IN MOSCOW'S SHADOWS: Cautious optimism for Ukraine

By bne IntelliNews June 2, 2014

Mark Galeotti of New York University -


Pandora’s box contains all kinds of miseries and maladies, but hope emerges last of all. Likewise, four seemingly-alarming developments in the running Ukrainian conflict actually bear within them hints of — cautious, conditional — optimism.

First, a new player, the mysterious and predominantly-Chechen Vostok (East) Battalion, suddenly appears in the eastern Donbass region, and begins asserting its authority in no uncertain terms, seizing the militia headquarters in Donetsk and setting up checkpoints.

Meanwhile, the "minister of defense" of the self-declared "Donbass Peoples’ Republic," the mysterious Russian Ivan Girkin, going by his nom de guerre Strelkov, announces draconian laws against disorder in the ranks. Two alleged looters are summarily executed.

Russian troops are, as promised, pulled back from Ukraine’s border — but not that far. The moves are used as an opportunity to resupply them and rotate in fresh troops, so that arguably Moscow will actually be in a better position if it did want to invade Ukraine in the coming weeks than it was a couple of weeks ago.

Finally, at the Berlin talks convened by the EU, Kyiv commits to wiring Moscow  $786m as an initial down-payment on a gas bill that is anything from $3.5bn to $5.2bn. The Russians say this is not enough to do more than allow the conversation to continue, and refuse to rule out stopping supply to Ukraine.

How can these be presented as grounds for any kind of hope?

Moscow's writ

Moscow’s aim remains to be able to force some kind of deal on Kyiv, terms which will see Ukraine acknowledge Russia’s hegemonic authority in Eurasia. Until now, there has been no one in Kyiv with the will or political authority to make a deal on the kind of terms which Moscow is demanding. To this end, the first-round presidential election of Petro Poroshenko, whose track record is as a pragmatic dealmaker rather than a fiery ideologue, offers a brief window of opportunity.

At present, he has the mandate of the victor, his rivals are licking their wounds, and there is no clear opposition. Maybe, just maybe, Poroshenko will be willing to moderate his talk of speedy movement towards the EU (for which, it must be said, there is almost zero genuine enthusiasm within the EU) and cut a deal.

Of course, any deal will require Russia to offer to damp down the flames in eastern Ukraine. The tragic irony is that Moscow’s strategy of chaos has worked too well. Having decided to fight this non-linear conflict largely at arm’s length, through local allies, gangsters, mercenaries, opportunists, deserters and adventurers, the Kremlin is coming to understand that this is a phenomenon easier to start than stop.

This is war on the cheap, but also war off the reservation, something they cannot readily control. It is eating away not just at the cohesion of the rump Ukrainian state but also the emergent East Ukrainians, too. There have been increasing numbers of disputes between militias, looting in Donetsk, kidnappings, protection racketeering under the guide of "taxation."

The arrival of the Vostok Battalion, as well as Strelkov’s new decree (modeled explicitly on a 1941 Soviet order) represent the start of efforts to bring some sort of order to this chaos.

The Vostok Battalion is undoubtedly a creation of the GRU, Russian military intelligence. A Chechen unit of the same name had been raised and run by the GRU, recruited from former guerrillas. It had a reputation as a tough, hard-fighting unit, but it was disbanded after the 2008 Georgian War not because it was not good at its job — far from it — but rather for reasons of politics. Vostok was commanded by the Yamadaevs, fierce rivals of Chechen warlord-president Ramzan Kadyrov, and he demanded that all Chechen units be under his control.

Nonetheless, the GRU kept in touch with its veterans and placed many within other positions, both out of loyalty and a more pragmatic belief that a cadre of experienced Chechen throat-slitters might prove useful in the future. Now, with the need to deploy forces into Eastern Ukraine that are deniable but at the same time more disciplined and effective than the militias, Moscow seems to have turned to the "Vostochniki." After all, this is just the kind of bandit-war at which they excel.

This is not a straightforward reconstruction of the old unit, as it includes some non-Chechens and volunteers who were never in the old force. It appears to be a hybrid "patriotic mercenary" unit of volunteers happy for a fight, for a chance to get back with their comrades, and for pay. Either way, the likelihood is that the GRU is behind it, and its main targets are not Ukrainian government forces but the more fractious maverick militias.

Likewise, the troop movements — pulled back, but being kept at combat readiness — suggest a desire to see a deal. This is the very essence of Moscow’s current approach: there is no point in its trying to pretend it is not threatening Ukraine. Of course it is. But it is seeking to calibrate the threat, to ensure that it is evident, real and visible, but not destabilizing. By reducing the scope for a sudden, surprise attack, the aim is to provide some room for confidence that Moscow’s more conciliatory rhetorical line is not just an effort to lull Kyiv before an assault.

As with the gas talks, at least there is a dialogue. Moscow is not going to make it easy for Kyiv – quite the opposite. But nor does it have any interest in making it impossible, in backing Poroshenko (and, by extension, the West) into a corner. Instead, the haggling has begun. It was inevitable that Moscow was not going to greet Kyiv’s first offer over the gas debt with tears of joy and reconciliation — but it has expressed its willingness to talk further. Likewise, withdrawing its forces a little shows that an end to the military confrontation is possible, but they are kept at a sharp edge lest Kyiv take that for granted.

In short, all these developments suggest that the conflict has genuinely reached a new phase, once where the question is not whether there is scope for negotiation, but what the price of peace will be. It is still entirely possible that this will come to nothing. Putin has put too much personal and geopolitical capital into this adventure not to come out of it with something that he can at least claim as a win. Poroshenko may not be able or willing to offer the kind of compromises to Ukrainian sovereignty and political unity that the Kremlin requires. Still, when the conversation talks to the price, and one side starts gift-wrapping the goods, there is some scope for tentative hope.

Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SCPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University, who writes the blog "In Moscow's Shadows"

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