Syrian-Ukrainian interests of Russia

Reports on increasing Russian activity in Syria are covered by rumors about reducing support for separatists from Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Vladimir Putin most likely will not risk the game on two fronts and will shift his military attention to the Middle-East. He does so not only due to threats related directly to Islamic State (IS) and to eventual downfall of Bashar al-Assad, but also because of the fact, that the road to a victory in Ukraine leads through Damascus and Latakia.

Since September 1st the ceasefire in the eastern Ukraine has been broadly respected by both sides of the conflict. However, reported single incidents of violation have been pointed out each other by rebels1 and Ukrainian army2. Also Contact Group failed so far to agree on the pullback of heavy weapons3. Quarrels on elections in Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’e Republic4 also show that political confusion will not be stopped.

Inconsistent statements of separatists leaders regarding local elections cast doubts, though. They are beating about the dates of elections, not knowing if October/November term would be better or February 21st 5. It could be a symptom of sliding ground from under feet, because Russia seems to leave the Ukraine conflict for now. Of course, political pressure will not be diluted – quite the reverse!

While Europe had been focusing completely on the migration crisis and on Syria, a quick escalation of the conflict in Donbass could be overlooked by western governments. But Putin did not decide for this solution, quite reasonably. What he wants now is easing the sanctions and international recognition of Russia’s global position. Without these factors, the Ukraine conflict cannot be won by Russia.

Now Syria offers to Putin much higher „return rate”, with much lower risk. What could he gain? If supported by Russian troops and aircraft Assad defeats the rebels or even ISIS, then it would be a geopolitical great victory for Putin. He would also eliminate caliphate warriors from his own country or push them out to mountain’s shelters. If Assad would not win, but just survive (his main enemy are rebels on the West of the country), it could be also a success of Russia and its ally – Iran – because it would be a blow for the US and Europe. And even if Assad would lose, then Syria would become „second Libya”, delivering unbelievable wave of migrants to Europe.

Migrants or refugees issue is a permament bonus for Putin in each of these scenarios, because escalating actually stabilized conflict must lead to a mass movement of people from Syria and from its neighbours’ refugee camps. So far, only a part of refugees have come to the EU – barely more than 442 thousands6 from 3.9 million7. Next thousands are still waiting and divided Europe will be weakened, anyway. And it will need Russia to negotiate „Middle-East-truce”, because of its direct engagement in the war. It would be the greatest succes for Russia and it can be reached just by strengthening Assad’s military position, if only Gulf states would not reinforce rebels again.

Russia can regain in Syria its international recognition, what is basically happening now with voices from Germany and US. And from New Yorks’ UN summit. Leading all sides to a „negotiating table” should be main goal of Putin, as he allways searched the possibility of „the new Yalta”. Then, in a long term, with strong diplomatic position, Russia can „sell” the peace in the Middle-East for Ukraine or at least for Crimea recognition or a non-NATO status of entire Ukraine.

Kiev for now has a hard choice. There are many signals, that separatists are abondoned by Russian. There are already some evidence, that Russian troops are fighting in Syria8. There is a possibility, that they are mercenaries from Donbas, like 190 individuals from the battalion „Don”9. Only control units and snipers are left, just to lead a positional battle. The coordinator of the „information resistance” Dmitry Timchuk claims, that separatists management believes that Moskow rejects plans fo further escalations. People’s Republics are in panic after withdrawal of some units of troops and some officers to Russia or Syria10. Also humanitarian aid convoys, two have been sent in September so far11, could be used to strengthen militants as well as to export from Donbas some equipment.

Interesting is not only what Russia do in Ukraine, but also what it does around it. Firstly, there are rumors, that Border Troops of the FSB inceased monitoring of the border between Russia Federation and Ukraine. Moreover, a second major military base for 5000 soildiers and heavy weapon is planed to be built near the border with Ukraine12. Also a military air base in Belarus is to be built, as Putin and Belarusian President Alexandr Lukashenka reached an agreement this month.

Hawks would say that Putin is preparing for war with NATO, while doves – that he crossed out Ukraine and prepares for its NATO membership or alliance in the future. So the move is now on the Kiev’s side. They can attack and try to regain Donbas with force (could be problematic at all) or focuse on reaching agreement with weakend separatists and continue with crucial political and economic reforms.

Iternet references:

1. No night shelling reported from DPR front-line areas as truce holds Source: Tass 23-09-2015
Single incidents of ceasefire violation have been fixed in the past few days, but on the whole the situation in the troubled self-proclaimed republic in Ukraine’s east is calm.

2. During the day the militants violated the truce 9 Times Source: Ukarainecrisis.net 23-09-2015
During the last days the illegal armed groups 9 times violated the truce.

3. Contact Group fails to agree on weapons withdrawal in Donbass – OSCE envoy Source: Tass 22-09-2015
Martin Sajdik said the discussion of the withdrawal schedule had taken seven hours.

4. Donbas elections no violation of Minsk-2 provisions — Russia FM Source: Tass 23-09-2015
According to Lavrov, Kiev’s position “first elections – then amnesty” is a major distortion of the essence of the Minsk agreements.

5. Ukraine rebels say local elections still set for October, November Source: Reuters 22-09-2015
Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine said on Tuesday they were going ahead with local elections in October and November in defiance of Kiev, and only hours after they appeared to say they were prepared to postpone the vote to avoid “stalemate” in peace efforts.

6. Time running out to resolve refugee emergency in Europe Source: UNHCR 21-09-2015
Following yesterday’s mayhem on the Serbian border with Croatia, which has closed some entry points, the UN refugee agency today issued a stark warning that time was running out for Europe to resolve the current refugee crisis.

7. Refugees endure worsening conditions as Syria’s conflict enters 5th year Source: UNHCR 12-03-2015
As the Syrian conflict enters its fifth year, millions of refugees in neighbouring countries and those displaced within the country are caught in alarmingly deteriorating conditions, facing an even bleaker future without more international support, UNHCR warned today.

8. Who are these Russian fighters posting pics of themselves in Syria? Source: BBC 09-09-2015
They’re brandishing guns, smiling and posing in front of posters showing Presidents Assad and Putin. But who exactly are the Russian soldiers and fighters posting pictures of themselves inside Syria?

9. IS: 190 militants from the Lugansk region in Russia toggles Syria Source: Ukrainiancrisis.net 21-09-2015
190 individuals with the battalion “Don” will go from the Lugansk region in Russia and from there – in Syria, where the conflict erupted.

10. Some officers went from Donbass Russia, the militants panic – IS Source: Ukrainiancrisi.net 22-09-2015
Guide insurgents in the Donbas suggests that Russia abandons plans for further escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

11. Russian Emergencies Ministry’s convoy delivers humanitarian aid to Donbas Source: Tass 24-09-2015
More than 100 trucks delivered more than 1,200 tons of humanitarian aid, mostly food and medicine.

12. Russia plans second big military base near Ukrainian border Source: Reuters 23-09-2015
Russia is planning a second major military base near the border with Ukraine, where NATO accuses Russian troops of helping pro-Moscow separatists fight Kiev’s forces.


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