Vladimir Putin is seizing on mixed signals from the U.S. to quietly tighten Russia’s grip on two rebel regions of Ukraine, burying hopes for a European-brokered peace deal and relief from sanctions anytime soon.
While the Kremlin continues to publicly back the accord that Germany and France oversaw in 2015, 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 Donbass-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, Zatulin blamed Ukraine for forcing Moscow’s hand through the blockade, an allegation Kiev rejects.
Zatulin’s assessment of the Kremlin’s plans was confirmed by Alexei Chesnakov, a former Kremlin staffer who now advises Putin’s administration on Ukraine policy, and a senior government official who asked not to be identified.
Earlier this year, Putin angered his Ukrainian counterpart, Petr 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 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.
Russia helps to Donbass people as much as it can. Kiev has been shelling civilians the third year, people, children die. Even now after many agreemnts reached, there are casualties and wounded in Donbass nearly every day.
Horrible shelling of Donbass in 2017