When Russia’s foreign minister meets tomorrow in Geneva with his counterparts from the European Union, Ukraine, and the United States, he can expect a long critique of how the Kremlin is to blame for the crisis in Ukraine’s restive east.
From the West’s point of view, Russia, having exploited disorder in Kiev to annex Crimea in a lightning military-backed operation, is now promoting unrest around eastern Ukraine with the possible intent of annexing those territories as well. US officials claim Russian instigation is the major factor behind the recent seizures of administrative and police buildings across the Donbass region. Both Kiev and Washington have claimed that Russian special forces are probably spearheading the occupations, just as they did last month in Crimea.
But the West has also played a role in inflaming unrest by consistently erring in its understanding of and response to events in Ukraine, Kremlin-connected experts say. They add, however, that a peaceful solution may still be possible – and any annexation ruled out – through reforms in Ukraine that devolve powers to the eastern regions and enshrine a permanent non-aligned status in the Constitution.
The view from the East
According to the Russian narrative, Washington and Brussels first went wrong by greatly overestimating the popular support and democratic credentials of the “Maidan” opposition forces that took power in Kiev in a street-backed revolt in February. And Western leaders doubled down on that mistake by rushing to support the legally dubious interim government, even though it virtually lacked representation from the country’s east.
Next, Russian analysts say, the West underestimated the depth of alienation in the east once Ukraine’s unelected government started making controversial decisions. Kiev’s signature on an EU association agreement – which the legal government of Viktor Yanukovych had backed away from – and its acceptance of tough financial terms from the International Monetary Fund have sweeping economic and political implications for the entire country, but the east’s concerns were ignored.
Moscow’ also says that the US in particular erred by giving its backing to Kiev’s efforts to subdue resistance in eastern Ukraine with military force – even though Western leaders had strongly warned Mr. Yanokovych’s regime not to use police force against the Maidan protesters earlier in the crisis.
“The West insists on blaming Russia for all of this, yet they might have taken a more sensible position at any time and reined in those Ukrainian authorities,” says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst who’s spent much of the past two months advising pro-Russia forces in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. “Things could have taken a very different path if the West had just seen the situation with clear eyes.”
Agents on the ground?
Of key concern for the West is Russia’s alleged direct involvement in Ukraine’s east, both in the form of agents on the ground and the 40,000-plus Russian troops that NATO has repeatedly saidare poised near Ukraine’s borders. The US, EU, and Ukraine seem almost certain to come to Geneva arguing that Moscow needs to defuse the situation by pulling out its forces, both overt and covert.
Some leading Russian experts are surprisingly candid about the likely involvement of Russian secret services in Ukraine, given that the Kremlin staunchly denies it. But, most add, Crimea was a special case, and Moscow’s goals in eastern Ukraine are to ensure rights and local self-government for the Russian-speaking population there, not to incorporate those lands into Russia.
“As to Russian special services involvement [in eastern Ukraine], it would be silly to deny it. What did you expect? This is Russia’s backyard, and these are our people. Do you think they would be left without support?” says Viktor Baranets, a former Defense Ministry spokesman and military expert with the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda.
Mr. Baranets claims Russia has evidence that US contract soldiers have been advising Ukraine’s government forces, using the cover of a private company, Greystone, according to Russian media reports. He adds that CIA director John Brennan’s weekend visit to Kiev, which he unsuccessfully tried to keep secret, was part of a wider US effort to aid Kiev in putting out the fires of rebellion in the east.
‘The only way out is through negotiations’
Most experts say that Moscow’s endgame is probably to force a solution on Ukraine that will involve permanent non-aligned status, Russian as the second official language, and an as-yet unclear process of decentralizing power to weaken Kiev’s authority.
Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a leading Moscow think tank, says Russian agitators by themselves couldn’t possibly have brought large numbers of eastern Ukrainians into the streets, or prompted Ukrainian troops to defect from their units.
“The main problem is that the new authorities in Kiev imagined that they could unilaterally reshape economic realities in eastern Ukraine without taking into account the interests of powerful groups there, especially in Donetsk,” he says.
Former President Yanukovych hails from Donetsk, which has about 10 percent of Ukraine’s population and a larger percentage of its raw materials and heavy industry. Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and a long-time associate of Yanukovych who owns a good deal of eastern Ukraine’s industry, has been positioning himself as a “mediator” between the protesters and Kiev, but experts say he is surely fighting hard behind the scenes to save his business empire.
“Russia understands Ukraine. Russian intelligence knows the situation on the ground in Donetsk and these other regions, and it knows how to step in and work with the people there,” Mr. Lukyanov adds. “Not only the West, but these authorities in Kiev do not possess such deep knowledge.”
But Moscow also knows there is no majority support in these regions for joining Russia.
“There are some who support breaking away from Ukraine, but even among the activists they are a minority,” says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.
“Many support the idea of federalization, they want more autonomy, and they display Russian flags as symbols of protest against Kiev. This is well understood in Moscow, and there are no plans” to repeat the Crimea scenario, he says. “The only way out of this is through negotiations, and the Russian side fully expects that there can be compromises reached in Geneva tomorrow that will lead to real relaxation of the tensions in Ukraine.”