The war in the Donbas. Forecast for 2018

Valeriy Kravchenko

The exchange of hostages in the Donbas that happened on December 27, 2017  was truly long-awaited event. The importance of the exchange can not be overestimated, because it took place for the first time in the last 16 months. Preliminary arrangements were reached in early November, when the media reported on the active involvement of Putin’s crony Victor Medvedchuk in the process. A few days later, a telephone conversation between the Russian president and the leaders of the “DNR” and “LNR” (Alexander Zakharchenko and then Igor Plotnitskiy) allegedly took place.

The format of the exchange was the topic for the debate of the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk for more than a month and a half. Final scheme agreed has provided the exchange of 74 Ukrainian captives for 306 detained in Ukraine persons, which the illegal regime of the temporarily occupied territories was interested in.

It was those whom they were interested in, not “combat brothers” and victims of political repression, as in the case of the Ukrainian list for exchange. After all, many of those who were agreed to exchange, did not want to return to the “DNR / LNR”, choosing the Ukrainian prison to separatist “freedom.”

Although data from various sources differ (Irina Gerashchenko, Viktor Medvedchuk, “Hromadske”), it turns out that in general about 235 people were sent to Lugansk and Donetsk. But, most importantly, Ukraine withdrew all 74 agreed hostages – no one wanted to stay with the occupiers.

However, not all were taken away – according to the SBU data there are 107 Ukrainian hostages imprisoned by pro-Russian militants at the temporarily occupied territories. And the work on their release is just beginning.

Settlement in Donbas: Moscow does not give up

The ice was broken, and some experts are already seeing a peaceful settlement that awaits the long-suffering region in 2018, with the good will of the Russian aggressor. The author of these lines is not among the optimists on this issue. The exchange of hostages should be treated solely as a mundane fact of war.

This thesis confirms the disrupted “New Year-Christmas” armistice, which is now being violated by pro-Russian militants with regular mortar shelling (the number of which, however, has decreased).

Russia’s aggressive rhetoric about Ukraine, especially after the US decision to sell lethal weapons to Kyiv, only worsened. The deterrent for Moscow now is the presidential elections in March 2018 and the Football World Cup, which will be held in Russia in June-July 2018. Currently, the Kremlin has taken a break and will be posed as a responsible international player. Only pose itself, because the revanchist goals of Russian policy have not been canceled.

Peacekeepers in the Donbas may never appear

The idea of ​​attracting UN peacekeepers to the Donbas is slowly dying. Last week, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Grigory Karasin very unambiguously spoke on this topic: Russia will not allow the work of UN peacekeepers throughout the Donbas, including its border.

Asked whether the “blue helmets” will appear in the east of Ukraine in 2018, he replied: “I hope that next year we will be able to take steps in this direction, but this progress should not take place for the price of the political interests of Donetsk and Lugansk. ”

“We can see from the resolution we proposed that the main task of peacekeepers should be to ensure the security of the OSCE special monitoring mission. We see artificial attempts to change this concept towards introducing some kind of external administration in the southeast with overlapping of the border between the Donbas and Russia,” Karasin said.

The game around pseudo-separatist formations is successfully continuing, including the international arena. Knowingly in Helsinki, where the European Center for Combating Hybrid Threats was established in September 2017, in December, another “representation of the Donetsk People’s Republic” was demonstratively opened. This is a direct signal of Moscow to Europe regarding the direction of its political orientation.

Moreover, Russia is ready to move from the wait-and-see attitude to the offensive by the hands of aggressive puppets in Donetsk and Lugansk. Probably, a change of power occurred in Lugansk in November 2018 could be considered for the Kremlin by their new ambitions (not by domestic economic factors).

Moscow is ready to talk with Kyiv about the border only after the modalities of the Minsk agreements have been implemented. It means the necessity of drafting the law on the special status for the temporarily occupied territories (meaning a completely different law in fact, and not the one that was presented by the President Poroshenko in the Verkhovna Rada), the law on elections and the amnesty law. The latter is of exceptional importance.

But there is no mention of an international administration in the Russian vision of a peaceful settlement, which is understandable: Russia today has 100% influence on ORDLO (occupied territories of Donetsk and Lugansk regions) – why should it reduce it on its own?

International Provisional Administration for Donbas: an example of Saarland

Meanwhile, expert circles in Ukraine today are considering the possibility of implementing the format of the international provisional administration in the Donbas under the leadership of the United Nations. This scenario is broader than the simple introduction of military peacekeepers and provides for a gradual settlement – at the level of security and disarmament, the settlement of economic issues and the model of civil administration of the territories, as well as the final political resolution.

The proposed model of international involvement in the management of disputed territories was used several times in history. One case is not indicative for Ukraine – it is the post-war regime of Berlin in 1945 with the division of the city into allied zones of influence.

The second case is more typical: in 1920-1935 Saarland was considered as a part of Germany, but was occupied by the administration of the Allies, then, on a plebiscite, returned as the “Western Frontier Mark”. It is the model of Saar’s administration, under the mandate of the League of Nations, that can be used for a peaceful settlement in the Donbas.

According to the Versailles Treaty of 1919, the industrialized Saarland (another parallel with the Donbas) was to be ruled by Great Britain and France under the mandate of the League of Nations for 15 years. France used the coalfields.

During this time, the Commission of five representatives of the winning countries managed Saarland. Under the terms of the mandate, the commission included at least one Frenchman and one Saar German. At the end of the international administration, the plebiscite determined the future status of the Saarland.

The modified version of the Saarland settlement for the Donbas provides the distribution of responsibility for peace in the region between the main stakeholders. It is also an opportunity for Russia (if it really wants to) to leave the game with its head held high.

Disposition for 2018

However, today Moscow chose another historical precedent as a model for Donbas conflict settlement – the cultural and economic autonomy of the South Tyrol in 1971 as part of Italy. This model fits better into the myth of the protection of the Russian-speaking population. Moreover, it has correlated with the economically pragmatic motivation of the Donbas population, historically hostile to foreigners, especially when the latter do not promise them gold mountains.

Unfortunately, the end of the conflict in the Donbas should not be expected in 2018. It will continue and used by Moscow as a situational spoiler in relations with Ukraine and the West.

As soon as Russia “closed” the issue of Crimea in the international rhetoric, it is unlikely to be at least slightly ajar with the help of a new, already third, UN General Assembly resolution on human rights on the peninsula.

However, the approximation of the electoral cycle in Ukraine creates conditions for internal political manipulation, the peak of which will be in autumn 2018. Therefore, we should not harass ourselves with vain illusions and New Year’s promises of peace. We still have to win it.