Will Zelensky Negotiate Donbas & Luhansk?

By Stephen Bryen

Today, Sunday February 20, 2022, in parallel announcements France and Russia have agreed to take urgent measures to halt the escalation in the eastern Ukraine (Donbas and Luhansk oblasts) and to resume work within the framework of the Normandy format.

The reference to the Normandy format refers to the Normandy group that consists of Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine.  The Normandy group has been trying to find a way forward on the Donbas confrontation.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been calling for a direct negotiation with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, but at least so far Russia has not answered Zelensky.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky

Russia insists it is not a party to the Donetsk dispute.  On a narrow legal basis, the Russian argument has some validity.  The Russians say that the only way to resolve the Donetsk and Luhansk conflict is under the Minsk II Protocol (that was agreed in 2015).  The key provision of the 2015 deal, as far as the Russians are concerned, is that Ukraine and the two breakaway republics would negotiate a deal that would end up with local autonomy for the two areas, but under Ukrainian law.  Like anything else, the devil is in the details, and since there has been no negotiation under the Minsk Protocol, any attempt to sort out a deal is moot.

Had negotiations taken place under the Minsk Protocols, not only would there be a ceasefire, but Russia would have been obliged to cease providing weapons and support to the two oblasts and would have been required to pull its forces back from the area.

There has been fighting around Donetsk and Luhansk for some time, with Ukrainian forces trying to take back these areas.  One of the reasons Ukraine has been getting anti-tank weapons from the United States and the UK, and killer drones (Bayraktar) from Turkey is, in the Russian view, an attempt to buttress Ukraine’s forces so they could successfully defeat the Donetsk and Luhansk rebels. 

There is a considerable disparity of forces between Ukraine and Donetsk and Luhansk. The two breakaway areas have around 20,000 troops. Ukraine has more than 150,000.  The Russians have supplied heavy equipment (tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, large caliber artillery, rockets, ammunition and other equipment (including from time-to-time BUK air defenses, the system that shot down Malaysian airline Flight 17 in 2014 over eastern Ukraine) so as to make it difficult and costly for Ukraine to take back these provinces.

MA-17 Reconstruction

At the same time, partly to stymie the Russians, NATO has officially taken a forward role in supporting Ukraine’s military capabilities, providing NATO advisers to the country (all or some of whom have been pulled out in the last two weeks).  In June 2020 NATO raised the ante significantly declaring that Ukraine was an Enhanced Opportunities Partner, seeking “deepened cooperation between Allies and partners that have made significant contributions to NATO-led operations and missions.”  Again, from the Russian point of view this came very close to Russia’s announced “red line” demanding that Ukraine not become a NATO member.

One of the clear reasons the Russians have massed forces in and around Ukraine may be to invade Ukraine, as the US and NATO apparently believe to be the case (notwithstanding Russian denials), but it is at least valid to think that the Russians and Donetsk and Luhansk are expecting a renewed attack on these provinces before Ukraine’s NATO membership is approved.  That helps explain, in part, why along with the Russian NATO “red line,” the Russians, through diplomatic channels, have been demanding security guarantees that would include a rollback on NATO expansion.

Complicating the overall problem, the US has been encouraging Ukraine to resist Russia and has not supported the Minsk II Protocol in any way.  Washington was never a party to the Minsk Protocols (2014, 2015) and never supported the call for autonomy negotiations promised in the 2015 Protocol.  In fact, the Obama and Biden administrations, less so than Trump, encouraged Ukraine’s membership in the European Community, supported the upheavals in Ukraine that drove out the then-pro-Moscow Ukrainian leader, Viktor Yanukovych after serious fighting particularly in Kiev (2014), strongly opposed Russian’s takeover in Crimea and support for Donbas and Luhansk, and is perhaps the driving force behind getting Ukraine into NATO.

Washington’s policy is a huge gamble.  It not only directly challenges the Russians, but should a conflict start and spread, it impacts security in eastern Europe and maybe beyond.

The balance of forces in Europe is quite uncertain.  There is no doubt Russia has a considerable advantage in manpower, armor, and firepower as well as mobile air defenses.  NATO, assuming NATO fights, lacks manpower, armor, firepower and sufficient air defenses but compensates somewhat by a stronger air force (at least technologically).  But the military numbers are far less important than the prospect of another murderous land war in Europe.

The calculus of war in Europe also has changed because the territorial dimension of a possible conflict has changed.  It is no longer a threat from the USSR and Warsaw Pact using shock forces to drive through the Fulda Gap, directly threatening Germany. Now the immediate threat is to the states added to NATO since the collapse of the USSR, namely the Baltic States and Poland especially.  These are especially attractive targets for the Russians and no doubt form a part of Russia’s contingency planning.

This gamble is something the Europeans would like to head off, mainly by resolving the Ukraine mess diplomatically.  The Germans especially are walking a political tightrope, trying to further negotiations but at the same time placating the US and “its NATO” because German security and prosperity depends on the United States.  The US stations its troops and aircraft primarily in Germany, and pays for the defense of the German state, alleviating the Germans from high defense costs and significant remilitarization, which still is a factor in Germany and Europe.  The Germans get the advantage of a robust economy and a high standard of living, but Germany also surrenders its independence and sovereignty in the process.  The Russians, who know the Germans and the French very well, are not sure that Europe can deliver an acceptable peace deal with the United States clearly pulling the chains.

All of this means that Europe has to persuade both Putin and Zelensky to come to terms while holding off US pressure opposing any such deal.  This is no easy task and it is made infinitely more difficult by rhetoric coming from the US and NATO exclaiming its rights to take in any state that asks for NATO membership, and by constantly demanding the preservation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

The Minsk II Protocol offers an opportunity for Ukraine to keep its provinces, even if under restrictive conditions.  The Protocol has nothing overtly to do with NATO or, for that matter, Ukrainian up-armament.  The problem for any Ukrainian politician is how to proceed with enough domestic political support to avoid a coup d’état either by the Ukrainian military or by ultra-nationalist forces.  In a sense the Normandy format could provide political cover for Zelensky, although to do so some way should have to be found to bring in Donetsk and Luhansk to be able to broker a deal. 

By now Zelensky should understand that if fighting starts, Ukraine is on its own.  NATO will not send troops. The US will only impose sanctions on Russia, something under which will harm Russia, but probably not to the degree the US hopes.  This perverse incentive for Zelensky may not be enough to buy him support at home: there isn’t yet any evidence that Zelensky has sought political help from the Ukrainian Rada (Verkhovna Rada, Ukrainian Parliament) to support a negotiated settlement, or even if he has a chance to get such support.

If the negotiation way forward fails in this last ditch undertaking by France’s President Emmanuel Macron, the Russians must decide what is next.  They could of course invade Ukraine, which will directly challenge the United States and NATO and set in motion a cascade of measures that go far beyond sanctions and threaten European security. Alternatively, Putin could take the advice of the Russian Duma (legislature) and award diplomatic recognition to Luhansk and Donetsk.  This would end for now the diplomatic process and could enable the Russian army to openly support Luhansk and Donetsk, even build military bases there.  What the US, NATO and Europe would do in response isn’t yet clear, but one can probably expect a raft of sanctions. 

A lot is at stake in Washington because the US policy of trying to scare down the Russians isn’t likely to work or achieve any objective Washington says it supports (preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity). Worse yet, a Biden failure in Ukraine probably will exacerbate internal tensions in NATO and harm the alliances credibility (already a bit in tatters). 

While there are many serious unremitting problems of Russia’s pressure on Ukraine including Russia’s willingness to mass troops and tanks trying to squeeze both the Ukrainians and NATO, ending the conflict, at least for now, requires Ukraine to want to negotiate before a tragedy unfolds.  That depends on Zelensky and his reserve of courage.

(Please circulate)