Original Opinion – written by Gleb Bazov
Caveat: the views expressed herein do not necessarily match those of Slavyangrad.ORG
It is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of the divine plan. Russia’s cunning plan in Ukraine belongs to the same category. In analyzing the statements made by Sergei Lavrov in his interview with Russia Beyond the Headlines on September 17, 2014, some commentators have added a third concept—that of diplomatic theatre—to this duality. While it is generally bad form to overanalyze religious beliefs, let us apply some simple mathematics to understand the play behind the curtains of diplomatic theatre.
The concept of diplomatic theatre is understood differently by commentators. Many of the definitions are clearly wrong. Diplomatic theatre is not magic, mysticism, or sleight of hand. The language of diplomacy is far more akin to mathematics than commonly understood. As in mathematics, every word has its place, and no phrase is spoken out of context or frivolously.
The product of a diplomatic equation is directly dependent on the placement of definitions in a string of calculated statements. Like legal language, diplomatic language can be deciphered, broken down into components, and analyzed with precision. To a keen observer, there is nothing mysterious in what diplomats say. Bad diplomacy, on the other hand, is the opposite of this approach. And Lavrov is an excellent diplomat. Accordingly, let us parse out the meaning of Lavrov’s interview without resorting to magic or belief in the guiding hand that can do no wrong.
Setting Out the Equation
Lavrov’s interview contains a wealth of statements with respect to the crisis in Ukraine. Many of them have been made before—Russia’s steadfast commitment to investigating the Odessa massacre, the crash of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing MH17, and the war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed by the Ukrainian troops in Donbass. All of these remarks are laudable, praiseworthy and notable in and of themselves.
However, the immediate, short and medium term future of Novorossiya no longer depends on what happened in Odessa, Mariupol and Slavyansk. Far more important to the existence of the Donetsk and the Lugansk People’s Republics (respectively, “DRP” and “LPR”) is the document executed following consultations in Minsk on September 5, 2014—the Protocol of the Trilateral Contact Group, more commonly known as the Minsk Protocol. Perhaps even more important to the continued existence of the DPR and the LPR is Russia’s commitment to the Minsk Protocol, which Russia signed along with the other participants, and the forms such commitment takes.
For our purposes, the key statements in Lavrov’s interview, which evidence Russia’s understanding of the role and substantive impact of the Minsk Protocol, are excerpted for your convenience below:
- Our position is absolutely clear: we want peace in Ukraine, which can only be attained through a wide-ranging national dialogue involving all of the country’s regions and political forces.
- Russia has been actively assisting the emergence of favourable conditions for a peaceful solution to the serious problems confronting Ukraine.
- … in Minsk on 26 August, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko stressed the need for an early end to the bloodshed and a transition to the political settlement of the entire set of problems in the country’s southeast.
- On 3 September, Vladimir Putin proposed a seven-point action plan for stabilizing the Ukrainian crisis.
- … in Minsk on 5 September, President Poroshenko’s representatives and the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) signed a Protocol with regard to further joint steps aimed at, among other things, implementing the Russian President’s initiative.
- This understanding is an important step in the process of peaceful crisis settlement in Ukraine and designed to serve as a fulcrum point in starting an internal Ukrainian political dialogue that would seek the way toward national accord.
- We proceed from the assumption that all provisions of this document should be meticulously met.
We all want peace in Ukraine. While many of us differ in our opinions of the best means to achieve peace, most of Novorossiya’s supporters universally agree that the Minsk Protocol, as it stands, is tantamount to a betrayal of the struggle currently unfolding in the Donbass region. This note is not meant to elaborate on the writer’s opinion in this regard. Suffice it to say, for now, that a more extensive analysis of the Minsk Protocol is in the works. Nor does it matter, for the purpose of this analysis, if you believe that the Minsk Protocol is the solution to the Ukrainian crisis. As you will glean from what follows, so does Russia.
Understanding the Variables
What can we understand from Lavrov’s statements about Russia’s approach to achieving peace in Ukraine? Lavrov states:
“[peace] can only be attained through a wide-ranging national dialogue involving all of the country’s regions and political forces.”
Recalling our discussion of the mathematics of the diplomatic language, this statement is significant because it speaks of only one country, Ukraine, and of the dialogue between all the regions of that country and the political forces within it. Judging by Lavrov’s statement here, Russia considers Novorossiya to be but a union between two constituent and integral regions of Ukraine—the DPR and the LPR—and does not conceive of these entities (or of Novorossiya, for that matter) as sovereign states. Moreover, Russia deems the groups that have been leading the struggle of the Donbass people against the Kiev authorities to be forces internal to Ukraine, rather than leaders of an independent country—Novorossiya.
The same conclusions are inevitable when one considers statements such as “serious problems confronting Ukraine,” or “political settlement of the entire set of problems in the country’s southeast,” or “process of peaceful crisis settlement in Ukraine,” or “fulcrum point in starting an internal Ukrainian political dialogue that would seek the way toward national accord.” All these phrases irrevocably point to the same basic concept underlying Lavrov’s explanation of the Russian policy with respect to Novorossiya—the crisis is not a matter of self-determination of the Donbass people, nor is it evidence of the emergence of a new subject of international relations.
On the contrary, all that has been happening is an internal Ukrainian matter. It is for Ukraine and no one else to deal with. Problems that confront Ukraine ought to be resolved in order to preserve Ukraine’s integrity. Moreover, these problems are not nationwide, but localized issues affecting the country’s southeast. In Russia’s opinion, a Ukrainian national dialogue ought to be pursued to ensure the preservation of the Ukrainian nation as a single entity. Russia believes that a national accord in Ukraine is still possible, and the meaning of Lavrov’s words is clear—Moscow intends to make all the necessary efforts to ensure that such reconciliation is reached.
What has Russia done to secure this goal? Lavrov state that “Russia has been actively assisting the emergence of favourable conditions for a peaceful solution.” He further makes reference to the following specific events:
- the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko in Minsk on 26 August, 2014;
- the seven-point action plan proposed by President Vladimir Putin on September 3, 2014; and,
- the execution, on September 5, 2014, of the Minsk Protocol with regard to further joint steps aimed at, among other things, implementing the Russian President’s initiative
In other words, Russia has engaged in a consistent pattern of diplomacy aimed at securing the kind of agreement that was signed in Minsk on September 5, 2014, i.e. the Minsk Protocol. Every statement made by Lavrov in this regard indicates that the Minsk Protocol is the apex of Russia’s diplomatic efforts in resolving the Ukrainian crisis, maintaining the integrity of Ukraine and ensuring the survival of Ukraine as a single national unit.
With so much preparation, effort and work put into the Minsk Protocol, it would be surprising if Russia was negligent in crafting this agreement together with the other participants of the Trilateral Contact Group. And we have no reason to think that she was. On the contrary, the clear implication from everything that Lavrov has said on the subject (including in the interview herein discussed) is that Russia supports each and every provision of the document. But there is no need to convince you with arguments—Lavrov indicated this position very clearly when he stated:
We proceed from the assumption that all provisions of this document should be meticulously met.
There can be no argument on the face of the record. Russia’s position, as elaborated by Lavrov could not be any clearer. The Minsk Protocol must be implemented, in each and every respect. However, this is precisely the point where the proponents of diplomatic theatre as a simulacrum of magic make their strongest case.
The Arithmetics of the Cunning Plan
In the argument of those who see a cunning plan at work behind Lavrov’s words, this statement is a trap carefully laid out for the bumbling Ukrainian halfwits. In fact, the argument goes, Russia expects Ukraine to fail in implementing the Minsk Protocol and is giving Poroshenko as much rope as he desires to hang himself, all the while slyly winking at the DPR and the LPR in a reassuring manner.
An ironclad argument. If there is anything we have learned about the Ukrainian leadership in the course of this conflict (and, in fact, since the early days of the Euromaidan) is that it has a lot of difficulty keeping its word and performing its obligations. Fear not, brave defenders of Novorossiya, you know and we know, and everybody knows that Ukraine will fail, and that is precisely when we will strike, this time—with impunity.
Leaving aside, for the moment, the doubtful assertion of the lack of punitive response (if anything, the West has been eminently clear that it will always take the side of the Ukrainian fascists, whatever happens, and the very instances that Lavrov discusses elsewhere in the interview—the horror of Odessa, the false flag of MH17, and the Ukrainian crimes in the Donbass region—are perfect examples of the West’s resolve to defend Ukraine at all cost), let us examine the likelihood that Ukraine could falter in the implementation of the Minsk Protocol. Even more importantly, let us consider what Russia thinks of Ukraine’s performance to date.
The Traps of Mice and Men
The Minsk Protocol consists of twelve separate measures aimed at resolving the conflict in the Donbass region, which can be grouped as follows:
Political and Legal Measures
- Implement decentralization of power, including by means of enacting the Law of Ukraine “With respect to the temporary status of local self-government in certain areas of the Donetsk and the Lugansk regions” (Law on Special Status).
- Enact a law prohibiting the prosecution and punishment of persons in connection with the events that took place in certain areas of the Donetsk and the Lugansk regions of Ukraine.
- Ensure the holding of early local elections in accordance with the Law of Ukraine “With respect to the temporary status of local self-government in certain areas of the Donetsk and the Lugansk regions” (Law on Special Status).
- Provide personal security guarantees for the participants of the consultations.
Economic and Social Measures
- Conduct an inclusive national dialogue.
- Adopt measures aimed at improving the humanitarian situation in Donbass.
- Adopt a program for the economic revival of Donbass and the recovery of economic activity in the region.
Measures Aimed at the Cessation of Hostilities
- Ensure the immediate bilateral cessation of the use of weapons.
- Ensure monitoring and verification by the OSCE of the regime of non-use of weapons.
- Ensure permanent monitoring on the Ukrainian-Russian state border and verification by the OSCE, together with the creation of a security area in the border regions of Ukraine and the Russian Federation.
- Immediately release all hostages and unlawfully detained persons.
- Remove unlawful military formations, military hardware, as well as militants and mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine.
Let us consider each group in turn in order to understand where Ukraine could go wrong, prompting Russia’s righteous indignation, allowing the Minsk Protocol to be rejected as a yet another agreement botched by the Ukrainian leadership, and triggering the cunning plan behind Lavrov’s masterful diplomatic theatre.
Political and Legal Measures
Political and legal measures are all clauses that Ukraine is responsible for. Moreover, their specific implementation appears to be in Ukraine’s absolute discretion. These clauses contain nothing into which Lavrov could sink the claw of “meticulous performance.”
By error or by design, the political and legal clauses do not provide the specifics of the laws to be enacted by Ukraine pursuant to the Minsk Protocol. Moreover, such laws have already been drafted. Both the Law on Special Status and the amnesty legislation already exist as documents that can be examined and critiqued. Going back to the basic arithmetics of diplomatic language, the interview given by Lavrov was a perfect opportunity for Russia to indicate, clearly and unequivocally, whether Ukraine was complying with its obligations of implementing the political and legal measures called for by the Minsk Protocol.
Not only did Lavrov not demonstrate even a hint of disagreement or displeasure with Ukraine’s steps in this regards, but he failed to even raise these issues. There is nothing left for us but to conclude that Russia is satisfied with Ukraine’s performance of its Minsk Protocol obligations pursuant to clauses 3, 6, 9, and 12.
Economic and Social Measures
The economic and social measures contained in clauses 7, 8, and 11 of the Minsk Protocol are even more lax than the preceding group. Not only are they entirely non-specific, and rather platitudinous, but also there is no explicit or implicit timeframe with respect to their implementation. We do not even need to refer to Lavrov’s interview in evaluating the potential for Ukrainian failure here. Other than an explicit and outright refusal to take these steps, nothing Ukraine does pursuant to these clauses is assailable.
We have already witnessed the kind of “inclusive national dialogue” that Ukraine is fond of the last time there was a ceasefire—it was neither inclusive, nor national. Any improvement over this standard would be lauded as a success and clear evidence of Ukraine’s liberal and progressive stance. It is even simpler with “improving the humanitarian situation in Donbass” and “adopting a program for [its] economic recovery.” It is entirely arguable that the last time Ukraine delivered humanitarian cargo to Slavyansk, which amounted to something like 200 grams of cereals and 100 grams of sugar per resident, it was improving the humanitarian situation in the beleaguered city. Just the same, reviving economic activity in the Donbass region does not necessarily need to result in the reconstruction of even one destroyed factory for the provisions of clause 11 to be satisfied.
Measures Aimed at the Cessation of Hostilties
The real crux of the argument made by the proponents of magical diplomatic theatre lies, of course, in the doubtful performance by Ukraine of the measures aimed at the cessation of hostilities. This is where Ukraine must and will fail. Keen observers of the conflict already know that the ceasefire has been breached, on numerous occasions, by Ukraine, and that it has failed to comply with its obligation to release hostages and unlawfully detained persons. That is the trap! There is no need to even look at the rest of Lavrov statements! Or is there?
Well, of course there is, otherwise this note would not have been leading up to this very moment in a very inelegant fashion. Lavrov states the following:
We note that the ceasefire has been generally observed, although there are isolated incidents in which both sides are blaming the other. The important thing is to prevent them from escalating and leading to renewed hostilities. We are concerned about reports that the Ukrainian siloviki have been concentrating heavy weapons in an area. The Kiev authorities are assuring us that they have no plans to disrupt the ceasefire. We will follow the developments closely. We support the DPR’s and the LPR’s proposal on the urgent deployment of an OSCE observer mission in areas where the conflicting sides are in contact.
The order of priority and modality of measures contained in the Minsk Protocol will be additionally coordinated by the sides. We hope that the effort to implement the document’s provisions will be supported by our foreign partners.
So, a couple of points: according to Russia, the ceasefire has been observed, despite isolated incidents. Moreover, unlike before, Lavrov did not come out in support of Novorossiya by arguing that these isolated incidents have been the fault of the Ukrainian armed forces and its punitive battalions. On the contrary, he takes a neutral stance by stating that “both sides are blaming each other” for these isolated incidents. This statement is solely to the benefit of Ukraine, which is to blame, at the very least, for the majority of ceasefire breaches, and represents a marked departure from the usual Russian policy of wholeheartedly supporting the people of Donbass.
With respect to Ukraine’s steps to concentrate troops and heavy weapons for a renewed assault on Novorossiya, Lavrov again departs significantly from Russia’s previous rhetoric in this conflict. Instead of, as before, referring to Ukraine’s pattern of failing to keep its word, he seems to take Kiev’s assurances that “they have no plans to disrupt the ceasefire” with a cold, but tacit acceptance. Finally, he applauds the DPR’s and the LPR’s “proposal” to deploy OSCE observers (he terms it a proposal even though it is a measure required by the Minsk Protocol), but does not criticize the lack of Ukrainian participation therein.
As for the other provisions of the measures aimed at the cessation of violence, Lavrov does not even mention them, and we are left to conclude that Russia has no grievance with the manner in which Ukraine has been complying with its obligations in this regard. In fact, there is absolutely nothing in Lavrov’s interview indicating that Moscow considers Kiev to be anything other than an obstinate, but still a trustworthy partner in the long journey toward the implementation of the Minsk Protocol and the achievement of lasting national peace.
For most of us, Lavrov’s failure to condemn Ukraine for the many dozens of victims that died at the hands of Kiev’s forces since the ceasefire came into effect is not only telling, but also monstrous. But it is not monstrous per se, it is simply an expression of Russian policy with respect to Ukraine and the implementation of the Minsk Protocol—Russia wants it to succeed, as written and executed. Russia is willing to overlook Kiev’s breaches. There is no hidden agenda, and there is no impenetrable political theatre.
The intentions of the Russian leadership are clear—unless Ukraine attacks again, Moscow will do whatever it takes to compel Novorossiya to comply with the Minsk Protocol. One could add “in order to bring about lasting peace,” but it should be clear to most of us that no lasting peace can be secured through the implementation of this agreement and that no reconstruction or revival of Donbass will ever come to pass if the Minsk Protocol is fulfilled.
If you intend to lay out a trap, do not hide it in the bag. A diplomatic trap is a matter of making your claims known. If you do not stake out the basis for a future argument, no one will ever hear it or agree with it. Nowhere in his interview does Lavrov give any indication that Russia is anything other than carefully confident in the success of the Minsk Protocol. Moreover, despite all manner of breaches of the ceasefire by Ukraine, Lavrov does not acknowledge them or set out a basis for later claiming that Ukraine was the culprit that destroyed its own chances for lasting peace. On the contrary, Lavrov’s words whitewash the atrocities that Ukraine has engaged in since the ceasefire came into effect. There is no cunning plan or sabotage here—Russia’s intentions are clear: the Minsk Protocol shall be.
Postscriptum: There is one possibility that was not discussed in the analysis above—the possibility that Lavrov and Russia are simply being deceitful about their apparent acceptance of Ukraine’s conduct since the commencement of the ceasefire or about Russia’s acceptance of the Minsk Protocol in general. There is a reason why this possibility is discussed as a postscriptum. While diplomats are usually sly and misleading, such outright deception would do more damage to Russia’s international reputation than any fabricated evidence that the West has brought to the table to date. A diplomat who deceives is no diplomat at all. And, for that reason, I choose to believe that Russia is forthright in what it says.