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2 March 2017

"The rebellion of Ukrainian oligarchs"

Why Putin should be afraid of new peace plans

While observers in Russia and the US are closely watching the contacts Donald Trump’s administration is establishing, or could be establishing, with Moscow, one important issue is being pushed out of the limelight, namely that of potential alternative ways to resolve the Ukrainian crisis in case the Kremlin and White House strike a “big deal”. The media have recently discussed a “massive” number of plans allegedly being offered by different stakeholders and parties directly involved in the conflict. The Artemenko plan is one the proposals which has caused quite a stir. Are all these backdoor attempts random undertakings or part of a crafty Putin plan?

At first glance, there is indeed a multitude of plans to resolve the Ukrainian crisis. One of them – known as the "Manafort plan" - was named after the chairman of Donald Trump presidential campaign Paul Manafort (who chaired the campaign only until August 2016, having then resigned amidst a scandal). According to the Western press, it was precisely Paul Manafort who was recommended as an adviser to Viktor Yanukovych (in the days of his presidency) by the Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. Clearly, Paul Manafort was of little help to Viktor Yanukovych. On the other hand, he strengthened connections with Ukrainian oligarchs who perceive the issue of the Ukrainian crisis both as a business-related problem and a political challenge. Konstantin Kilimnik (a citizen of Russia and Ukraine ) was Manafort’s aide during the Trump campaign. He now positions himself as “the Manafort man” in Kyiv and, in fact, has also presented a new peace plan. The plan is based on the idea that Yanukovych returns to Ukraine as the head of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. The details of the plan are unknown. However, it probably means that Russia will thereby agree to “leave” Donbas while Kyiv will restore control over the borders of Ukraine.

Yet another plan was presented by Viktor Yanukovych himself on February 21 when he suggested that representatives of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics should be invited to join the Normandy format in his address to Donald Trump and other world leaders. This would mean that Kyiv would be forced to implement the Minsk Agreements. Moreover, he proposes that a special commission, tasked with investigating the Maidan crimes of January-February 2014, should be created by the Council of Europe. Should Kyiv refuse, the former President of Ukraine suggests that a referendum over the status of Donbas be held, which seems to be an attempt to blackmail the authorities with a threat of a Crimean scenario. Of course, it is not a real plan at all: Yanukovych’s ideas are purely an attempt to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the world community and to rid himself of the isolated situation he has found himself in (he is a de facto hostage at the mercy of Russia).

Another new plan – the "Taruta plan" – has been developed by another Ukrainian oligarch Sergey Taruta who proposes to limit the powers of President Petro Poroshenko (and in fact exclude him from the peacekeeping process), deploy a UN peacekeeping contingent to Donbas and recognize the authority of the deputies of local councils elected in 2010 in the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. It appears to suppose that Donald Trump would persuade Moscow to “yield”.

Finally, the fourth plan, which has recently gained widespread publicity, is the "Artemenko plan". According to the New York Times, former national security adviser to US President Donald Trump Michael T. Flynn, the president’s personal lawyer Michael D. Cohen, his business associate Felix H. Sater and Ukrainian MP Andriy Artemenko were involved in developing the plan. In actual fact, the plan consists of several proposals: to hold the Ukrainian nationwide referendum over leasing Crimea to Russia for a period of 50-100 years; to return Donbas to Ukraine (and provide full amnesty to everyone apart from those who committed most serious crimes); to return control over the border to Ukraine and allow citizens to leave the territory of Ukraine within 72 hours should they wish to do so; to conduct the Ukrainian nationwide referendum over the special status of Donbas; to establish a special fund for the restoration of Donbas; to lift Russian sanctions; to guarantee the neutral status of Ukraine; to discontinue the Minsk Agreements and shift to a trilateral US-Russia-Ukraine format. As Andriy Artemenko announced, this is his peace plan initiative which enjoys the support of President Vladimir Putin’s closest circle.

Few had heard of Artemenko prior to the article in the New York Times. He is an insignificant People’s Deputy of Ukraine (a sponsor in fact) from the Radical Party faction headed by Oleg Lyashko. Andriy Artemenko used to be involved in mid-sized businesses and used to be the president of CSKA Kiyv football club. He spent two years behind bars for fraud (a campaign against the Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko was being waged at the time; Artemenko was Omelchenko’s adviser). He was a member of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc in 2007, joined the Right Sector (banned in Russia) after the 2014 revolution and was a financial adviser to Dmitry Yarosh. When information about the plan developed by Artemenko emerged, the latter was immediately expelled from the Radical Party and the Prosecutor General’s Office opened a criminal case against him in connection with charges of treason. This is an indicator of what awaits supporters of Russian concessions – concessions unacceptable from the Russian standpoint.

Despite their different nature, all these plans have one thing in common: every one of them lobbies political or business interests which have nothing to do with the interests of Moscow or big diplomacy in the first place. Moreover, all of these plans also have one political motive in common: the fight against President Petro Poroshenko. The plans developed by Paul Manafort, Andriy Artemenko and Sergey Taruta and Viktor Yanukovych are not about the resolution of the crisis in eastern Ukraine but about overthrowing (or weakening) Poroshenko in the process of searching for a solution to the Donbas problem. We are witnessing the “oligarchic” rebellion against the Ukrainian president. The crisis in eastern Ukraine is a problem he failed to resolve (as, in all likelihood, any other leader would, were they in his shoes). Thus, Donetsk oligarchs are rather interested in Manafort and Taruta plans since their businesses enjoyed connections with Yanukovych and his “clan”. These oligarchs seek to gain the de facto support of the new US administration in the process of forming the counter-elite. On the other hand, Poroshenko represents the “people of Donetsk”. According to the New York Times, Artemenko tried to offer Donald Trump’s administration compromising evidence of corruption against Petro Poroshenko including the names of companies and confirmation of remittances.

Russia is closely watching this process. However, it is unlikely that the Kremlin is pulling the strings. Each of the submitted plans is unacceptable to Moscow to one degree or another, although each of them contains a kernel of truth. Only in its nightmares would Moscow consider handing power in Donbas over to Viktor Yanukovych, a weak and shifty politician who is pro-Russian only to a certain extent, which is often to the Kremlin’s dismay. Yanukovych’s increased activity does not necessarily exclude his desire to legitimize himself in one form or another. However, this could easily lead to a conflict between the Kremlin and Yanukovych should he insist on being politically involved. This, in turn, would not bode well for the latter, taking into account the fact that he depends on Putin’s will to ensure his personal safety. The Taruta plan is absolutely unacceptable to the Kremlin since it involves military intervention by international forces, which would imply the loss of Moscow’s vicarious control over the territory unless the UN Security Council recognized the rule of Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky in Donbas (which will never happen). Finally, according to the Artemenko plan, Moscow is supposed to let go of Crimea which is unacceptable, even under the conditions of a long-term lease of the peninsula.

Still, the authors of the “peace plans” try to take Moscow’s interests into account – otherwise, the success of an initiative is doomed. Manafort and Artemenko place a stake on the acceptability of Ukrainian oligarchs since Moscow plans to hand over the governance of Donbas precisely to them. Artemenko adds two more “carrots” to his proposal: an amnesty of pro-Russian militants and the securing of Ukraine’s neutral status. However, the Kremlin raises the stakes: Moscow wants institutional control over Donbas (autonomous status) and political control (maintaining unconditional loyalty and accountability of the leaders of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics to the Kremlin). Moreover, the Kremlin wants rigorous guarantees of Ukraine’s neutral status. No matter what the situation today, no single political force, diplomat or businessman can offer Moscow all three guarantees. In Ukraine itself, the Kremlin’s game appears inadequate and even helpless: Russia tries to appeal to so-called “realists” and is actually banking on Kyiv gradually surrendering on Moscow’s terms, which is an entirely different story.

What is happening today constitutes an ominous sign for Vladimir Putin and not only because the plans under discussion could attract the attention of Donald Trump’s administration. The problem lies in the burgeoning chaos in Ukraine. The position of Petro Poroshenko is weakening in the country. Increasingly polycentric forces operate in Ukraine. These forces are highly competitive and are not constructive from Moscow’s point of view. Ukrainian oligarchs – no matter how pragmatic they may be – will never be Kremlin “henchmen” or members of a pro-Russian force. Connections in Moscow will inevitably mean the end of their careers. Russia’s bargaining position, when it comes to resolving the Ukrainian conflict, might become substantially weaker given the activity of various intermediaries who have become frequent visitors to Washington today: one of these proposals might eventually catch the eye of Trump’s administration. Under such circumstances, Moscow would be at risk both of losing the initiative and of facing new sanctions. 

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