Vladimir Putin Is Not Planning Annexation of Ukraine Enclaves, But Diplomacy Is Flailing

Karl-Georg Wellmann, a representative in the German parliament, flew to Moscow Sunday night on a behind-the-scenes mission to help break the deadlock in eastern Ukraine. But when he landed at Sheremetyevo Airport, border officials denied him entry, without any explanation, until 2019. Wellmann, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, had to spend the night in a transit lounge and was escorted onto the first flight home the next morning.

Wellmann raised a storm in German and Russian media, and Merkel’s government lodged an official complaint with the Kremlin. Although he was known as a critic of Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict, Wellmann said he had been invited by Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s committee on foreign affairs, and Sergei Glazyev, an adviser to President Vladimir Putin. He didn’t have plans to meet with Russian opposition leaders.

It’s a worrisome sign when the back channels of German diplomacy clog up. Merkel, the main guarantor of the so-called Minsk protocol, is doing her best to save the shaky peace agreement between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government. But as the war grinds on as a low-level conflict, the biggest weakness of the deal is becoming clear: None of the parties see it as the start to a lasting peace settlement.

The Minsk agreement, originally signed in September and amended in February, provides useful alibis to all sides: to Ukraine that it’s pursuing the reintegration of breakaway regions by peaceful means; to Russia that it’s just a concerned, peace-loving neighbor; and to the West that it did everything to end the fighting. With the exception of the rebel representatives — who are motivated by Mad Max-style mayhem more than nation-building — all sides tirelessly repeat that “there can be no military solution to the conflict.” What nobody can say aloud is that Minsk is also not the solution; it was only intended to stanch Ukraine’s bleeding.

Russia occupied and annexed Crimea last year in the power vacuum following then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s unexpected flight from anti-government protests in Kiev. When heavily armed pro-Russian fighters then began seizing administrative buildings in eastern Ukraine, the country’s provisional leaders launched a haphazard “anti-terrorist operation”; they were soon caught in the dilemma of repeating the Crimean fiasco or provoking a full-scale Russian invasion. The Ukrainians only started to get a grip on the insurgency after the election a year ago of President Petro Poroshenko, who energized the fight against the separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

By the beginning of July, the Donetsk rebel commander, a former Russian special ops officer named Igor Girkin, was complaining that locals weren’t interested in fighting and called for direct Russian military assistance. In late August, just as it looked as if the rebel supply lines would be cut, regular Russian troops poured across the border to the rescue, routing Ukrainian forces at the rail junction of Ilovaisk. With his army shattered and the strategic port of Mariupol under threat, Poroshenko sued for peace in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

As a peace agreement, there’s nothing wrong with the Minsk document, which includes all the right words about the cessation of hostilities, de-escalation, local elections, and reconciliation. The problem is that Russia plays a double role — as a disinterested observer on paper and an active party to the conflict in the field. Poroshenko has no choice but to play along in this charade or take the blame for a collapse of the peace process. Western powers cling to the accord because they have no Plan B.

Minsk’s first provision, calling for an immediate cease-fire, was never implemented. Even after the original document was signed, the separatists advanced, hammering Ukrainian-held pockets such as the transport hub of Debaltseve and the Donetsk airport. Merkel sprang into action in February as voices grew louder in Washington to arm Ukraine. Concerned about an escalation in fighting, Merkel shuttled to Kiev, Moscow, and finally Minsk. French President François Hollande went along to show that Europe — and not Germany alone — was taking the lead.

The so-called Minsk-2 agreement that resulted from Merkel’s efforts was essentially a reaffirmation of the original protocol. As if to show what they thought of the deal, the pro-Russian rebels continued their assault on Debaltseve and overran the town less than a week later.

The war in Ukraine has since disappeared from the headlines, yet the fighting and the dying continue in isolated spots. No progress has been made in turning the conflict into a dialog — mainly because the pro-Russian forces never had any political demands besides holding a referendum to leave Ukraine. If anything is clear now, it’s that Putin doesn’t plan to annex the separatist regions but use them instead to sabotage Ukraine from the inside. The Kremlin is trying to “localize” the conflict by training and equipping a rebel army that can stand on its own, while insisting that Poroshenko negotiate with Moscow’s proxy leaders.

Poroshenko has practically no room to maneuver. Putin’s advantage is his unpredictability. The Kremlin has stubbornly denied the presence of active-duty Russian military personnel in eastern Ukraine, even as troops and equipment again mass along the border. Only 37 percent of Russians believe that there are no Russian soldiers in Ukraine, according to a poll by the independent Levada Center. Another 38 percent say that even if there are Russian soldiers in Ukraine, their government is right to lie about it; 11 percent think that denying the presence of Russian personnel is detrimental to finding a peaceful solution.

The mountain of evidence showing the Kremlin’s involvement keeps growing for the world to see. Earlier this month, the Ukrainian army captured two Russian soldiers in the Luhansk region and brought them to a Kiev hospital to recover from their wounds. The two men told their story to Pavel Kanygin, a correspondent for the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, in a series of interviews published over the past week. Captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Sergeant Alexander Alexandrov said they were active-duty Russian army soldiers from Samara, contradicting claims by the Russian Defense Ministry that they had resigned. Both men expressed dismay that their government had disowned them and that their relatives were too scared to take their phone calls.

On Thursday, Putin ordered that troop deaths in peace-time “special operations” be classified as a state secret. While the Kremlin denied any link to events in Ukraine, Putin isn’t taking any chances. As much as possible, he wants to increase the burden on his proxies in Donetsk and Luhansk. With European Union sanctions against Russia coming up for review in June, Putin is keeping all his options open.

Merkel, like other Western leaders, has said that no sanctions relief will be considered until the Minsk peace agreement is implemented. What leverage she has left is another question. Just a year-and-a-half ago, German diplomats succeeded in negotiating the release of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Putin’s greatest rival. Today an envoy from Merkel’s party can’t even get out of the Moscow airport.

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