Wishful Thinking

Confessions of a Putin Strategist

Officials on both sides of the Ukraine conflict agree “full-scale, continental war” is a growing possibility.

01.18.15 11:45 AM ET

MOSCOW—Peace negotiations were supposed to take place between Moscow and Kiev last Thursday. They didn’t. On Friday, in both capitals, officials talked about full-scale war threatening to erupt in Donbas, the rebellious eastern region of Ukraine. Each side blamed the other for violence and atrocities, after an artillery attack hit a public bus and killed 12 passengers on the road between Donetsk

and Mariupol earlier in the week. The strike targeted a Ukrainian army position, a checkpoint; the army blamed  separatists, while separatist officials said the Ukrainians had fired on their own
position to simulate a separatist atrocity. Both Kiev and Moscow demanded an investigation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The new ceasefire negotiations, which had been planned for weeks by both sides of the conflict, seemed to be forgotten, and the question looms whether a peace agreement with Ukraine is possible at all.

According to Sergei Markov, an informal advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Moscow did not have a good peace plan in the first place. “No peace negotiations can happen,” he told The Daily Beast, “so long as certain Ukrainian officials … are responsible for decision making in Kiev; and they want to drag Russia into a full-scale war, as that is the only way they can keep power.” Markov, speaking as we waited for Putin to address the Public Chamber at Moscow State University on Thursday, mentioned three names in particular as obstacles to peace: Oleksandr Turchninov, the former acting president and current secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council; Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the prime minister;  and parliamentarian Andriy Parubiy.

In vain, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called last week for an urgent meeting of Trilateral Contact Group with the participation of Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE, at the level of foreign ministers.

Shelling and mortar fire continued in Donbas, causing more deaths of civilians. Turchinov, whom Markov wanted to see prosecuted for war crimes, warned Thursday against “the resumption of large-scale military operations and attacks with the active participation of Russian armed forces, which may result in a full-scale, continental war.”

If not, Turchinov told the parliament in Kiev, there may be “intensification of terrorist activities in the long-term transformation of the armed conflict, with the depletion of economic, military, moral and psychological potential of Ukraine, and the destruction of its statehood.”

Turchinov’s security council decided to launch another mobilization wave on January 20, and two more in April and June.

A full-scale war? Markov told us that, indeed, Turchinov’s predictions could come true: “Some Russian forces might get involved to help out the army of Novorossia, in case Ukrainian forces re-arm and advance.” (Markov continues to refer to rebellious regions as Novorossia, although hopes for such a quasi-imperial expansion of Moscow’s dominion are fading.) He admitted without going into details that “at least twice, in August and September, some Russian military were on Ukrainian soil.”

Markov works as a vice rector at the Plekhanov Russian University and a member of the Public Chamber. Back in 1993, he helped found the Carnegie Moscow Center. He was a long-time friend of Michael McFaul, President Barack Obama’s architect of Russia policy, who served as ambassador to Moscow. Russia. Ukraine was Markov’s field of expertise; he was the Kremlin’s advisor and political consultant during the Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2005, which Ukrainians refer to as “the first Maidan.”

These days Markov sees his mission as that of a consultant to the Kremlin: “I pass my advice through Naryshkin,” he said. Sergei Naryshkin is State Duma speaker. Markov concedes that some of his advice is not taken. “I was against recognizing Kiev’s elections; but we did recognize them and it was a mistake,” Markov told The Daily Beast. In a number of interviews last summer, Markov said that Moscow’s plan was to expand a separatist pro-Russian state of Novorossia by first winning the war in Donbas, and then going further to make Nikolayev, Kharkiv and Odessa as part of Novorossia.

But more recently, despite his attachment to the word and the notion of Novorossia, Markov says he has changed tack: “About a month and a half ago, I advised that instead of Novorossia, we should promote integration of the Donbas regions back into Ukraine,” Markov said. Since last November, Pesident Putin has not pronounced the word Novorossia.

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Markov says his new agenda is likely to be very uncomfortable for Kiev. “If it happens that Donbas integrates into the current state, these Ukrainian citizens will demand independent investigations,” he said. They will want to know who was guilty in the deadly fire in Odessa last May that killed 42 people; they will want to know “why Ukrainian National Guards shot civilians on May 9 in Mariupol, and who fired at the public bus outside Donetsk this week.”

Formally, Moscow still favors peace talks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says that Moscow is still interested in the meeting proposed by Merkel to make sure that all parts of an earlier agreement are fulfilled. “Efforts are being made,” he said. “I hope that we get the results and guns will be silenced again.”

Unfortunately, the roar of cannons and of Grad missile launchers is more likely.