MOSCOW BLOG: Ukraine invasion day – not

MOSCOW BLOG: Ukraine invasion day – not
Tensions have eased in the last 24 hours as Russia pulls some of its troops on Ukraine's border out, but a law passed by the Duma to recognise the breakaway republics in Donbas shifts the game. If the Minsk II accords can be pushed through then that could end both the crisis and the fighting. / WIKI
By Ben Aris in Berlin February 16, 2022

Today is the day that US President Joe Biden said Russia would invade Ukraine. Except of course it hasn't. Actually it's the day where some Russian troops have been withdrawn. The Russian MoD released video of arms leaving the Crimea over the Russian bridge back to the Motherland.

It's a gesture by the Kremlin and actually a very clever counter to Biden’s extremely vocal “it's about to kick off” comments as it makes the US look stupid. Of course there have been several “Russia blinked” takes on events but given the widespread disbelief in the invasion in the first place – and not just bne IntelliNews which has been arguing from the start that an invasion is “highly unlikely” – there have been surprisingly few of these.

The other big news of yesterday was the (non-binding) Duma vote to recognise the breakaway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region.  

This is a threat. If Putin signs off on this law then that effectively kills off the Minsk II process and will see the Donbas leave Ukraine forever. It would also probably lead to an escalation of the fighting as the rebels control the two cities but they would want to take the whole Donbas region out of Ukraine, some of which is still controlled by Kyiv.

It's a carrot and stick strategy. The troop withdrawals ratchet down the military tensions, but the Duma recognition law ups the threat of dismembering Ukraine further – and by nominally peaceful means. The Kremlin has been preparing this scenario for ages and has already handed out over 700,000 Russian passports to about half of the local residents to give this move some legitimacy.

I’m wondering if this was not the plan all along: make an impossible demand of “no Nato” and pump up the tensions to klaxon levels, but use it to jump start the Minsk II process and then ease off as the West, not Russia, starts to put heavy pressure on Kyiv to push the agreement through.

The beauty of this plan is everyone, except Kyiv, wants the Minsk II deal to be implemented and keeps saying so. If it goes through then the upshot is you have forced a humiliating concession on Kyiv, but one that nominally maintains Ukraine’s territorial integrity and also brings the fighting in the East to an end. Superficially it will look like a good deal as all the boxes on both sides will be checked, with the exception of the fact that in reality Kyiv will have lost control of Donbas, which will have a veto over Ukraine ever joining Nato.

Credence was added to this theory today as the Kyiv Independent reports that both 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 deal. If true (highly likely) then the EU is doing Putin’s dirty work for him.

Briefly the issue here is that the Russians want the constitution changed so that Donbas becomes a full autonomous region inside Ukraine, whereas the Ukrainian version is just “de-centralisation” where Kyiv retains control over the local legislators. (For a deeper discussion of this watch our webinar “Ukraine from the ground” with Jock Mendoza-Wilson here, or listen to the podcast version here.)

Having been very pessimistic I’m now feeling more encouraged as I can see this plan working. The bottom line is that Europe really doesn't want a war in its backyard more than it cares about Ukrainian pride. It’s an ugly solution as Russia has been a bully and ends up with what it wants, but then as I said, superficially the West also gets to say it's protected its values and even that technically Ukraine’s membership of Nato is not off the table when in practice it is.

Separately, our correspondent Neil Hauer was in Mariupol, the big port on the Sea of Azov just 10km from the frontline and has filed a dispatch on what life is like there. The other practical upshot of implementing the Minsk deal is that even if it is politically ugly, peace will transform things on-the-ground for cities like this and Ukraine should boom. It is getting almost no investment at the moment because of all these problems, but the market and investors won’t care who calls the shots if there is peace and predictability. Peace at any price? Well, maybe in this case.

This article first appeared as the blurb in bne IntelliNews’ EDITOR’S PICKS, a daily email digest of the best articles from the last 24 hours delivered free to your inbox. Click here to see the back issues and to sign up.