Russian President Vladimir Putin may be willing to make concessions in Ukraine negotiations in order to get the European Union to end sanctions on Russia.
Russia's announcement that it will end military operations in Syria, however tenuous and hedged it might be, is notable given the interplay between negotiations over the Syrian conflict and the crisis in eastern Ukraine. Lately there also has been a marked uptick in diplomatic activity between Russia and the United States. On March 23, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin. Both Syria and Ukraine were discussed at the meeting, and Lavrov called on Moscow and Kiev alike to do more to implement the Minsk protocols and resolve the Ukrainian crisis.
Incentive may be growing for Russia to improve the climate for talks on the Ukrainian crisis. In July, the European Union will review its sanctions against Russia. As low energy prices hamper its economy, Moscow would certainly welcome an end to the sanctions, which limit trade and investment opportunities with the West. In light of Russia's recent willingness to dial down militarily in Syria and engage in negotiations to end the civil war there, Moscow could adopt a similar posture in Ukraine ahead of the upcoming vote.
Of course, Russia's involvement has been fundamentally different in each conflict. For instance, Russia's military presence and support of separatists in eastern Ukraine is unofficial. Moreover, the Ukrainian theater relates more directly to Russian national security interests and, in that sense, presents a greater strategic concern for Moscow. Because Russia has traditionally prioritized security interests over economic ones when it comes to its near abroad, economic weakness does not guarantee that Russia will bend to the West over Ukraine. Nevertheless, Russia could well soften its stance in Ukraine negotiations to extract concessions from the West. The following are areas in which Moscow may take a more conciliatory approach.
Russia's Military Activities
A key condition of the Minsk protocols is the cessation of all military activity and the removal of all foreign — including Russian — forces from eastern Ukraine. Despite official denials, Russia continues to maintain a military presence in Ukraine's breakaway regions. Moscow is still sending troops and materiel to the area, according to multiple sources on the ground and in local and social media. Indeed, fighting, including shelling, between the separatists and Ukrainian security forces has intensified in the past few months.
But any signs of Russia slowing the flow of supplies and reducing its presence in the breakaway territories could indicate Moscow's willingness to compromise with Ukraine and the West. But even if Moscow were to take such actions, Russian forces could still quickly return to eastern Ukraine if political concessions, such as Ukraine granting autonomy to Donbas or the European Union lifting sanctions, do not materialize. At the very least, though, a Russian withdrawal from eastern Ukraine — even a temporary one — could sway the European Union to remove sanctions against Russia, particularly since a few EU countries are wavering on the issue.
Other key stipulations of the Minsk agreement include ceding control of the border between Russia and the separatist territories to Ukraine and allowing monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) full access to those territories. Although the OSCE, which has permanent positions in Donetsk and Gukovo, can access some border crossings, it can only patrol other border areas. The Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic have not allowed OSCE monitors to access parts of the border, such as Savur-Mohyla and the Novoazovsk region in Donetsk and the Krasnyi Luch region in Luhansk, where Russian supplies cross.
Greater OSCE presence in and access to border posts could expose Russia's personnel and supply positions, which is likely why the country has been unyielding on the issue so far. But if Russia and the separatists allow the OSCE more access to border posts (particularly those through which supplies come), it would serve as a benchmark of compromise in military and security issues.
Finally, there have been recent indications that Russia is trying to consolidate leadership of the Donetsk People's Republic under Denis Pushilin, the republic's speaker of parliament, while marginalizing other leaders who may be less willing to tout Moscow's line. These leaders include Security Council Secretary Alexander Khodakovsky, a major rival and critic of Prime Minister Alexander Zakharchenko, as well as a militant leader codenamed Givi, who, despite being an effective tactical commander, displayed little diplomatic ability during parleys with Ukrainian commanders in the fight over the Donetsk airport.
Consolidating separatist leadership and suppressing rebellious elements like Khodakovsky and Givi could put the Russians in a better position to wrap up military operations in eastern Ukraine quickly, if need be. On the other hand, it could also facilitate ramping up operations in Donbas. But whatever scenario Moscow chooses, tightening its chain of command will enable Russia to rein in dissenters and increase its control of any operations in eastern Ukraine.