Stratfor sees possible concessions made by Ukraine, Russia on Donbas
Stratfor, the U.S.-based geopolitical intelligence and consulting firm, says that the notable changes that are occurring in eastern Ukraine hint at possible concessions made by both sides.
"The extension of the deadline [of the Minsk peace agreements] appears to have led to notable changes on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine," it said.
The extension was negotiated through the Normandy Four format, which includes France and Germany alongside Ukraine and Russia. Moscow pushed for the extension but Ukraine wavered, disputing the requirement for elections in eastern Ukraine and pointing out the continued ceasefire violations in the region.
"However, just before the four leaders involved in the talks held their phone call, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a private call to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that likely led to his concession. In addition, French President Francois Hollande indicated after the four-party call that elections are part of the agreement," Stratfor said.
In past weeks, ceasefire violations have decreased significantly, and this relative calm comes as Ukrainian intelligence reported increased movement by Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agents among separatist units positioned on the line of demarcation. The FSB agents are reportedly purging separatists who are deemed uncontrollable.
"It has been difficult to determine at times whether escalations in eastern Ukraine were occurring because of orders from Russia or whether separatist leaders were acting of their own accord. Regaining control over the separatist leaders would allow the FSB to ensure that Moscow's intentions are carried out in eastern Ukraine," Stratfor said.
"Another Russian move in eastern Ukraine could help Moscow take greater control of the situation. Following reports that separatists had taken over the small village of Kominternove, which had been on the Ukrainian-controlled side of the demarcation line, reports emerged that the forces there are regular Russian military forces. Although this action might seem aggressive, having Russian forces positioned forward in proximity to Ukrainian forces also gives Russia more direct control over the level of conflict in eastern Ukraine," it added.
These reports indicate that Russia (and the FSB, which seems to be in control of the Ukraine portfolio again) can dial the eastern Ukrainian conflict up or down depending on the state of negotiations. With the ceasefire being largely observed, Moscow will hold its strategic position until it is assured that Kyiv will follow through with its part of the bargain.
Stratfor says that the biggest player left out of the formal negotiations, the United States, will be important to watch because Washington's support for Kyiv and pressure on Moscow could stall early indications of progress.
"The next thing to watch for is whether the United States adds pressure on Russia by increasing support for Ukraine's positions within the Minsk negotiations. The United States is not formally part of the Normandy Four talks on Minsk, and Moscow would like to keep Washington at a distance for now to improve its chances at using the Europeans to gain concessions from Kyiv. However, if Washington supports Kyiv's desire to stall the implementation of its part of the Minsk agreements until Moscow fully implements its part, Ukraine could feel emboldened to stand up to European and Russian pressure on the issue. Thus, although 2016 began with hints of compromise, the larger standoff between Ukraine and Russia — and the United States and Russia — is still very fluid," it concluded.