yatsenyuk & co of "frozen conflicts" that we have been hearing over the course of the day. It also explains the desperate attempt to put pressure on Putin by Poroshenko's western backers by suspending completion of the Mistral sale.
What happens next? I do not expect Putin to retreat from the line he is now publicly taking whatever Poroshenko or the west may want and whatever further sanctions the EU announces on Friday. Certainly suspension of the Mistral sale will not impress him. It seems to me that there are now two possibilities:
(1) There will be no formal ceasefire agreement of any kind, the Ukrainian military collapse will continue and the NAF will drive the Ukrainians out of the Donbas by itself. At that point the fighting will finally stop; or
(2) The junta will accept Putin's ceasefire proposals and will start negotiations with the NAF.
Politically it is much easier for the junta to do (1). However the consequences of that course should be clear. In the absence of a formal ceasefire agreement the Ukraine faces the almost certain prospect of a continued cut off of Russian gas at a time when it has also lost access to its coalfields in the Donbas and has no realistic alternative sources of energy and no foreign exchange to buy it in any event. Gazprom has again made clear today (and the timing is surely not an accident) that it is not prepared to consider the "compromise proposals" made by the European Commission. It insists on full payment of all gas arrears and has said that it will not in any event go below the price it previously offered, which is $385.
In the absence of a diplomatic settlement the Ukraine therefore faces likely economic collapse possibly within a matter of weeks or at the most months. Any realistic assessment of the situation therefore points to (2) as the only viable way forward. A grasp of reality is however something the Maidan movement has at all times been short of. Because of the nature of the regime in Kiev and of the Maidan movement I expect the junta if left to itself to opt for (1). The only way that might change would be if the Europeans finally screwed up the will and courage to do that which they have up to now consistently failed to do, which is put pressure on Kiev to agree to (2). As I see little prospect of that, I expect (1).
Looking further forward what is the future of the Ukraine and of the DPR/LPR? Though it may take time for reality to sink in, the disaster in the east, the loss of the Donbas and the gathering economic crisis will be a shattering blow to the Maidan movement. Not only has it been defeated on the battlefield but it must also face the reality that (as with Georgia in 2008) its western "friends" for all their brave talk in the final analysis have abandoned it. It must also face the return of tens of thousands of traumatised and embittered young men who have experienced the humiliation of defeat. As was the case with Saakashvili, though to a much greater extent, politically speaking it will be downhill for the Maidan movement from now on. I do not know how long the process will take but its eventual collapse is likely only a matter of time.
Beyond that my belief remains that if the Donbas manages to secede in time Kharkov, Odessa, Kherson and the rest of Novorossia will follow. If there is an economic collapse in the next few weeks or months as I expect that may happen sooner rather than later. As for what would happen to whatever rump Ukraine was left, shorn of the Donbas and possibly of its remaining eastern provinces and facing economic disaster, its prospects are bleak. Certainly its chances of joining NATO or the EU any time soon are I would say nil. Trapped in political limbo, there is a chance that in time more rational political forces may emerge that will seek some sort of rapprochement with Russia. How long that will take I do not know.
As for the DPR/LPR, they will surely become de facto part of Russia with which they will quickly integrate economically (eg. by adopting the rouble) even if for a time they remain nominally independent of it.