Putin’s early September suggestion that a UN peacekeeping force be sent to the Donbass region triggered a skeptical reaction from the Western block. To a certain degree, the Kremlin’s acceptance of the deployment of UN peacekeepers signifies a diplomatic victory of the West. Up until now, Russia has been persistently refusing similar proposals from Germany, France, the United States and Ukraine, insisting that peace in eastern Ukraine could be based solely upon Minsk agreement.
Now that Putin has taken a sudden U-turn regarding his former position, he also put forward several conditions that do not coincide with the Western vision. Instead of deploying UN forces on Russia-Ukraine border (thereby limiting the alleged traffic of weapons and soldiers that support pro-Russian separatists), the Russian president wants to limit their presence to the line of contact between Ukrainian and separatist forces so that they can provide security to Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe officials.
Reaction to Moscow’s new strategy was predictable. First, in consultation with Washington, Kyiv insisted that the UN peacekeepers also be located on the border with Russia, claiming the participation of the Russian troops in such a mission was unacceptable. Second, former Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his doubts whether Putin’s agenda was truly sincere or if it simply presented “a trap.” Third, former ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, straightforwardly laid out his thoughts in the National Interest.
In his article, Pifer suggests subjecting Putin’s proposal to a certain litmus test, letting the jury out on whether the proposal is just another public relations ruse. The former ambassador writes that Putin’s original “proposal must be reshaped” by incorporating Western rhetoric, thereby discerning Russia’s hidden agenda. Everything becomes crystal clear should Putin rebut the “proper mandate” pushed forward by the West, according to Pifer. Instead of a politically elegant opt-out from the conflict with Ukraine in the wake of upcoming 2018 presidential elections in Russia, Putin wants nothing but to discredit the very idea of the UN peacekeeping operation. In other words, by not accepting a “worthwhile mandate,” and consequently making the West refuse the game against its rules, Russian diplomats will portray the refusal as a complete withdrawal of their counterparts from the negotiation table: the West does not want the mission, full stop.
Following Pifer’s logic, if Russia wants a “serious and robust mandate . . . that would advance peace,” then it should have no leeway but to allow the UN forces on its border as well as the entire region of Donbass. Well argued in its nature, this approach is fundamentally incorrect. Pifer entirely neglects the geopolitical interests of Russia and the way those interests are viewed from the vantage point of Kremlin. Conversely, a truly profound analysis would need to include an examination and understanding of Putin’s real goals and how they diverge from those he is often ascribed by Washington.
The whole idea of “testing Moscow’s sincerity” is reminiscent of the good old security dilemma. A brainchild of political science, it argues that invincibility of one State automatically implies vulnerability of the other and vice-versa. In the current context of the UN mission to Ukraine, this dilemma would take the following shape: While the idea of the mandate is supported by both sides, its form (suggested by the West) appears to Putin as unacceptable mockery just as the West find Putin’s proposal insufficient. The United States, Europe and Ukraine clearly distrust Putin, while Putin, in turn, distrusts them all at once.
Pifer’s narrative suggests that Putin’s proposal concerning peace in Donbass is not serious so long as it does not comply with the deployment scheme suggested by the West. This statement is also quite erroneous. Putin’s proposal is serious. The president of Russia does want peace. But his rules imply the conservation of non-bloc status of Ukraine. Additionally, the rules mandate that Ukraine cease its attempts to discredit Russia-Europe energy cooperation vis-à-vis Nord Stream II, bring the “Crimean question” to a close, remove sanctions, and, presumably, pay special attention and respect to the rights of the Russian-speaking community in Ukraine.