Russian President Vladimir Putin asked Russia's Federation Council on June 25 to reverse its March decision authorizing military intervention. At the same time, Putin also announced that while he supports Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's cease-fire, talks with separatists in eastern Ukraine are necessary too. Putin said it is "pointless" for separatist groups to disarm while other groups, such as the pro-Ukrainian Right Sector movement, have not. On June 23, after informal consultations, the self-proclaimed prime minister of the Donestk People's Republic, Alexander Borodai, declared a cease-fire in the region. On June 24, however, separatists near Slovyansk shot down a Ukrainian military Mi-8 helicopter with a man-portable air defense system, killing all on board. Fighting continues in the Slovyansk area and in some of the eastern border regions.
Although Putin's public support for diplomatic talks and the decision of some separatist leaders to call for a cease-fire may lead to a limited de-escalation in eastern Ukraine, a significant reduction in armed separatist activity throughout the contested east is unlikely. EU and U.S. pressure as well as Russia's long-term goal of creating a neutral, decentralized Ukraine have extended the cessation of hostilities. The Kremlin wishes to avoid imposing significant, sectorwide sanctions — a Russian proposal that the European Union is set to discuss at its upcoming summit this week.
While European leaders are unlikely to agree on effective sanctions against Russia, Moscow is under pressure from Paris and Berlin to take some sort of public action to help resolve the crisis. Russia is not willing to sour relations with two European heavyweights that can help Russia promote its agenda in other areas. By supporting talks, Russia shows it is working to promote de-escalation in eastern Ukraine and aims to avoid further sanctions. On the other hand, these informal consultations enable Russia to continue negotiating over the future of Ukraine while pursuing concessions from the government in Kiev. The Kremlin is also coming under increasing pressure domestically. There is a growing sentiment in Russia that Moscow needs to focus more on domestic matters and less on Ukraine.
A Move in the Right Direction
The participation of Donetsk People's Republic members in informal consultations June 23 signals an evolution in the ongoing conflict. Poroshenko had previously rejected Russian pressure to negotiate with the leadership of the armed separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. Similarly, separatists had opposed the idea of holding direct talks with the government in Kiev. On June 23, separatist leaders, pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians, Russia's ambassador to Ukraine, former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe representative, Heidi Tagliavini, met in Donetsk. While Ukrainian government officials — who were represented informally by Kuchma — were notably absent along with some key separatist leaders, the unofficial discussions demonstrated that all parties are open to a limited form of negotiations.
Despite the informal consultations, however, the Kiev government, the Kremlin and the various separatist leaders remain divided on most key issues. Even as Borodai declared a cease-fire in Donetsk, he emphasized that the separatist leadership will take part in formal negotiations only if Ukrainian troops leave eastern Ukraine and the self-declared republics are granted a special status under Ukraine's Constitution. While Poroshenko has advocated a cease-fire and proposed decentralization as a part of his peace plan, the separatists' policy demands remain unacceptable to the government in Kiev, which has worked to reassert military control over the eastern regions and strongly opposes the federalization of Ukraine.
For the Kremlin, limiting Ukraine's moves toward European integration and integration with other Western institutions in general remains a priority. When Ukraine signs the European Union's association and free trade agreements on June 27, Russia is likely to respond with some trade restrictions but will not go as far as military intervention or suspending ties with the Kiev government. Russia's long-term goal remains to preserve Ukraine as a neutral buffer state, protecting the Russian core. The Kiev government's aspirations for further Western integration will therefore continue to challenge the Kremlin's position on Ukraine's future.
Poroshenko has indicated that constitutional amendments regarding decentralization will be introduced in the Ukrainian parliament this week, but the timeline for implementation remains unclear. Moreover, critical natural gas negotiations with Russia are ongoing. On these issues, as well as more long-term matters such as Ukraine's integration with Western institutions, the Kremlin is working to safeguard its leverage in ongoing negotiations with Kiev. As a result, Russia will not approve the disarmament or withdrawal of separatist groups operating in eastern Ukraine until Kiev takes significant action on these matters.