Rostislav Ishchenko: Lavrov and Minsk Peace

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard


The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned the world community that the US is preparing Europe for a tactical nuclear strike on Russia. The reaction in the world was adequate — diplomats began to make a fuss. The reaction in Russia ranged from “horror” and “what a mess we are in” to “why does Lavrov limit himself to statements when we’re on the brink of war”.

It is interesting that, as a rule, those who twitch are precisely those people who laughed loudly at statements that the development of a confrontation around Ukraine as a component of a global crisis can initiate global nuclear war. It is precisely those people who called the Minsk Agreements, which temporarily froze the conflict, a “shameful under-the-table deal”. And lastly, it is precisely those people who literally rejoiced in the so-called Law of Ukraine on the reintegration of Donbass actually disavowing the Minsk obligations of Kiev and creating the prerequisites for a renewal and even potential expansion of a hot phase of the conflict.

They dreamed of war – of being on the brink of war. But they already don’t want to fight.

Well, nobody wants war. And it is precisely for this reason that it is diplomats, and not the military, who deal with foreign policy issues. Moreover, I will note that diplomats don’t define foreign policy. They only realise it. I.e., simply put, it is the top brass of the country who decide what to say. But breaking this decision down into specific phrases IS in the competence of diplomats. And this isn’t as simple as it seems at first sight. Most people in principle aren’t able to talk in the bird’s language of departments of foreign affairs. And when they read diplomatic “concerns” and “inadmissibilities”, they see familiar words, but aren’t able to comprehend the meaning of what was said.

In principle, Lavrov’s statement is much more serious and essential than any 500th “final Chinese warning”. The role of the diplomat is to threaten in such a way that the threat doesn’t look like a threat externally (after all, we are all peaceful, and nobody wants to look a squabbler), but so that it is correctly apprehended by the specific addressee at the same time. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs isn’t bothered about what “experts” and bloggers think about it. But the Ministry DOES need opponents to correctly understand it.

If to translate the statement of the Russian minister into everyday language, Moscow banally reported to Europe that it regards its military cooperation with the US as a threat worthy of a nuclear response. Russia isn’t tied down by an obligation to not be the first to use a nuclear weapon, and ascertaining at the highest diplomatic level the threat of a nuclear attack legalises any (including nuclear) preventive measures. It was stated at the same time that Moscow considers Europe to be the passive part of this sheaf. The main ringleader, from its point of view, is the US. And it is already a signal to Washington that if things reach a military confrontation, then nuclear gifts will also fly over the ocean — they won’t be able to sit it out. Moreover, most of Russia’s nuclear arsenal will strike the US. Firstly, two-three dozen operational-tactical charges will be enough for Europe to forever discourage it against war. Secondly, with what is today called the Armed Forces of European countries, the Russian army is capable of coping with the usual means [of warfare – ed]. Besides the nuclear potential of Britain and France, and also the Polish and Turkish armies, NATO has no strictly European forces suitable for military operations. And it won’t have these any time soon. At the same time it is still unclear what side the Turks will take in a potential conflict, and how the Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Greeks, and even French and Germans will behave.

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In general, Lavrov’s statement is a signal to Americans and their European allies: “You are in the crosshairs, but it’s not too late to take the correct position”.

It can be said that it is a bluff. Maybe it is. But diplomats indeed exist so that you don’t have full confidence in how far the State is ready to go to implement a hinted threat. If there is the desire for the threat to be perceived as undoubted, then it is the head of State who sounds it. And they use absolutely other terminology. But if your threats were demonstratively spat on, then there is a need to implement them. Otherwise you lose face. After all, we remember how laughed at poor Obama was, who nearly monthly on different occasions drew “red lines”, which were then quietly crossed, and nothing happened. And Trump, who threatened the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with a preventive strike, and then silently hushed up the issue, now looks worse for wear.

This situation is classically described by the Chinese treatise of the IV century B.C. on military art “Sima Fa” (“The Methods of the Sima”), in which it is said: “In ancient time the State was governed on the basis of justice, and it was called a straight path. If the objectives weren’t achieved using the straight path, then tactical manoeuvres are resorted to. Tactical manoeuvres come from war, and not from the average people. That’s why if by killing people you thereby create the wellbeing of people, then it is possible to kill them”.

Everything is beautiful in this maxim. I, in general, always liked Chinese laconicism, which briefly, figuratively, but extremely precisely describes a problem in all its depth and width. Average people are not able to understand the art of war underlined in this context, like the art of politics in general. It is too internally contradictory, and its understanding demands not only profound knowledge, but also a vivid imagination and flexible uncommon thinking. “Average people” see only a “straight path” that can’t always achieve the objectives. More often than not (and now practically always) a “tactical manoeuvre” is more effective than direct and open dialogue, which provides the taking of such a position where your opponent can’t refuse dialogue or, without any negotiations, is compelled to do what is desirable for you.

It is obvious that the veiled Russian threats stated by Lavrov also have some additional (and main) purpose, besides the usual intimidation of the enemy. Politics doesn’t really resemble a short-lived fight between two military roosters. This is rather endless manoeuvring peculiar to military strategy of the 18th century — an attempt, without risking incidents from field battles, to herd the enemy into a corner from which there is no exit besides capitulation.

The rules of any strategy always dictate to leave a path to retreat for the enemy. Having appeared in a desperate situation, it can decide to fight till the end, and then it still isn’t known who will win. If they see a path to rescue, they will try to use it, and the army retreating under pressure will simply collapse, having lost organisational unity, thrown down heavy arms and transports, and finally simply dispersing as a result.

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In our case, such a narrow path to retreat is negotiations over a temporary compromise on the European continent between Russia and the US, a freezing of the conflict using Minsk as a blueprint, but already within the limits not of Ukraine, but of all of Eastern Europe or, as a minimum Poland, the Baltic countries, and, if it remains intact, Ukraine.

Let’s remember what Minsk peace with Kiev gave us. Opponents considered it as a peaceful respite that will allow Ukraine to restore and increase its forces, then in one short blow to take Donbass. But the task of the West was the neutralisation of Russia for the duration of the active campaign. The existence of such a plan wasn’t hidden initially neither in Kiev nor in Washington, and Paris and Berlin suggested to us to bargain and accept the “inevitable” in exchange for some indemnity.

However, regardless of how you interpret the Minsk Agreements — their implementation was a “sacred cow” – the West couldn’t reject the rhetoric imposed by us [Russia – ed] about the lack of any alternative to it. The main achievement of these Agreements is a slightly frozen conflict, and not between Kiev and Donbass, as “average people” think, but between Moscow and Europe (in the person of its leaders — France and Germany).

In conditions where the main sponsors of Kiev were excluded from the process of an active standoff and included in the process of endless and senseless negotiations, and where for Ukraine the way of a direct armed confrontation that mobilises society was closed (the situation was transferred into the senseless and decomposing sitting of troops in trenches), the internal weakness of Ukraine had to appear. The country couldn’t but fall down under the weight of internal problems, which Europe couldn’t and didn’t want to solve. The implementation of Minsk was the alternative option of future events (maintaining the integrity of Ukraine), and in this case the fast change of regime and the transfer of the biggest part of a confederalised (formally federalised) Ukraine to the Russian sphere of influence.

By the way, Moscow considered that Ukrainian politicians are bright enough to opt for the option of implementing the Minsk Agreements and preserving a quasi-sovereign Ukraine. I immediately said that they will choose the option of disintegration. And they chose it.

But in our case, the choice of option isn’t essential. Minsk peace was offered and accepted by the West as an alternative to a war that would frighten Europe. From the moment of the EU’s consent (and the art of Russian diplomacy also consisted in the fact that this consent managed to be formulated as their own request) for Minsk peace, Ukraine was doomed to appear in the sphere of influence of Russia. Either via the soft (resource-saving) option of implementing the Minsk Agreements, or by the rigid (resource-intensive) option of the country’s disintegration and the transformation of the State into a territory.

Now we need to resolve this same issue with Eastern Europe. The difficulty stems from the fact that the East European limitrophes (Poland and the Baltics) that are aggressive-minded vis-a-vis Russia, unlike Ukraine, are members of the EU and NATO. Sweden – formally neutral, but perceived by the West as its integral part – is adjacent to them.

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Despite the fact that in recent years the European and North Atlantic unities started to tear at the seams, they haven’t yet fully torn apart, and the obligations of “old Europe” and the US in front of “new Europe” are much more serious than those guarantees that were given to Ukraine verbally. Besides this, in the US there is no internal political unity and a considerable part of the elite (influential circles of both Democrats and Republicans who are in opposition to Trump) place a stake on a controlled confrontation between Russia and not the lost-for-the-West Ukraine, but precisely European limitrophes.

That’s why the sounded threat is more serious than everything that was connected to Ukraine. During the formulation of the two Minsk Agreements the West was frightened by the fact that the “militiamen” in Donbass can appear to be much more numerous than the soldiers of the UAF, that they can obtain more modern arms from somewhere and somehow manage to reach a level of proficiency and coordination of the best armies of the world, and that they can launch an offensive, and Europe will be obliged to decide: either to simply look at how this “militia” will take Kiev and Lvov and will hang European and American “partners”, or to fight, understanding the entire uncertain character of this “militia” and the fact that its real possibilities during the dispersal of Ukrainian troops still haven’t yet been revealed up to the end. Back then Europe reasonably chose peace and a freezing of the conflict at the expense of Ukraine.

Now France, Germany, and the more adequate part of the American elite are proposed to freeze the conflict at the expense of an excessively loud, active, and aggressive part of Eastern Europeans. Poland and the Baltic countries like to say that they are on the frontline of the European defense. France and Germany are proposed to leave this frontline without a rear, without political cover, without financial security – alone with their problems. And so that nobody can say that “old Europe” and the US rejected their obligations to their younger partners, the troops that were deployed there can remain – as long as the lengthy, tiresome, and unpromising negotiations over de-escalation will continue to take place.

“Minsk peace” for Eastern Europe (in practice it can be either Prague or Copenhagen) has to provide it with the same choice that Ukraine had: either the actual transition into the Russian sphere of influence (with formal preservation as a part of the EU, and also of NATO – which will indeed bear political responsibility for limitrophes) or impoverishment and social cataclysms in the conditions of the West’s refusal to permanently finance the hidden deficiency of the Eastern European budgets, economic crisis, and a lack of access both to the world markets and to transit trade.

I will offer a reminder – the process of Ukraine’s decomposition has taken four years and still isn’t finished. Eastern Europe is a more stable formation. To expect an immediate result here would be inexcusable optimism. The process can drag on for ten or more years. But as was the case for Minsk peace in Ukraine, it is extremely important to force opponents to be dragged into our manoeuvre. After passing this point of bifurcation, any completion of the process (be it rather positive for Eastern Europe or catastrophic) will already be to our advantage.

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