This morning Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Russian Security Council, in an interview with the RIA Novosti agency indicated a desire by Russia to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine and mediate between Kiev and rebel forces. This comes despite all the news reports and headlines up to now of escalating tensions – retaliatory measures by Russia on European and American food imports, the downing of a fighter jet, the deployment of cruiser USS Vella Gulf of the 6th fleet in the Black Sea and continued battles on the ground in Donetsk, Luhansk and close to the Russian border.
Russia has offered to mediate before; the question is whether this time could be different and if all hostile parties are ready to sit at the negotiating table.
*** While we believe Ukraine has been eager to press its military advantage and try and clear Eastern Ukraine of the rebels “once and for all” – if not substantially degrade their capabilities before any discussion of cease-fire – there are signs that Kiev may have started to position for some negotiated solution. Ukrainians – from what we hear – are conscious that the end of the “anti-terrorist” operation will never come without some form of cooperation on the Russian side. ***
*** Specifically our understanding is that the surprising resignation of Ukraine’s hardline Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council Andriy Parubiy may have resulted from a bitter internal dispute with President Petro Poroshenko surrounding whether Ukraine should wage its offensive against the rebels around the MH17 crash site. The area was considered strategically crucial by the Ukrainian army for the complete surrounding of Donetsk. Parubiy’s prominent role in the cabinet and war efforts, as one of the original founders of the far-right party, has been a lightning rod for Moscow and his resignation may go a long way towards addressing both Moscow’s and even Germany’s concerns about the role of far-right militias and leaders in the Ukrainian government. ***
*** The simultaneous resignation of Alexander Borodai as head of the Donetsk People’s Republic has been widely reported as a sign of internal discord or dissent within the ranks of the embattled rebels, but we suspect it had as much to do with efforts by Moscow to extricate itself from Donbas and accusations of a direct linkage to the fighting. Furthermore, Ukraine has stated numerous times in no uncertain terms that it will not negotiate directly with Russian-backed rebels. Borodai’s replacement, Alexander Zakarchenko, is of course Ukrainian. ***
A Sudden Shift in Tone
Last night we were told by sources close to the leadership in Moscow that, despite the rising tensions, including rumors even in Russia of an imminent military strike, Putin’s demeanor was calm and collected, in direct contrast to the demeanor of Putin’s early morning statement of July 21 following the crash of flight MH17.
We believe this call may have been part of an effort to communicate to the West that for all the hardline tit-for-tat in public and including the threat of troop movements and military conflict, that the door was indeed still open for a negotiated settlement (see SGH 8/06/14, “Ukraine: An Outreach, with an Implicit Threat”).
What was perhaps most curious yesterday was the decision to cancel a press conference that was expected later in the day from Putin himself. That press conference would have been coming on the heels of the announcement of retaliatory measures on agricultural imports from the EU.
A spokesman for the Kremlin denied that a conference had been scheduled, calling the whole thing a big miscommunication. We do not believe this was a miscommunication, but rather that the presser was actually scheduled and then canceled, perhaps as it would have been incongruous with fast moving behind the scenes efforts at de-escalation.
The conflict in Ukraine is far from over, but we would consider this latest news as evidence that the parties are testing the waters with an eye to re-opening the lines of communication that had been shut down following the recent ratcheting up of sanctions and after the crash of MH17.