Is the Kremlin's two-avenue 'diplomacy' in Ukraine paying off?

Russia's dueling shipments of humanitarian aid to refugees and arms to rebels in Ukraine go toward the same end, experts say: leveraging a peace on Kremlin terms.

Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters
Drivers gather near a Russian convoy of trucks carrying humanitarian aid for Ukraine at a camp in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, in Russia's Rostov region on Tuesday.

A diplomatic solution to the conflict in Ukraine could finally be coming to fruition, experts say, amid a flurry of activity by the major players in the region.

And the change, they suggest, is borne out of a wave of seemingly contradictory steps orchestrated by the Kremlin both to pressure Ukraine militarily and clear the way for Kiev politically to end the six-month old conflict with a peace acceptable to Russia.

Ongoing talks over recent days between foreign ministers of Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine have not so far produced a cease-fire deal. But top aides of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met amid semi-secrecy in Sochi last Friday, in what could lead to a face-to-face summit between the two leaders in Minsk next week. In another sign that something may be afoot, German Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to visit Kiev on Saturday, an event the Ukrainian foreign minister describes as "unusual."

"Diplomacy is picking up, something new is in the wind, and everyone is fighting for positions," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant. Though political efforts have "sputtered along for months," he says, the rebels look to be out of options. "So, for Russia and the rebels, it's time to do a deal."

A tale of two convoys

The Kremlin's efforts in Ukraine have often appeared contradictory, something that was underscored in the past week, when two convoys with very different purposes set out for the Ukrainian-Russian border.

One, dispatched by Russia's Ministry of Emergency Services, saw 280 trucks filled with humanitarian supplies sent to the encircled cities of Donetsk and Luhansk to help alleviate the looming humanitarian crisis in the region. The controversial Russian aid convoy has been the subject of wild speculation for the past week, and remained stalled at a border crossing about 50 miles away from Luhansk Tuesday, while the International Red Cross scrambled to make security arrangements for it to go forward. After inspections, even Kiev has admitted that the trucks contain only food and other humanitarian supplies, and should be allowed into Ukraine under Red Cross auspices. Russia now insists it's up to Kiev to ensure the aid is safely delivered to the estimated 250,000 people who've been trapped in Luhansk without water or electricity for the past two weeks.

Deeper doubts surround the "other" convoy, including about two dozen armored vehicles, that journalists saw slipping across the Russian frontier into Ukraine without any fanfare late last week. Alexander Golts, a military expert with the independent online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal, says that Russian assistance to the rebels has been an open secret for months. Its purpose, he says, is to delay the insurgents' defeat while Moscow leverages the diplomatic process.

"This proxy war has been going on for quite awhile, and everybody knows Russia has been aiding the rebels," he says. "If foreign journalists are able to see materiel crossing the border, that means nobody is even seriously trying to hide it anymore."

'Russia is ready to let eastern Ukraine go'

Experts say the convoys are flip sides of a single Russian strategy that aims to wear down Ukrainian forces on the battlefield; multiply the pressure on Kiev for a negotiated settlement that achieves most of Moscow's longstanding aims for Ukraine; and sate the Russian public's demand to stand up for the Ukrainian rebels.

With the limited military support sent to the rebels, the Kremlin keeps the conflict at enough of a boil to encourage Kiev to come to the table. But that's as far as Mr. Putin wants the conflict to go, Mr. Strokan says, and the aid convoy to Luhansk shows Russians that he's doing something to help beleaguered Russian speakers across the border.

"Putin opened Pandora's box with this nationalist appeal, and now he's come to a red line he doesn't want to cross. Russia does not want to annex eastern Ukraine, and is ready to let it go. But the propaganda machine, once started up, has to be fed regularly. Hence, this convoy to help the people of Donbass must go forward," he adds.

"To an outside observer, it may look like Putin's policies are contradictory. But this is not a problem for him at home," where his popularity is spiking over 80 percent, says Masha Lipman, an independent political expert.

"Putin is not accountable to anyone. He enjoys freedom of action that no Western leader can aspire to," she says. "No one knows what he's going to do next, or even what he's doing now. That makes him extremely difficult to deal with."

Still, Putin's options may be running out as Ukrainian forces tighten the noose around the last rebel strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk, says Strokan.

"One thing Russia underestimated was the extent to which military victory has become a national exigency for Ukraine," he says. "It means there may be no deal possible anymore, and that this conflict will go on until the bitter end."

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