By now, Fort Russ News readers should already be familiar with the news that Vladimir Putin supposedly discussed the idea of a referendum in the Donbass republics with Trump at their Helsinki meeting. As far as I can tell, we are dealing with an information leak, not fake news. Yet this gives rise to a question: who organized this leak? If at first I was convinced that this was leaked in order to drive (yet another) wedge between Trump and Putin, then now I am not so sure. Given that the Kremlin is by all means capable of keeping secrets, an unauthorized leak from tight and very high circles is unlikely.
To be more precise, the real question at hand is why did Vladimir Putin bring up such a delicate conversation to a wide audience of diplomats? My guess is that it is appropriate to assume that Putin was “telling a secret to the whole world” (as the children’s song from the USSR goes) by letting on to the topic of one of his discussions with Trump. So why did Moscow need such a Talleyrand secret?
I would link this event to Putin’s statement at his July 19th meeting with Russia’s ambassadors and diplomats, where he succinctly stressed: “There remain serious risks that the situation in South-East Ukraine will be aggravated.” This message of Putin’ has been left on the periphery of expert and public attention, but it deserves attention, especially since it was issued right after Putin’s meeting with Trump.
In my opinion, these two items – Putin’s statement and the information leak – are connected. And they are hitting the same target: demonstrating Russia’s acute discontent with the fact that war in Donbass is dragging on into its fifth year. This discontent, needless to say, is shared by the suffering population of the Donbass republics and exhausted, disintegrating Ukraine itself.
Russia is sharply dissatisfied with Ukraine’s blatant disregard for the Minsk Agreements and gross violations of the latest “bread truce.” If Putin’s words on the situation being “aggravated” were simply a statement of discontent with Kiev (which was the one to initiate Minsk 2 to begin with, only to violate it), then the leak of a Donbass referendum was meant to demonstrate that Moscow is ready to change the course of events in Donbass.
This does not necessarily mean that the DPR and LPR will be recognized, as Putin’s strategy avoids straight moves. A very wide range of political, diplomatic, and economic tools could be applied, including even military moves on the part of the Donbass republics. It should not be forgotten that it was only under strong pressure from Moscow that the DPR and LPR twice halted their victorious counter-offensives against the Ukrainian Armed Forces fleeing in panic.
In September 2014, I heard first-hand the harsh complaints of mid-level Donbass commanders that the Russian leadership had insisted they suspend their offensive. Now Moscow might simply refrain from preventing the DPR and LPR from going on the offensive, and could help them with weapons and ammunition in the same way that NATO members have been aiding Ukraine. Just last week, the Czech Republic supplied Ukraine with a batch of 10 BMP-1’s.
I think that Russia’s official position is too soft towards Ukraine, and I believe that it is fully permissible for Russias armed forces to directly force Ukraine to peace, to stop its shelling of the civilian population of Donbass and its glorification of Nazi criminals and collaborators like Bandera and Shukhevych. Such might seem to0 radical when compared to Moscow’s official position, but my opinion is shared by a wide range of experts and the public in Russia.
To sum up, I think that the “leak” that Putin supposedly proposed a Donbass referendum to Trump was organized by the Russian leadership with the aim of demonstrating to Kiev and the world (especially the European and American allies of the illegitimate, illegal, and criminal Ukrainian regime) that Russia is fed up with violations of Minsk 2.
I do not think that anyone in Moscow actually hopes that Kiev will respond by fulfilling some of the Minsk Agreement provisions. Rather, this is probably an artillery attack before a diplomatic battle. Ukraine has tested Russia and the people of Donbass’ patience for too long, and Moscow is starting to flex its muscles – for now only its diplomatic ones.