Putin Tightens Reins on Ukraine Rebels, Putting Conflict on Ice

Putin Talks of Sending Russian Combat Troops to Syria
  • Moscow's control over regions grows amid financial dependence
  • Separatists see frozen conflict like Moldova's Transnistria

Ukrainian separatist leaders say their hopes of full integration with Russia or greater independence are fading as the Kremlin tightens the reins on their rebellion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin appears unwilling to risk broadening his conflict with the U.S. and European Union over Ukraine, senior separatist officials said in interviews this month, meaning the rebel regions’ future is more likely to resemble Transnistria, the Russian-backed breakaway area of Moldova, whose fate is still unresolved more than two decades after fighting subsided.

Alexander Khodakovsky
Alexander Khodakovsky
Photographer: Vasily Maximov/AFP via Getty Images

"Everything is gradually, steadily heading toward a localization of this territory," Alexander Khodakovsky, a top rebel security official, said in his office in the separatist capital of Donetsk. "What I see is the formation of a second Transnistria."

Khodakovsky and other rebel leaders said their backers in the Kremlin are sending the clearest signals in months that they don’t want the conflict to escalate, at least for the moment. Instead, they are leaning on the separatists to limit cease-fire violations and focus on turning their makeshift administration into a functioning government -- with the help of Moscow-trained bureaucrats.

Separatist Limbo

Rebel leaders and people close to the Kremlin said Moscow is aiming to freeze the uneasy status quo, avoiding a major escalation while a resolution to the conflict seems remote. That’s likely to ease the pressure on Russia’s recession-wracked economy- and provide some respite for Ukraine, as well - as Russia tries to shift the focus to the fighting in Syria.
 
That leaves the separatists in limbo, having broken with Ukraine but short of their goals. Already, with the cease-fire holding better in recent weeks than ever before, signs of war are slowly vanishing, with many road checkpoints now abandoned.

Freezing the conflict amounts to an admission by the Kremlin that international pressure and Ukrainian resistance have made backing further separatist advances too costly. Instead, Moscow is aiming to use the rebel regions to keep the pressure on Ukraine.

For the U.S. and Europe, a stalemate is short of their aims of restoration of Ukrainian control. Still, such an outcome would reflect at least a measure of success for the policy of sanctions as a means to pressure the Kremlin, Western diplomats said. Kremlin insiders say avoiding any major increase in those restrictions is now a prime goal for Putin.

’Minimal Losses’

"It’s important for Putin to get out of this situation with minimal losses," said Alexei Chesnakov, a former Kremlin official who still advises top officials on strategy for the Ukraine conflict.

The tenuous cease-fire agreement reached in February in Minsk will probably be extended beyond its year-end deadline amid slow progress toward a political settlement, according to diplomats and others close to the talks.

"Both sides are trying to buy time," said Chesnakov, referring to Russia and Ukraine.

Many in the separatist regions haven’t given up hope that Russia could annex their territory as it did Crimea last year. Putin faced chants of "take us with you" from some Donetsk region residents when he visited Crimea last week. He responded with a stiff smile. Asked about the episode the next day, Putin said: "It’s not a question to be decided in the street."

Local residents show some skepticism about the future of the self-declared republics, going to Ukrainian-controlled territory to register weddings and legal documents.

There’s no sign Moscow is backing down. People familiar with Russia’s position say that if Moscow saw a threat to the survival of the separatist enclaves, it would likely dispatch troops to protect them as senior rebel officials now admit Russia did in the summer of 2014. Russia denies sending forces.

Fighting Subsides

For the moment, the orders are to strictly limit firing, Khodakovsky said.

Separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko, has toned down his rhetoric and now says he aims to take the strategic port city of Mariupol by political means, not forcibly.

The separatists have little choice. Russia, always a dominant force in the region, has methodically tightened its grip on all key aspects of the breakaway regions. 

Political leaders who didn’t fall into line have been replaced with Moscow-backed candidates. Military commanders who defied instructions from Moscow have been removed or killed in mysterious incidents. Economically, the war-ravaged regions rely almost entirely on largely clandestine subsidies from Russia, separatist officials said.

Publicly, Russian officials say the rebel governments are independent and deny any military intervention. They say support is limited to humanitarian aid.

Election Tension

Moscow’s control could face a test in the coming weeks before local elections in the regions that the U.S. and E.U. say amount to a violation of the Minsk deal and should be canceled. Zakharchenko said the poll will go ahead.

Separatist leaders said the edicts from Moscow not to shoot rankle local fighters.

"When the guys come to me and ask how are we supposed to react" to fire from Ukrainian positions, "I have to explain to them that there’s a very strict order to observe the cease-fire," Khodakovsky said.

Discipline isn’t ironclad, he said. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has reported that violations of the cease-fire have come from both the rebel and Ukrainian sides.

The relative truce has led volunteers from Russia to return home in the last few months, bringing their numbers to about 1,500 now from a peak of 4,000 last year, Zakharchenko said.

Instead, Moscow is dispatching dozens of trained bureaucrats to help shore up the separatist governments, which are now staffed largely by amateurs, a rebel official said.

Ruined Economy

Their economies in ruins, the statelets also depend almost entirely on Moscow for funding, separatist officials said.

Khodakovsky said the Kremlin insists the aid be kept low-profile, however, to avoid provoking criticism from the U.S. and Europe.

"If we don’t talk about this openly," he said, "the population gets the feeling that Russia has turned away from us and is just playing some kind of game, hoping to get out of this as easily as possible."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE