From, March 30, 2022, Condensed text:

Russian-Ukrainian negotiations in Istanbul will probably be best remembered for the misinterpretation of Russian delegation head Vladimir Medinsky’s remark. When he was reading out the list of Ukrainian proposals, he misspoke, saying that all of them “will be considered in the very near future” and “will be followed by an appropriate response.” However, reporters interpreted the phrase, “for its part, the Russian Federation has no objection to Ukraine’s desire to join the European Union” not as a restatement of Ukraine’s stance but as a decision that Moscow had already made. This perception was extended to Kiev’s entire wish list.

This is why any emotional perception of those negotiations – be it delight (“Hurrah! This ‘special operation’ will soon come to an end!”) or anger (“A new Khasavyurt!1 Putin has backed down when [we are] almost in Kiev!”) – makes no sense. Although Medinsky described Ukraine’s position as “clearly formulated,” it is already obvious that many points will seem totally unacceptable to Vladimir Putin. . . .

1[Reference to the 1996 Khasavyurt accords that ended the first Chechen war, which became a symbol of Russia’s failures in the North Caucasus. – Trans.]

Ukrainian stumbling blocks.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has clearly tried to bend Moscow to its wishes on these very complex issues, too. At first glance, Ukraine’s idea regarding the Crimea seems quite reasonable. Kiev is willing to abandon the idea of taking back the peninsula by military means for the next 15 years. And Moscow would probably be willing to agree to that, realizing that demanding that Ukraine recognize the peninsula as part of Russia is a road to nowhere. However, as Mikhail Podolyak, adviser to the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, said in Istanbul, during these 15 years Kiev intends to negotiate on the status of the Crimea and Sevastopol. You don’t have to be [Kremlin spokesman Dmitry] Peskov to predict Moscow’s response to that: As Putin said, “the issue of the Crimea is closed,” and any attempt to bring it up for negotiation is unacceptable. As for the idea voiced by Mustafa Dzhemilev, leader of the Crimean Tatar Majlis [supreme representative body] (an organization banned in Russia), it seems downright outlandish. Dzhemilev, who was also in Istanbul, said that if Russia were to begin negotiations on the Crimea, it would recognize itself as an “occupying country” and according to the 1949 Geneva Convention[s], “Ukrainian law must prevail” on the peninsula. This can be viewed as a loose interpretation of the convention and overinflated expectations at the same time.

The idea of a referendum on concessions to Russia, which was put forward by Zelensky and then mentioned during the negotiations, seems unacceptable to Moscow, as well as unrealistic. First, voting is out of the question amid ongoing fighting and [Kiev’s] loss of control over a significant part of the country’s territory. Second, even if [a referendum] is held, it will take no less than a month to prepare. Third, does anyone really think that if the Ukrainian people vote against [the concessions], Putin will simply abandon his “demilitarization and denazification” plans?

Clearly, Moscow will also be unhappy with the term “certain districts of Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces” [CDDLP] that Ukrainian delegates actively used. [The term] comes from the Minsk agreements, which have come to nothing and collapsed when Russia recognized the DPR/LPR. On top of that, they are simply out of sync with the current situation on the ground. The CDDLP existed when the uncontrolled territories of the Donetsk Basin ended in the village of Shirokino and when there were no Russian troops there (at least officially) – only separatists. But there can be no CDDLP if [Chechen leader] Ramzan Kadyrov is taking selfies in Mariupol. Incidentally, Medinsky said so in no uncertain terms at the briefing: “Ukraine has its own definition of ‘certain districts’ and their boundaries, while Russia has its own understanding.”

In an interview with Russian journalists, which Roskomnadzor [Federal Oversight Service for Communications, Information Technology Mass Media] banned from airing [in Russia], President Zelensky introduced a new term – “compromise territories.” “That’s how it was before Feb. 24,” he explained. “I realize that it is impossible to make Russia free these territories. That would lead to World War III. That’s why I say it’s a compromise,” the Ukrainian president said, clearly expecting to send the message to the Kremlin via the journalists. “Go back to where it all began, and we will try to resolve the Donetsk Basin issue – a very complex issue.”

Fate of Donetsk Basin.

The Donetsk Basin issue really is complex, but Moscow is no longer ready to compromise on it. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Fomin’s statement regarding the intention to “radically***reduce military activity in the Kiev and Chernigov directions” should be read only in the context of Shoigu’s own statement: “The combat capability of the Ukrainian Armed Forces has been significantly reduced, which makes it possible to focus the main attention and efforts on achieving the main goal – the liberation of the Donetsk Basin,” he said.

The boundaries of the Russian [operation] have been announced time and again – i.e., the borders of Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces. Russian propaganda is currently celebrating the capture of Mariupol, but even heavier fighting lies ahead – for Bakhmut (before 2016, Artyomovsk), Kramatorsk and Slavyansk, where armed resistance to the Ukrainian authorities began in 2014. This is where the Ukrainian Army’s most battleworthy units are concentrated, which is probably why Russian forces, which are fighting alongside DPR/LPR subunits, have been avoiding combat action in this sector all this time. As many military experts said from day one of the “special operation,” the tactic here is different – namely, to encircle that territory and obtain political concessions in exchange for allowing Ukrainian troops to exit the closed-in area.

As for what may happen next, that is being clearly indicated by DPR/LPR leaders. First, LPR head Leonid Pasechnik and, after the Istanbul meeting, his better-known DPR counterpart, Denis Pushilin, stated that they wanted to make their republics constituent entities of the Russian Federation. Notably, Pasechnik spoke about a referendum, while Pushilin said that he would “consider the question of joining Russia after the republic is completely liberated.”

If that does happen, then all Russian citizens would be prohibited from expressing their discontent on that score under Russian Criminal Code Art. 280.1 – “public calls for separatism” [sic; “public calls for violation of territorial integrity” – Trans.]. From that day on, Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces would become inseparable parts of the Russian Federation – the same as Rostov and Bryansk Provinces. So if there’s anything you want to say about that, you should do it now – naturally, without “discrediting the Russian Armed Forces” or “spreading fake news.”

The May 11, 2014 referendum is considered the legal basis for proclaiming the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics. Indeed, [the referendum] was held not only in Donetsk and Gorlovka, but also in Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk. However, even if we assume that the ballot count was fair, the vote was definitely not inclusive. Pro-Ukraine residents simply stayed away from polling stations because they did not believe the procedure was legitimate, and in many towns and villages there were simply no polling stations, because Ukrainian troops were already there.

This especially applies to the northern part of Lugansk Province – cities such as Starobelsk, Melovoye and Novopskov. Although all of them are very close to the Russian border, since 2014 they have seen neither war nor attempts to secede from Ukraine. Ordinary Russians may also be surprised by the fact that people in rural areas of Lugansk Province speak Ukrainian. If these territories are incorporated into the LPR and then into Russia, it will be difficult to call that a democratic expression of political preference.

There will also be problems in Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, where the main headquarters of the Ukrainian military operation have been based all these years. In 2014, there were indeed many pro-Russian supporters there, although pro-Ukrainian rallies also took place. However, after just three months as part of the DPR (Igor Strelkov’s detachments retreated from Slavyansk on July 5, 2014) and another eight years adjacent to the DPR, the locals have reevaluated many things.

It is hardly possible to hold a referendum on joining Russia in these places – not even from the standpoint of international law, but just because of the high risk of getting unsatisfactory results.

However, if the self-proclaimed Donetsk Basin republics do not join Russia but retain their current status, the fate of the people living in the western part of Donetsk Province and in northern Lugansk Province would hardly be enviable. Only a month ago, they led modest but quiet lives, and now they are a gray zone with unclear prospects. Even though Peskov said Wednesday that “there are no and must be no Stalingrads (i.e., decisive battles – Ed.) in the (Russian – Ed.) calendar,” from all indications such a battle is just about to begin – for the expansion of the DPR and LPR.

Tavrida people’s republic.

If we analyze the events of the last one to two weeks, we see the emergence of yet another region that could turn into a source of constant problems for Ukraine. These are Zaporozhye and Kherson Provinces, where military-civilian administrations have already been installed with active support from 2014 antimaidan figures [reference to the 2014 uprising in Ukraine on Independence Square – Trans.]. Oleg Tsaryov, an odious former Supreme Rada deputy, was the first to announce the creation of such administrations, but something along those lines de facto happened earlier in Melitopol. . . .

It is hard to imagine that after they “achieve their goal” in the Donetsk Basin, Russian troops will simply withdraw from southern Ukraine, throwing local “military-civilian administrations” to the SBU [Ukrainian Security Service] wolves. Especially considering that the “gray zone” in those places denies Ukraine access to the Sea of Azov and opens a land corridor to the Crimea for Russia along the Mariupol-Berdyansk-Melitopol-Chongar route.

Historical validation of that idea is already circulating on “patriotic” Telegram channels in the form of a map of prerevolutionary [i.e., pre-1917] Tavrida [Taurida] Gubernia. It roughly corresponds to the territory where pro-Russian administrations are currently functioning: from Berdyansk in the east to the Dnepr River in the west. Just as in 2014 in the Donetsk Basin, the creation of the “Tavrida people’s republic” could be internationally portrayed as a local initiative not directly connected to the Kremlin. Thus, Vladimir Putin’s promise “not to occupy Ukraine” would be honored on paper: After all, both Oleg Tsaryov and Vladimir Rogov, who is appearing on Russian TV channels on behalf of the Zaporozhye Province authorities, are Ukrainian citizens. . . .

In other words, Ukraine has returned to the chaos of 2014, when any ideas (even the craziest) were given serious consideration and power de facto belonged to field commanders, who had trouble finding common ground with one another. The path to peace from that point will take months at the very best, with many pitfalls that are difficult to imagine right now.