February 9, 2015

Hotel Kremlifornia

Another agreement is in the making for Ukraine. Maybe. Or maybe not. The details of latest diplomatic push from European dignitaries have not been fully revealed; the eventual summit in Minsk, tentatively scheduled for this coming Wednesday (February 11), is said to be hinging on whether some unspecified details can be agreed upon between diplomats before Their Excellencies embark on their flights to Belarus. By the time this piece is published (it is Monday morning as of this writing), we will probably know if there was indeed a summit, and if any deal was struck. Hence, I will not speculate about the nuts and bolts of this particular initiative, but rather deliberate on what kind a deal can be achieved at all.

Let’s start from this question: what does Russia want? For all we know, the dream of dreams would be having an outright puppet government in Kyiv, eager to fulfill any desire of the puppet master in the Kremlin. Of course, that is a Cloud Cuckooland scenario for now. Descending a notch closer to reality, the Kremlin may be happy with an incredibly corrupt government that is despised but reluctantly accepted by the Ukrainian people—a government that is thoroughly economically and politically dependent on Moscow. However, the Kremlin hardly has a chance to succeed at getting one, since the whole political avalanche in Kyiv began with ousting exactly this type of administration. Thus, lowering expectations one more notch, we are looking at the emergence of a Ukrainian government that, while enjoying fairly widespread popular support, has its freedom of action severely limited by an ongoing insurgency that can be intensified any time the Kremlin thinks that Kyiv is starting to misbehave.
What’s noteworthy in this scenario is that it is not the physical extent of rebel-held territory that matters most (although pushing its edges westward would tactically strengthen the separatists’ hands in negotiations—assuming there are any to begin with) but the ability of Russia to resupply insurgents and send in more “polite green men” at the first sign of their proxies’ wavering. In other words, conditions for this outcome—keeping the conflict simmering—are clearly set.
Now, is there any agreement that Russia will not accept? Full control of Ukrainian government over its borders, withdrawal of all foreign fighters (voluntary and non-voluntary), disarmament of rebel gangs—these are a few provisions that spring to mind. One might say that this is a perfectly reasonable approach; to give national reconciliation a chance, the situation surely has to be defused, levels of violence brought down, and some sort of political process started without outside meddling. While would hold true if the question were about popular reaction to some grievance—real or perceived—this is not the case, as the stakes are much higher. What we are looking at is a systemic challenge to the global security architecture, an ongoing attempt to show that the UN Charter (Article 2, paragraph 4: All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations) do not matter; that Helsinki Final Act of 1975 (its Articles II through IV: Refraining from the threat or use of force, Inviolability of frontiers, Territorial integrity of States) are worth nothing more than a piece of paper now. And to dot our i’s and cross our t’s, if anyone still has doubts about the nature of Russia’s actions, the (alas, non-binding) UN General Assembly Resolution 3314 has a name for these actions (Article 3 paragraph (b) Bombardment by the armed forces of a State against the territory of another State or the use of any weapons by a State against the territory of another State; and (g) The sending by or on behalf of a State of armed bands, groups, irregulars or mercenaries, which carry out acts of armed force against another State of such gravity as to amount to the acts listed above, or its substantial involvement therein): aggression.
So, to recap: Russia is effectively rewriting the global rulebook. It has carefully calibrated the scope of its actions: providing enough support to rebels while keeping the conflict going, intervening when the government in Kyiv appears to be succeeding, without crossing the threshold of deniability. The weapons and ammunition remaining in Russia’s Cold War stockpiles can secure supply convoys for another couple of years if not longer. Why on Earth, then, should Russia accept any diplomatic solution whatsoever? They are having their way already. The name of the restore-the-Empire game is Hotel Kremlifornia: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!

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