20 years under Putin: a timeline

On April 16-20, another attempt was made to resolve the military conflict in eastern Ukraine. France, Germany, and Ukraine (Trilateral Contact Group) convened for consultations, with Russia joining the talks (“Normandy format”). Once again, the negotiations ended in stalemate, as the parties failed to agree on measures to reduce escalation on the contact line in Donbass. Against this backdrop, the fact that Vladimir Putin didn’t even mention Ukraine in his recent address to the Federal Assembly is alarming.


December 9, 2019: Leaders of Ukraine and France, Vladimir Zelensky (left) and Emmanuel Macron, meet before the Normandy talks at the Élysée Palace in Paris. Photo: kremlin.ru.


The escalation in Donbass is clearly of concern to the United States. Although Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin a murderer just a month ago, on April 13, amid alarming reports from Ukraine, he phoned the Russian president to propose a bilateral summit in the coming months. This psychological trick worked: an open war was likely averted, at least for a while. But what will the gained time be used for—strengthening Ukraine’s sovereignty or coercing it to surrender?

So far, it looks as if events are following the “coercion” scenario. Negotiations on the Donbass conflict began on April 16 at the Élysée Palace in Paris, where President Emmanuel Macron met with his Ukrainian counterpart Vladimir Zelensky, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel joining their conversation later via video link. Putin was not invited (although, according to Zelensky, he was ready to talk to the Russian president, but the latter did not take his calls). Concluding these trilateral negotiations, the participants demanded that Moscow reduce its military presence on the border with Ukraine and in the annexed Crimea. At the same time, Macron, with the consent of Merkel, proposed that Ukraine adopt the so-called “clusters for the implementation of the Minsk agreements,” an adapted plan for resolving the conflict. 

Macron is clearly playing the favorite game of French presidents known as “la grandeur de France” (“the greatness of France”), which has always implied a special relationship with the USSR and Russia. Macron clearly understands that as long as Putin is in power, his goals and objectives with regard to Ukraine will not change. And he also understands that the proposed “clusters” are slightly revised, but essentially the same requirements that Putin has been imposing on Ukraine for over six years. In this case, the French president’s aspirations to resolve the conflict in Donbass are reduced to conniving at the Kremlin’s actions and pushing Ukraine into a gradual surrender. 

The war in Donbass has been going on for eight years, and it is time to understand the goals and strategy of Russia’s aggression: Putin will never stop trying to dismember and destroy independent Ukraine. Having failed to implement the initial plan to create Novorossiya, the Kremlin chose a more sophisticated scenario—pushing for the ORDLO (“certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions”) to be integrated into Ukraine’s political body. Putin obviously hopes that Ukraine will take the bait in the form of empty promises to restore its territorial integrity and will legitimize ORDLO, despite the fact that it is ruled by Russian security forces, directly controlled by Moscow, with dozens of Ukrainian patriots rotting in torture basements, who are not even included in the prisoner exchange lists. Putin does not need separate pieces of Ukrainian territory; he needs the whole of Ukraine. 

Dozens of ceasefires were thwarted by Moscow precisely because the constant death of people on the separation line was necessary for the Russian authorities as a means of psychological pressure on Ukraine in order to force it to “reunite” with ORDLO.

By pushing for ORDLO, Putin hopes to gain full access to all of Ukraine. Should the line of demarcation, which is now defended by units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, disappear, the pro-Russian forces, whose existence the Kremlin denies, will have a free path to Ukraine’s inland. What does that  mean? As Putin himself said two years ago, Russian passports will be distributed not only in ORDLO, but throughout the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as defined on April 14, 2014. This testifies to the Kremlin’s further plans to take control of Mariupol and expand ORDLO at least to the former borders of Donetsk and Lugansk regions—perhaps further, depending on how it goes. 

Over the six years of the Minsk Agreements, Russia did not bother to fulfill their basic requirements: ceasefire and withdrawal of pro-Russian groups and military equipment from the occupied territory of ORDLO. At the same time, the Kremlin constantly, in an ultimatum form, demands that Ukraine change its Constitution and take other legislative steps to legalize this territorial entity, which can hardly be called anything else but “Russia’s military-terrorist foothold.” 

When the Ukrainian authorities not only categorically refused to comply with the Kremlin’s demands, but finally began to dismantle the Kremlin’s “fifth column” in Ukraine, Moscow launched an unprecedented campaign of saber-rattling near the Ukrainian border and starting shelling the contact line. The Kremlin propagandists tuned in, arguing that Kyiv was carrying out a “forceful overhaul of Ukrainian identity.” 

The purpose of this blackmail is to force Ukraine to surrender under the threat of a large-scale military invasion and “reunite” with ORDLO. And here Macron’s “clusters” turn out to be very useful, obligingly coercing Ukraine in the same way as did the so-called “Steinmeier formula,” which was eventually rejected by Kyiv. Proposed in 2016 by then German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the “formula” proposed changing the order of implementation of the Minsk agreements, prioritizing the holding of local elections in Donbass and establishing the special status of the region.

The “clusters” were supposed to be at the center of the recent talks held by political advisers of the leaders of the “Normandy format” countries (France, Germany, Ukraine, Russia) on April 19–20, as well as the April 20 meeting of the security subgroup of the Trilateral Contact Group (the same countries minus Russia). The discussion promised to be rather stormy, but never even touched upon the heart of the matter. The Ukrainian side, which has lost 30 servicemen since the beginning of 2021, insisted on prioritizing a complete ceasefire on the Donbass contact line. But at both meetings, Russia categorically refused to sign the ceasefire declaration, which had been agreed upon by all the other participants.

On April 21, in his annual address to the Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin never once uttered the word “Ukraine.” This deafening silence is alarming.


* Dr. Andrei Piontkovsky is a well-known Russian scientist and political commentator currently based in Washington, D.C. He is a co-author of the Atlantic Council's 2017 report “How to Identify the Kremlin Ruling Elite and its Agents.”