Putin qui­etly de­taches Ukraine’s rebel re­gions as the US waf­fles

Business World - - THE WORLD -

MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin is seiz­ing on mixed sig­nals from the US to qui­etly tighten Rus­sia’s grip on two rebel re­gions of Ukraine, bury­ing hopes for a Euro­pean­bro­kered peace deal and re­lief from sanc­tions any­time soon.

While the Krem­lin con­tin­ues to pub­licly back the ac­cord that Ger­many and France over­saw in 2015, Mr. Putin’s real strat­egy in Ukraine is to fully sep­a­rate the two bor­der ar­eas known as the Don­bas through in­cre­men­tal in­te­gra­tion with Rus­sia, three peo­ple close to the lead­er­ship in Moscow said. He has no plans to rec­og­nize or an­nex the ter­ri­to­ries, they said.

Rus­sia has been mov­ing grad­u­ally, us­ing a block­ade by Ukrainian ac­tivists as po­lit­i­cal cover to take over key eco­nomic links with the sep­a­ratist zones. Last week, Rus­sian Rail­ways slashed rates for ship­ping coal and iron ore to points near the rebel ar­eas, where the me­tals in­dus­try pro­vides most jobs. That will al­low Rus­sia to re­place Ukrainian sup­plies halted by Kiev and en­sure that steel plants con­tinue to func­tion, ac­cord­ing to two peo­ple in the in­dus­try.

“A step has been taken to­ward de­tach­ing Don­bas — there’s no doubt about that,” a se­nior law­maker in the rul­ing United Rus­sia party, Konstantin Zat­ulin, said by phone from Moscow. Like other of­fi­cials, Mr. Zat­ulin blamed Ukraine for forc­ing Moscow’s hand through the block­ade, an al­le­ga­tion Kiev re­jects.

Mr. Zat­ulin’s as­sess­ment of the Krem­lin’s plans was con­firmed by Alexei Ch­es­nakov, a former Krem­lin staffer who now ad­vises Mr. Putin’s ad­min­is­tra­tion on Ukraine pol­icy, and a se­nior gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial who asked not to be iden­ti­fied.

Krem­lin spokesman Dmitry Peskov Thurs­day dis­missed the idea that Rus­sia is in­te­grat­ing the re­gions, call­ing it “ab­surd” and “naive” on a con­fer­ence call with re­porters.

RUS­SIAN CIT­I­ZEN­SHIP

Ear­lier this year, Mr. Putin an­gered his Ukrainian coun­ter­part, Petro Poroshenko, by sign­ing a de­cree rec­og­niz­ing pass­ports and other doc­u­ments is­sued by the sep­a­ratist gov­ern­ments in Luhansk and Donetsk, which have al­ready de­clared the ru­ble their of­fi­cial cur­rency. The Krem­lin is also con­sid­er­ing making it eas­ier for the 2 mil­lion res­i­dents of the re­gions to be­come Rus­sian cit­i­zens, which would dra­mat­i­cally com­pli­cate any at­tempt by Kiev to re­assert con­trol.

Moscow is im­ple­ment­ing the so-called “Transnis­tria sce­nario,” ac­cord­ing to the deputy head of Mr. Poroshenko’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, Kos­tiantyn Yelisieiev, re­fer­ring to the break­away re­gion in the former Soviet re­pub­lic of Moldova, which hosts Rus­sian troops but has no cit­i­zen­ship agree­ments with Rus­sia.

Rus­sia sup­ports a string of sep­a­ratist re­gions in former Soviet re­publics, us­ing them as lever­age over pro-Western gov­ern­ments in what it con­sid­ers to be its sphere of in­flu­ence. In 2008, Rus­sia sent troops into Ge­or­gia to se­cure two such ar­eas that are now es­sen­tially Krem­lin pro­tec­torates. Last month, Rus­sia ab­sorbed some of the mili­tias there into its reg­u­lar army.

“We don’t have peace for one rea­son: Rus­sians are not in­ter­ested in reach­ing peace,” Mr. Poroshenko said in a speech in Lon­don on Tues­day. “They are in­ter­ested in ex­ert­ing con­trol.”

Mr. Putin’s moves in Ukraine pose a chal­lenge to the US and the Euro­pean Union, which pub­licly sup­port the 2015 Minsk ac­cord that calls for Ukraine to re­gain con­trol of the Don­bas. A col­lapse of the deal would be a ma­jor blow to Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, who’s spent a lot of po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal try­ing to end the worst vi­o­lence Europe’s seen since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The three-year con­flict has killed 10,000 peo­ple and dis­placed two mil­lion more.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, on the other hand, has sent mixed sig­nals on its stance and even ap­pears to be “to­tally un­in­ter­ested” in the con­flict, as one se­nior Rus­sian diplo­mat put it. Mr. Trump has taken a tough line rhetor­i­cally, though he hasn’t made his po­si­tion clear and the White House seems fo­cused on is­sues it con­sid­ers more press­ing like Syria and North Korea.

While Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son has ques­tioned Ukraine’s im­por­tance for US tax­pay­ers, he’s also in­sisted that sanc­tions be main­tained on Rus­sia un­til the Krem­lin re­spects its com­mit­ments to re­store peace. Pre­vi­ously, the new US ad­min­is­tra­tion had only pledged to keep the less oner­ous penal­ties that were im­posed in re­sponse to Mr. Putin’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea.

‘AL­WAYS READY’

Mr. Putin’s strat­egy in­volves de­vel­op­ing levers that can be used to strengthen the Krem­lin’s con­trol over the Don­bas on short no­tice, two Western di­plo­mats in Moscow said, an as­sess­ment con­firmed by former Rus­sian of­fi­cials.

Re­tal­ia­tory mea­sures “are al­ways ready,” said Mr. Ch­es­nakov, the Krem­lin ad­viser on Ukraine. “Ev­ery time Ukraine gives us an ex­cuse they are im­ple­mented.”

In Jan­uary, Ukrainian na­tion­al­ist war veterans blocked off cargo links with the rebel-held east. Two months later, Mr. Poroshenko for­mal­ized the block­ade even though it’s cost­ing his coun­try’s econ­omy about 1% of out­put be­cause of the cut-off of key raw ma­te­rial sup­plies in­clud­ing coal.

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