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The Glazyev Tapes and the Minsk Agreements: a response to Andreas Umland

In an article recently published under the aegis of the Wider Europe Forum of the European Council on Foreign Relations,1 Andreas Umland argues that the ‘Surkov Leaks’ and ‘Glazyev Tapes’ confirm that in February—March 2014 the Kremlin was providing covert financial and organizational support to anti-Maidan activists in eastern Ukraine. They also show that Russian officials and politicians were trying to get these activists to make a ‘call for help’ that could then be used to justify Russian military intervention. I willingly acknowledge these facts. I do wish, however, to question Umland’s interpretation of the situation and especially his policy recommendations.

After conceding that tensions in the predominantly Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine were real and that Russia did not create them but was only ‘fanning the flames,’ Umland then states that ‘Moscow had been behind’ protests in these regions following the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime. This ambiguous expression is susceptible to a variety of interpretations. Is it meant to imply that without Russian interference there would have been no anti-Maidan protests? That is a supposition for which I see no grounds whatsoever.

Umland notes that Moscow’s manipulations ‘remained remarkably unsuccessful’ outside Crimea. With that I wholeheartedly concur. Much more dubious is his explanation of the Kremlin’s failure:

Surprisingly, the weak Ukrainian state ... was still strong enough to resist Russia’s non-military assault on its sovereignty and integrity.

What does this mean exactly? That the half-formed new regime in Kiev already possessed the physical power to prevent or deter anti-Maidan activists throughout the country from complying with the Kremlin’s wishes? That would be not just ‘surprising’ but a veritable miracle! 

Yes, even under the chaotic conditions that prevailed in early 2014 Ukraine did prove strong enough to resist the Russian assault. But this strength must be understood in a different sense. Ukraine was strong because not only its Ukrainian speakers but also the great majority of its Russian speakers (except for a small minority of Russian nationalists and the special case of Crimea) wanted to remain in an independent Ukraine. They sought to protect their interests within the framework of the Ukrainian state, not by joining Russia. They had their own ideas of what sort of state Ukraine should be, but they too were Ukrainian patriots. Only this can explain why they were so reluctant to call for Russian ‘help’ – for had they been willing to do so no one would have been in a position to stop them.

The period that we are considering – February and March 2014 – was before the events of May 2, 2014, when Ukrainian ultra-nationalists murdered scores of anti-Maidan protestors in and around Odessa’s House of Trade Unions, burning many of them alive.2 This atrocity naturally heightened fears of the post-Maidan political order among Ukraine’s Russian speakers. Still there was no ‘call for help’ that the Kremlin could use as a pretext for military intervention. Not even from Odessa itself.

Umland’s interpretation of the situation leads him to recommend that the European Union and the West in general should not insist ‘on Ukraine quickly fulfilling the political aspects of the Minsk Agreements’ but place sole emphasis on the demand for Russia to return occupied territory to Ukraine. The ‘political aspects’ to which he alludes provide for special regimes of autonomous local self-government in the Donbas and constitutional reform to decentralize power at the national level.

Umland justifies his recommendation as follows (I abridge somewhat but try adequately to convey the gist):

The social rationale for far-reaching new political rules in the Donbas, as envisaged in the Minsk Agreements, is slim. A popular Western interpretation of the concessions to the separatists in these Agreements had been that the fact of a grass-roots insurgency in the Donbas should be reflected in its future status. Yet ... the East Ukrainian ‘Russian Spring’ was, from the beginning, not as popular a phenomenon as it had seemed. If one acknowledges ... the imperial rather than local dimension of the uprising, then it becomes clear that the Minsk Agreements need to be revisited...  There is no reason why the West should support a sellout deal designed to undermine the sovereignty of the Ukrainian state in the Donbas.

The main weakness in this line of argument is that it relies wholly on one particular interpretation of the concessions made. Another interpretation is possible and leads to quite different policy recommendations. Specifically, the ‘concessions to the separatists’ might equally well be viewed as concessions to the Russian speakers of eastern and southern Ukraine, most of whom are loyal citizens of Ukraine but who have legitimate economic and security interests that could be protected through the decentralization of power (whether by establishing a federal structure or by other means). While Russia may support such provisions in the hope that they will undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, what matters is their actual effect – and there is every reason to expect that by eliminating conditions that invite Russian meddling they will in fact strengthen rather than weaken the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Negotiations over Ukraine should also be considered in the wider context of relations between Russia and the West and the urgent need to defuse the current confrontation and avert the danger of war. True, Ukraine is only one of several theaters of confrontation: there is also the Baltic region, the South Caucasus, and Syria. Nevertheless, whether or not the Minsk Agreements on Ukraine hold up will be of some real significance for the overall situation.

When Umland says that concessions should be made only by Russia he is saying in effect that the Minsk Agreements should be deliberately wrecked, because any agreement with Russia has to entail concessions from both sides – if only to save Putin’s face. At best the negotiating process would return to point zero. The Russian side may well feel double-crossed and break off negotiations without much prospect of them resuming in the near future. Renewed hostilities would be likely, with an increasing risk of direct clashes between NATO and Russian forces in the Black Sea.      

How responsible would it be to assume such risks, especially when conflict resolution and relaxation of tensions seem to be within reach?

I strongly suspect that the Ukrainian nationalist politicians in power in Kiev are deliberately trying to scupper the Minsk Agreements (with the help of Andreas Umland and his ilk) precisely in order to justify a new military offensive in eastern Ukraine that they hope to win with armaments provided by the next US administration while NATO deters direct Russian military intervention. They are making a gross miscalculation, because Putin will never allow Kiev to obtain a decisive victory. A renewal of hostilities on land, even in the absence of NATO ground forces, will exacerbate the confrontation between Russian and NATO naval and air forces on and over the Black Sea, possibly leading to World War Three. Besides the threat to world peace, is this scenario really in the interests of the people of Ukraine?  

Umland gives intellectual expression to the characteristic biases of the Ukrainian nationalists in whose midst he now works. People in this social milieu focus so single-mindedly on the (very real) machinations of the Kremlin that they fail to see the legitimate interests and genuine grievances of Ukraine’s Russian speakers as significant factors in their own right. It is sad to watch a specialist of Umland’s caliber degenerate into a propagandist for the new regime in Kiev.    


 1. Andreas Umland, The Glazyev Tapes: Getting to the root of the conflict in Ukraine. Commentary, 1st November, 2016. The author is currently a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev.

 2. Those who have forgotten what happened in Odessa can refresh their memories here.  



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