Photo: Ilya Ponomarev (c) 2020

Crimea and Donbas: what will it take to end Russian aggression?

1 May 2020

On 29 April the British Ukrainian Society hosted its first webinar with Ilya Ponomarev, entrepreneur and the only Russian MP to vote against the annexation of Crimea. His discussion with Lord Risby was entitled, ‘Crimea and Donbas: what will it take to end Russian aggression?‘

Lord Risby introduced Mr Ponomarev and moderated the Q&A session afterwards.

Ilya began by describing his motivations around his vote against the annexation of Crimea. He explained that it was less about the welfare of Ukraine or considerations about preserving the international order, but more a result of talking to his constituents in Russia’s third largest city of Novosibirsk. He soon realised that opinion on the issue was split, but ultimately felt the economic implications for the region tipped the balance. As he predicted, the annexation brought international isolation, an increase in the prices of goods, falling wages and perhaps most tangibly for his region, funding that was earmarked for a bridge across the Ob River was reapportioned towards building the Crimean Bridge across the Kerch Straight. “When Crimea is one day returned to Ukraine, and I think it will eventually happen, I don’t believe most ordinary Russians will object.”

Mr Ponomarev suggests that President Putin’s motivation for starting hostilities in Ukraine and in particular in Crimea was not down to imperialistic ambitions but a way of boosting support and preserving power for himself within Russia. Mr Putin was embarrassed that the person he had twice backed for president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, was as many times ousted by popular revolutions and was seeking to deflect any criticism linked to these humiliating episodes. He also wanted to demonstrate to Russians that revolution leads to bloodshed and a country’s disintegration, in order to dissuade any similar notions from taking root domestically. He used the events in Crimea to instil and cultivate a sense of Russian pride, patriotism and strength.

The motivation for invading the Donbas was different – the result of a power game inside the Kremlin between various figures close to Mr Putin, and the emergence of the concept of Novorossiya (New Russia) made up of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. These people thought the invasion would endear themselves to President Putin; Aleksandr Dugin was responsible for its ideological justification, whilst former chief of staff Sergei Ivanov produced moral and financial support. Vladislav Surkov, who Mr Ponomarev has been told was against the invasion, was in charge of its political implementation. Mr Putin accepted the idea with the view that the conflict could be used as a bargaining chip to trade with the west in order for it to recognise Crimea as Russian. (The same bargaining chip logic applies to Russian involvement in Syria)

These tactics in eastern Ukraine and Syria didn’t work as planned. Ilya asserts that President Putin is at a dead end but acknowledges that although the Russian economy is suffering for various reasons including rock bottom oil prices, Russia has enough financial reserves to continue funding the war without it effecting its economy too much for another 2-3 years. The situation is not optimal but tolerable, and as an opportunist Mr Putin is betting that he will outlive western leaders and that it will be the business communities in various western countries, in particular from the working class in countries like Germany and France, that will ultimately influence policy making in Russia’s favour.

All the same, the Russian elite is unhappy with the current situation because they cannot easily access capital, their travel is curtailed and subsequently so are their lifestyles, which are deeply intertwined with the west. As a result Mr Putin experiences pressure from the people around him and this provides an opportunity for Ukraine.

Ilya suggests that Mr Putin had planned to strike a deal with President Zelenskyi before world leaders were due to arrive in Moscow to celebrate Victory Day on 9 May. The coronavirus has delayed this and the Duma has voted to push back the celebrations to 2-3 September, but the plan to present this peace agreement during the Victory Day celebrations is to his knowledge still in place. In preparation, Mr Putin has removed Mr Surkov and replaced him with Dmitry Kozak who is known to achieve results in negotiations, so this indicates to Mr Ponomarev that Mr Putin is ready to compromise and negotiate for peace. The question is where the boundary of compromise lies for Ukraine, a more difficult question.

Please, use link below to see full video of the webinar:
BUS YouTube Channel - Crimea and Donbas: what will it take to end Russian aggression?

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