The end of Novorossiya: Putin on the verge of defeat



2014/12/12 • Op-ed

Article by: Ivan Iakovyna

The next round of talks on stabilizing the situation in eastern Ukraine were slated to take place in Minsk on December 9 [though on December 12 the date still has not determined]. The plans are to focus less on new peace initiatives and more on forging a mechanism to allow the implementation of agreements that had been reached back in September but were not fulfilled.

The situation now is fundamentally different than it was back in September. Back in September Ukraine was in a losing position. The infamous Battle of Ilovaisk had just taken place and the Ukrainian military had suffered a severe blow. President Poroshenko was seeking a way to stabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine not only to halt Russia’s advance on Mariupol but to carve out some time for parliamentary elections, hoping to gain reasonable support.

In many ways the September agreements that were reached were far from ideal for Ukraine and Kyiv reacted with a great deal of criticism. Kyiv was dissatisfied with the political part of the agreement: the militants in Donbas were given de facto recognition, it was agreed that they could keep the occupied territory, and a certain “special status” would be guaranteed that was perceived by many to be a first step in federalizing the country following the Kremlin’s directions.

It’s true that neither the Ukrainian leadership nor the separatist leaders proceeded to fulfill their obligations in any serious way. In Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts illegal and unrecognized local elections were held and that gave Kyiv grounds to ignore the political and financial obligations that had been reached in the agreement. The ceasefire and withdrawal of troops which had been agreed upon in the memorandum also did not take place.

It seemed there were no significant changes in the conflict zone after the agreement. Yet it only seemed that way. The overall situation around the frozen conflict evolved quite rapidly and almost always in Ukraine’s favor.

Firstly, President Putin was completely ostracized by the western leaders and China at the G20 Summit in Brisbane. The chief of the Kremlin was made to understand that no one believes his lies about Russian claims of non-intervention in Ukraine. He was also made to understand that if he continues to fan the flames the most severe sanctions will be implemented, including the exclusion of the Russian banks from SWIFT, “the global provider of secure messaging services.” That would be a severe blow to Russia’s financial institutions, all the more since they are already on shaky ground. With that threat the western leaders have actually defused the danger that Russian-supported separatists will further escalate the conflict. Any attacks on Mariupol or Debaltseve would now be a death blow to Russian banks and to the whole economy.

Secondly, with the coming of winter it has become evident that the separatist leadership is incapable of providing any kind of normal life for the inhabitants in the occupied territories without external financial support. Bitterly cold Donetsk and Luhansk find themselves on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. Smaller towns have already crossed the line: if we are to name things what they are, there is famine in the towns. Old people in particular are suffering. With the absence of functioning social and medical agencies the old people are slowly dying in their freezing homes with no food or medicines.

Thirdly, the separatist groups are wrangling over the dwindling resources and over retaining the support of Moscow. The possibility that a unified leadership in the so-called DPR and LPR can or will emerge is non-existent. Because they are fragmented, because there is an absence of a unified leadership they are unable and unwilling to abide by the ceasefire. That circumstance makes it impossible for them to agree on what their strategic objectives are. There are those who want independence, some want to join Russia, and others want broad autonomy within Ukraine. Until recently each group had its supporters in Moscow and each sought Putin’s political support.

By the beginning of December, the overall status of the separatists deteriorated. The hope that after the Battle of Ilovaisk Ukraine would agree to recognize the separatists and would agree to provide an official plan to federalize eastern Ukraine has been dashed. The isolation of the occupied territories from any financial means has led to the crash of the local economy. Moscow has ended up with a bunch of armed people, a destabilized region, and a famished and freezing population.

The Russian leadership is left with four options:

  • To escalate the conflict and to force the Ukrainian side to declare federalization and to take on the responsibility for Donbas and its people
  • To drop the Novorossia project, let the people fend for themselves, close off the border to Russia and  admit and declare defeat
  • To freeze the conflict by absorbing Donbas and its resources
  • To try to achieve the original objectives through negotiation

The first option has been rejected by the hawks in the Kremlin citing the above-mentioned reasons (collapse of the economy, social upheaval and popular unrest).

The second option is unacceptable for ideological reasons. The Russian people who for over a year have been told that “those are our people” will be unable to comprehend or to accept such a decision. Today already men like Strelkov-Girkin are explicitly blaming the Kremlin for betraying “Novorossia” and are gaining popularity among the most conservative segment of Russian society. Besides, in Moscow everyone understands that abandoning Donbas will not lift the international sanctions that are in place. Crimea is next in line. For the Kremlin it is essential to keep stoking instability in eastern Ukraine for as long as possible. Capitulation is not an option.

The third option is too burdensome financially. There are approximately two million people left in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. The federal budget of Russia can barely fulfill its obligations to its own people due to falling oil prices. Russia simply cannot afford to take on so many more people. At the same time, Russia cannot afford to let people in those regions die from cold and hunger on a massive scale – just like capitulation would be incomprehensible and unacceptable, a scenario like that would likewise be incomprehensible and unacceptable. So it is plausible that some sort of humanitarian aid will be brought into Donbas. There will, however, be no full-scale aid offered to the region: that would constitute a de facto recognition that Russia is the occupier and it would amount to a disavowal of the strategic goal: the federalization of Ukraine with the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as agents of Russian influence in Kyiv and in the country.

There is a final, fourth option: negotiations. The Russian leadership is no longer hiding the fact that soon they hope to achieve their stated goal, which is to control Donbas within Ukraine. There is no more talk of independence for the region or of the region becoming part of Russia. Putin has said as much: “Ukraine and eastern Ukraine need each other.” He made the statement despite the fact that in his early speeches he referred to Donbas as “Novorossia” denying Ukraine the historical right to rule in those regions.

If the strategic goal of the Kremlin is to reintegrate the separatist region into Ukraine, then the tactical goal is one the Kremlin hopes to achieve in the long-term: to force Kyiv to put the leaders of the militants on Kyiv’s government payroll. To accomplish that Putin is planning to use Ukrainian prisoners as hostages. Several days ago he said, “Russia […] supports the inclusion of additional steps in the prisoner exchanges and of course assumes that the economy will be re-established. Any policy that might block the development of that region will be eliminated.”

Since the agreement about prisoner exchanges had been concluded in September (though it hadn’t been implemented), the “additional steps” in conjunction with “any policy that might block the development of that region will be eliminated” can only mean one thing: the Kremlin intends to sell Ukrainian prisoners and use the money to subsidize the DPR and LPR. Of course this sounds unbelievably cynical, but it is wholly in the style of the Russian president – nothing surprising here.

At the same time, a hunt is on for those leaders of the so-called republics who seek to exercise at least some kind of independence. Russian special operations and their minions get rid of the business warlords by either exiling them to Russia or by sending them to “a better world.” Supporters of independence for Donbas, the genuine separatists are eliminated especially violently.

In reality there is a vertical power structure (appended to Russia) being built in Donbas based on negative selection: wanted are the most unscrupulous yes-men, stupid and obedient, ready and willing to follow directives from Moscow. Men like Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the so-called DNR. Inasmuch as the fighting has been cut back, he and his ilk are expected to do only one thing – to submit to being controlled while pretending to be in control.

The purpose of these proceedings is obvious. It is to have a uniform structure in place which, as a source has quoted, the Kremlin planned “to push on Ukraine under the guise of an agreement on some kind of autonomy.” Whether Putin will be able to execute his plan depends largely on the Ukrainian leadership.

After the catastrophe in Ilovaisk Kyiv admitted that the crisis cannot be resolved militarily. The new preferred strategy is in principle correct: containment of Russia on both the military and diplomatic fronts and cutting off the separatist enclaves from any kind of funding sources. And the main part of the strategy which politically is very hard to do is to actually relinquish the sovereignty of the occupied regions.

Vladimir Putin’s entire line of attack was based on the premise that Ukraine would fight fiercely to keep Donbas while funding it (this was the same tactic that was used in Chechnya). Putin thought that his attacks on Ukraine would drain the country emotionally and financially and that Kyiv would come around to agree to the Kremlin’s federalization scheme. But Ukraine’s silent refusal to follow the scripted scenario turned the whole plan on its head. Now “What should we do with Donbas?” is being discussed in Moscow instead of in Kyiv. Of course there are no pleasant solutions. Thus the desire to push it back on Ukraine is strong.

Inasmuch as the DNR/LNR projects were completely artificial and not at all feasible and because they pose countless conflicts and contradictions for Russia, there can be no common resolution. To achieve total victory Kyiv needs to have time to take back the Donetsk and Luhansk regions at any cost. It would be unwise to agree to any kind of “special status,” to finance it or to strengthen the defense capabilities in potentially dangerous areas. Understandably, the temptation to end the conflict quickly is great. But now the waiting is over and smart strategy is the winning option.

In any case Moscow will have to spend enormous sums of money to sustain the separatists even at a minimal level, infusing money into rehabilitating the infrastructure, and preventing an impending humanitarian disaster in the territories under separatist control. It will be especially costly because Russia’s budget is already full of holes.

The burden might become unbearable and instead of sort of hinting to Kyiv to take Donbas back, the Kremlin might demand that Kyiv do just that. Talk of any kind of “peoples’ republics” or of federalization will cease and Ukraine will be in a position to dictate the conditions for stabilizing the conflict.

At the moment the only thing that might save Putin from defeat is words. If he succeeds at inserting “special conditions for the reintegration of occupied Donbas into Ukraine” into the text of the agreement, he just might save face. Kyiv must stand firm and refuse that inclusion at all cost.


Translated by: Olha Rudakevych

  • Darko Dakić

    what are you smoking?

    • Michel Cloarec

      It seems hard, but it can go !

  • Michel Cloarec

    The only part of this article which I can agree with is that Putin did not expect that Ukrainia would managed to elect a new government and that Ukrainia´s forces will managed to hold along the so called cease-fire line from 5/9.
    The terrorists again did not respect the ” silence” days, they do not take the opportunities to show they are willing to change things. Some one did ordered all these military convoys towards Mariupol . Is it to make Kiew afraid or is it a manover to force people to sit round a table and discuss a peace plan while shooting is going on !
    One thing is sure from this article is that LPR and DPR has not a chance to stabilize and put things in order to any kind of functioning society.
    What are the chances that LPR and DPR bosses leave ?
    Can Ukrainia take care of all of Donbas with help of EU to rebuild Donbas. But what to do with the warmongers . Will Russia take them home ?
    This article is very optimistic ! GOOD ! But I don´t think it will finish so easy.

  • TheBlogFodder

    Kyiv should tell Russia, you broke it, you own it and tell DNR, LNR you wanted independence you got it. Pity about the 2 million pensioners left to freeze and starve. THEY need to be rescued somehow.

    • Michel Cloarec

      Ukrainia will have to take of these people. But all the warmongers must disapear !

  • Rods

    Excellent appraisal on the current situation and Putin’s options.

    Time is on Ukraines side as long as they can stabilize their economy and have largely adequate energy supplies this winter. Although the challenges to Ukraine’s economy are currently much greater than to Russia’s, the Ukrainian politicians have much more scope for reform and through reducing the number of people on the Government’s payroll, raising energy prices to market levels and tackling bureaucracy and corruption, while the economy orientates itself by reducing exports to Russia and growing them rapidly with the EU. The recent elections have shown that the voting population are fully behind the reforms needs to transform Ukraine from a post-Soviet country and economy to a modern Western-European one. The next few years are going to be very tough, but there is a clear path with a very bright light at the end of the tunnel when they succeed.

    The reverse is true for Russia where the rouble and oil prices are dropping, with no signs of either improving anytime soon. Russia has had to raise interest rates again to 10.5% trying to defend the rouble which is counter-cyclical when entering a recession. Next year things will only be worse for a number of reasons, with very few under Russia’s control! As the US economy continues to grow on the back of cheap energy prices then so will local investment opportunities and returns. US Dollars that has been chasing better returns in developing countries, will start to return to the US. The capital flight has been estimated at between $2tn and $9tn. This will mean that the US Dollar will continue to rise, with the scope of much further drops for local currencies, especially for those whose economies are in trouble with Russia at the front of the queue! Russian industry owes over $700bn in loans to the west, with most of it denominated in US Dollars, while trading locally in roubles, this will make the servicing of interest payments and capital unaffordable. Where Putin has an implicit contract with the electorate, ‘let me run the country how I see fit and in return I will raise living standards” is not sustainable. We have seen the recent protests over health care cuts and the cut backs have been extended by freezing of senior Kremlin officials salaries. This is only the start of much further pain, especially with large planned rises in the defence budget with a “guns before butter policy”, the extra cost of the Donbas war and subsidies required for this region and also Crimea. With high inflation due to a weak rouble, partly due to the cost of essential Dollar priced essentials this is only a start, where tax revenues will drop from the low price of oil and gas, but also from reduced spending and company profits. In 2015 Russia is going to have to confront some severe economic problems and make stark spending choices. Are the population prepared for this and even more so, what will the fallout be for Putin?

    • Michel Cloarec

      To hell with putin and as much help as possible to Porenshenko from West will solve the problems, but it will be hard but worst it !

  • Czech Friend

    So how are Ukrainians looking at Donbass residents? Do they want them back or did Putin manage to dig a ditch too deep for now?

    And Nada Savchenko!
    Why no international pressure on Putin to release her? Secret sevices of Ukraine and West. Play dirty with Kremlin, abduct their oligarch friends in Europe and silently negotiate a swap, if need be.

    Abduction for abduction, no more playing it nice and fair with Putin’s mafia!

    • Michel Cloarec

      I am afraid that you are right Hard for hard is maybe the only way !

    • Kruton

      Grant gave orders that the families of irregular forces were to be taken hostage.

  • Brent

    Russia should start by abiding by the Minsk Accord it signed, even though Putin keeps saying they are not involved in the conflict. They should get out of Ukraine, and take their terrorists, separatists and any citizens that are not satisfied being a citizen of Ukraine with them. They should withdraw their veto of the United Nations sending in peacekeepers. All the Chechens, Chetniks, ‘vacationing’ Russian soldiers and ‘archtiects’ need to vacate the Donbas as well.

    It’s time for Putin to stop lying to Ukraine, the “Russian speakers” he has made so many promises to, and the World. Unfortunately, his massive Napoleonic ego will likely never allow any of this to happen.

    This doesn’t even address Crimea which is a separate issue. This is about saving the pensioners and residents of Donbas. Russia needs to understand that this will not only be played by the rules and terms it wants to impose on Ukraine, but that they need to swallow some of their pride and work together to get the problems solved and start saving lives they have put in jeopardy.

    • Peter K

      Hey now! Comparing Putin to Napoleon is an insult to Napoleon!

    • LorCanada

      I don’t agree about Putin imposing rules and terms on Ukraine. After all, he’s in denial all the time so what right has he to take charge? Just my opinion.

  • Peter K

    This article hits the nail on the head, but don’t be surprised if Russian propagandists use the deteriorating conditions in occupied Donbas this winter as evidence of Ukrainian “crimes against humanity” or some other such BS. I think the Ukrainian government should make an immediate offer to restore government funding to Donbas, but only on conditions of total disarmament of the DNR and LNR, cancellation of the results of all DNR and LNR “elections” and “referendums”, and restoration of Ukrainian control over the entire Ukrainian-Russian border. If the “separatists” refuse, which they likely will, the Ukrainian government can truthfully say that it tried to resolve the humanitarian crisis, and that the separatists prevented the solution and continue to exacerbate the problem.

    • canuke

      Excellent suggestion, Peter.

    • LorCanada

      Good idea, Peter, the only problem is the rebels might not follow through and will try to take advantage at some point to renege. They aren’t to be trusted.

  • dok

    Putin created this problem in Ukraine, let him deal with it. Ukraine needs to sit back and watch as the Donbas and Crimea strangle Putin. Russia’s economy is only going to get worse with the fall in oil prices and the effect of sanctions starting to bit. Even putin has admitted that sanctions are starting to bite. Under no conditions shoukd Ukraine send any money to the separatist held areas in east Ukraine. In fact Ukraine should cut off gas supplies to Donbas and electricity and water to Crimea. Let those russian swine enjoy their independence. When putin has suffered enough pain and finally comes to his senses, then Ukraine can offer to take back the Donbas, but only on Ukraine’s terms and conditions.

  • Robert Field

    The west has to supply as much money as possible to Ukraine and the Ukranian oligarch’s are already well trained in how to accomodate some one elses money. A botomless pit for the west. Good luck.

  • Barry Smart

    Irrespective of the politics involved There are too many people in West Ukraine who want to kill the people in East Ukraine and are doing so with the lethal support of the Ukrainian government. That is not going to stop. West Ukraine wants the territory but not the people or their political opposition.. In the East the options are fight, leave, or stay and be killed. Soon the lethal weapons killing them will have “made in America” on them.

  • Корзухин

    To The yellow and blue Kiev Putsch Ukraine that think your elected president Yanukovych was wrong and so did a revolution in Kiev .

    ‘Who the Hell You Think You Are?’ Nigel Farage throws egg in Eurocrat faces

    (There is no more money from EU ,. Putin had a better offer; Yanukovych just wanted to do a better deal with EU where Rus was to help too. Right Sector , You are mad men and women. Criminals).

  • Корзухин

    Генштаб Украины: не ведется боевых действий с российской армией

  • Корзухин

    Stalin knows your sins Euromaidan

    Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and Catherine Ashton discuss Ukraine over the phone

    Officers of Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) loyal to the ousted President Viktor Yanukovich have hacked phones of Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Paet and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton and leaked their conversation to the web.

    ““There is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind the snipers, it was not Yanukovich, but it was somebody from the new coalition,” Urmas Paet said during the conversation.

    “I think we do want to investigate. I mean, I didn’t pick that up, that’s interesting. Gosh,” Ashton answered.

    The call took place after Estonia’s Foreign Minister Urmas Paet visited Kiev on February 25 at the peak of clashes between the pro-EU protesters and security forces in the Ukrainian capital.

    Paet also recalled his conversation with a doctor who treated those shot by snipers in Kiev. She said that both protesters and police were shot at by the same people.

    “And second, what was quite disturbing, this same Olga [Bogomolets] told as well that all the evidence shows that the people who were killed by snipers from both sides, among policemen and then people from the streets, that they were the same snipers killing people from both sides,” the Estonian FM stressed.

    Ashton reacted to the information by saying: “Well, yeah…that’s, that’s terrible.”