Russia and the United States – geopolitical rivals and partners at the same time – are actively discussing the future of the coal-rich Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine. In the past, Moscow and the West could not find a common ground over the conflict that erupted in 2014, and it is rather questionable whether the Kremlin is now ready to make significant concessions to Washington.
Over the past seven years, Russia participated in talks about a peaceful settlement of the Donbass war between Moscow-backed self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luganks People’s Republic, and Western-sponsored Ukraine. Besides Russian, Ukrainian, and the Donbass representatives, mediators from Germany and France also took part in several summits, although to this day sporadic clashes between the Ukrainian Army and the Donbass forces continue. Moreover, some reports suggest that Ukraine has deployed combat drones to the front line, including Turkish-made Bayraktar medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned combat aerial vehicles. Indeed, Kyiv seem to be determined to restore sovereignty over the Donbass region, and is counting on the Bayraktar drones that proved to be a game changer in Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the fall of 2020.
Russia, on the other hand, has repeatedly denied its involvement in the Donbass conflict, but in April its armed forces conducted massive drills on the border with Ukraine, which was a clear message to Kyiv not to start a military offensive against Moscow-backed self-proclaimed Donbass republics. More importantly, over 600.000 Donbass residents already hold Russian passports, and the Kremlin has integrated the region’s economy into Russia’s, which means Moscow through its proxies controls coal production in the Donbass. Thus, at a time when global futures prices for coal are settng new records, it is not very probable that Russia will return the energy-rich territory under Kyiv’s jurisdiction, unless the US can offer something big in return.
Recently the US State Department delegation, led by Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, held talks with Russian officials. According to reports, she met with Dmitry Kozak, who is Deputy Chief of the Russian Presidential Staff and political advisor at talks on settling the situation in Donbass within the framework of the Normandy Format.
“During the talks, the US confirmed its position that significant progress towards the settlement of the conflict is unlikely without any agreement on future parameters of Donbass autonomy. In other words, giving the region a special status within Ukraine”, Kozak stressed.
The very fact that Moscow had to remove Victoria Nuland from its sanction list is a clear sign that Washington has the upper hand in Russo-American partnership. The US diplomat was previously banned from entering Russia as part of counter-sanctions against Washington, but the Kremlin agreed to remove her from the blacklist to enable the short visit. Even Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova openly admitted that Nuland’s visit to Moscow was requested by the US side. Quite aware the Kremlin had to obey to Washington’s demand, Zakharova said that in return “several” Russians were removed from the US sanction list, although in reality only one Russian citizen has been removed.
Nuland is best known for visiting the site of the Maidan protests in Kyiv in late 2013, when she was seen handing out cookies to demonstrators. While she was in Moscow meeting with Kozak, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote an article in which he emphasized the Kremlin should wait for “sane” figures to replace Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other leaders before Russia considers opening negotiations.
“Russia knows how to wait. We are patient people,” Medvedev wrote.
In other words, for the time being, Russia will do nothing vis-à-vis Ukraine, and will likely tend to preserve the status quo. Given that the Eastern European country has been firmly in the US sphere of influence since 2014, it is very unlikely that Kyiv will change its geopolitical course any time soon, if at all. However, in May Zelensky warned the US could “strike a deal with Russia behind his country’s back”, which would mark “a serious geopolitical victory for the Russian Federation and a new redistribution of spheres of influence”. That is why some Ukrainian analysts say that Moscow and Washington could soon make a deal over the former Soviet republic, although at this point it does not seem very probable the US will abandon Ukraine, nor will the Kremlin abandon the Donbass.
It is Russia, rather than the United States, that is expected to keep making concessions. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin recently stressed that the Kremlin does not intend to create obstacles for the US business, denying Zakharova’s claims that Russia could limit American economic activities in Russia.
“As you know, the patience of the Russian side, which has so far refrained from erecting barriers to American business in Russia, is not unlimited”, Zakharova said. However, as Medvedev pointed out, “Russians are patient people”. Zakharova’s message is, therefore, just another empty threat. For the foreseeable future, “unlimited patience” is expected to remain one of the key pillars of the Russian foreign policy.
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