In our 2018 Third-Quarter Forecast, Stratfor noted that Russia will try to break a negotiating stalemate with the United States to talk about sanctions, military buildups and arms control. The summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin's proposal for a referendum in eastern Ukraine — however unrealistic — indicate Russia's efforts to break this stalemate and leverage the issue into other areas.
Just a few days after the inaugural summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Trump has already invited Putin for a follow-up summit in Washington. On July 20, Russian officials confirmed that Moscow is considering the meeting. Trump said the first summit was "only the beginning" of longer negotiations on numerous contentious issues between the two countries, including arms control, Syria and Ukraine. And the Russian president already appears to be using the conflict in its western borderlands to rev up the talks.
After the first summit, the conflict in Ukraine emerged as an area of potential movement in negotiations. According to a report from Bloomberg citing unnamed officials that were present at a closed-door speech on July 19, Putin revealed that he had made a proposal to Trump to hold a referendum in eastern Ukraine over the political status of the separatist territories in Donbas. Shortly after the summit, Putin revealed that "new ideas" were discussed about the conflict, and the referendum appears to be one of them, which could ostensibly push the clash — now in its fifth year — toward resolution.
However, there are several problems with such a vote. The Ukrainian government would very likely be opposed to it. Kiev was against the referendum on the political status of Crimea and its 2014 annexation by Russia shortly after the Euromaidan uprising. Ukraine, as well as the United States and the European Union, called that vote illegal. Putin has maintained that it was held in "strict compliance with international law," reiterating during the summit, "This case is closed for Russia." Indeed, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has called the proposal a "negotiating trap," and the U.S. National Security Council has reportedly already rejected it.
Moscow doesn't want to annex the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. Unofficial Russian support has led to an extraterritorial gray zone that undermines Ukraine's national integrity and Kiev's efforts to integrate with NATO and the European Union.
Furthermore, the Minsk II protocols would complicate any referendum in eastern Ukraine. The protocols stipulate the specific political and security steps that both Ukraine and the Russia-backed separatists must take to end the conflict. A referendum is not part of that plan. The European Union and the United States have, so far, backed Ukraine's position in the conflict, stating that Russia must first implement a lasting cease-fire and remove its personnel and heavy weaponry for political movement to take place. The Russian presence in the region has effectively stymied Moscow's proposal for a U.N. peacekeeping force in Donbas; Ukraine and the West have said peacekeepers must have complete access to the region, including Russia's border with the separatist territories. Russia has only accepted the deployment of U.N. forces along the line of contact between Ukrainian security forces and the separatists. A referendum before Russia pulled back and before international forces or observers had widespread access would not be acceptable to Ukraine or the European Union.
Moreover, Russia isn't interested in seeing the status of the separatist territories resolved completely. Moscow doesn't want to annex them; it supports them unofficially to create a gray zone that undermines Ukraine's territorial integrity and Kiev's efforts to integrate with NATO and the European Union. A referendum wouldn't truly be in Russia's interests, raising the prospect that it is intentionally problematic.
Finally, Putin's proposal is likely to have additional political motivations. Knowing that Ukraine would be against a referendum, he could be using it to sow discord among Kiev, the European Union and the United States. Trump has reportedly said he would consider the idea. The proposal also lets Putin portray Russia in his talks with Trump as an actor willing to negotiate and offer concessions (however troublesome) on the Ukraine issue. This perception could bleed over into other negotiations, possibly helping to ease U.S. pressure on Russia on arms control, sanctions and military buildups in the European borderlands. Thus, while the referendum proposal is unlikely to make significant headway in resolving the conflict, it indicates that there is potential for movement in the U.S.-Russia standoff.