On Wednesday, the Financial Times reported that Russia and Ukraine had made “significant progress on a tentative 15-point peace plan” that would end Russia’s invasion and require Ukraine to become a permanently neutral state with its own military in the mold of Sweden or Austria. Ukrainian officials have already played down the prospects of the plan, alternatively calling it a Russian ploy for time and a “draft, which represents the requesting position of the Russian side. Nothing more.”
Analysts, however, noted that—depending on the final terms—the Russian position would seem to be a considerable descent from Vladimir Putin’s initial goals when he launched his brutal campaign three weeks ago with demands for “the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine” and the aim of toppling the democratically elected government in Kyiv. As New York Times international columnist Max Fisher put it:
The speed and extent of Moscow’s climbdown is just head-spinning. Three weeks ago it called Ukraine a rightful Russian territory run by genocidal Nazis. Now it’s voluntarily offering the Sweden model—a Western ally in all but name—and getting told no!
The devil is in the details, obviously, and a peace deal with Putin will depend on Ukraine’s ability to maintain an army capable of defending the country, as well as outside assurances of security from other countries. (This is tricky, because the U.S., the U.K., and Russia said they would guarantee Ukraine’s security if the country gave up its nuclear weapons after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and that deal clearly has not been upheld.) But the Financial Times reported that the “biggest sticking point remains Russia’s demand that Ukraine [recognize] its 2014 annexation of Crimea and the independence of two separatist statelets in the eastern Donbas border region.”
If the Russian climbdown is real—and with the additional caveat that there’s much we don’t know about the state of negotiations—then Kyiv must still be leery that Putin does not turn such a deal to his long-term advantage. It is worth considering the lessons of one previously aborted peace initiative when thinking about how Ukraine can prevent an unfavorable outcome now. That proposal, which would have benefited Putin significantly, came from a Russian spy who tried to get former President Donald Trump to endorse his plan. Looking at the contours of that draft initiative shows the sort of concessions that should be avoided now if at all possible.
The idea of an autonomous Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas is hardly new. And it was central to the 2016–18 plan we have insight into thanks to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2020 report outlining Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Konstantin Kilimnik, the onetime righthand man to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort, proposed and pushed this plan as part of an effort to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine to Putin’s ultimate advantage. (Kilimnik was described by the report as a “Russian intelligence officer” providing information to Russian intelligence, and last year the U.S. Treasury Department, in issuing sanctions against Kilimnik, said he was a “known Russian Intelligence Services agent implementing influence operations on their behalf.”)
Manafort was fired in August 2016 from the Trump campaign after allegations that he had received millions of dollars for off-the-books work he did with Kilimnik to install and prop up former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the Russian-backed leader whose ouster in 2014 led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the separatist war in eastern Ukraine. Over the course of many months from 2016 to 2018, though, Kilimnik sought to use Manafort’s position in Trump’s orbit to influence U.S. policy and push what Kilimnik described in emails as a Russia-endorsed plan to end the conflict in Ukraine, seemingly to Putin’s advantage. During a key August 2016 meeting at which Manafort gave campaign polling data to Kilimnik (who then allegedly passed it on to Russia), the two men discussed that possible “peace plan.” As the Mueller report described it:
Manafort and Kilimnik discussed a plan to resolve the ongoing political problems in Ukraine by creating an autonomous republic in its more industrialized eastern region of Donbas, and having Yanukovych, the Ukrainian President ousted in 2014, elected to head that republic. That plan, Manafort later acknowledged, constituted a “backdoor” means for Russia to control eastern Ukraine.
Manafort lost his job before getting a chance to push his boss to help implement it as president. But we know that Kilimnik pressed Manafort about it for months after that meeting, even after Trump took office and Manafort was already under indictment for his work in Ukraine.
Also from the Mueller report:
Several months later, after the presidential election, Kilimnik wrote an email to Manafort expressing the view—which Manafort later said he shared—that the plan’s success would require U.S. support to succeed: “all that is required to start the process is a very minor ‘wink’ (or slight push) from [Donald Trump].” The email also stated that if Manafort were designated as the U.S. representative and started the process, Yanukovych would ensure his reception in Russia “at the very top level.”
“Russians at the very top level are in principle not against this plan” that would “start the process of uniting [the two breakaway states] into one entity,” Kilimnik wrote. If the plan went ahead, “DT could have peace in Ukraine basically within a few months after inauguration.”
The outlines of the plan had three parts. First, the plan called for the “creation” of the “Autonomous Republic of Donbass” that would be formed “within the borders of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts that existed prior to April 2014, when the armed conflict began.” Those borders include more than 10 percent of Ukraine’s population, a vast amount of the country’s agricultural land and natural resources, and many of the cities now under siege and assault by Russian forces. It also includes the town of Mariupol, which has been devastated by Russian bombardment of civilians and is home to a crucial port. Kilimnik even named his proposal the “Mariupol plan.” The second element of the plan involved Ukraine incorporating this “autonomous republic” into its own body politic via a parliamentary vote that would grant the area “reintegration” into Ukraine and its own political representation in the country. The “Autonomous Republic of Donbass,” or ARD, would thus have influence over Ukraine’s political affairs. The third and final point of the plan would grant the region its own prime minister, who would be “a legitimate and plenipotentiary representative of ARD in talks with international structures.”
The key to the entire plan, which would give a Russian quisling control over a key region and the ability to influence Ukrainian domestic and foreign affairs, was Trump’s endorsement. Kilimnik wrote:
Personal participation of the US President will lead to stopping the bloodshed, returning political balance and stability in Ukraine, creating a stable and effective pro-European legislative majority, able of implementing effective reforms.
Trump obviously never endorsed the plan, but this episode provides insight into what Putin might want from the conflict if he has in fact pulled back from his more outlandish aims. The “Mariupol plan” is a record of how Russia might seek to influence Ukraine from within, without annexing further territory. It’s also clear evidence that Mariupol, which offers a port and the potential to create a land bridge to Crimea, is key to even Putin’s most minimal war aims, which is perhaps why it has been such a target for Russia in its Ukraine invasion.
As things stand, Russians still have not gained control of Mariupol, nor most other major Ukrainian cities. But if Putin won’t settle for anything less than something like the “Mariupol plan,” Ukraine could be in for more turmoil, even should Russia officially withdraw its forces and leave Ukraine, on paper, with the borders it had before this war.