An article has recently appeared in the Russian edition of Forbes which claims that Putin told a meeting of industrialists on 19th March 2016 that during the negotiations in Minsk in February 2015 Ukraine’s President Poroshenko offered to hand over the Donbass to Russia.
Supposedly Putin refused this offer and responding by telling Poroshenko he was “out of his mind” and that Russia did not want the Donbass and that if Ukraine did not want it either then Poroshenko and his government should simply recognise its independence.
Is there any truth to this story?
Putin’s comments to the industrialists were private and the account of them given to Forbes was provided by a source who wished to remain anonymous. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov and Alexander Shokhin, the chair of the Russian Union of Industrialists, have however confirmed that Putin did provide the industrialists with an account of what happened during the negotiations in Minsk in February 2015.
Both Peskov and Shokhin however say that the source who leaked the story to Forbes is distorting Putin’s comments. In effect that means that they are saying that Putin did not speak of an offer by Poroshenko to hand over the Donbass to Russia.
For once the Ukrainians agree. They too deny Poroshenko offered to hand over the Donbass to Russia. Yevhen Perebyinis, the spokesman of Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, is even saying there was simply a misunderstanding caused by the fact that Poroshenko was speaking Ukrainian so that Putin would not have understood him. It is in fact inconceivable that Poroshenko ever made any such offer or that Putin ever thought he did. European sources have in the past confirmed that when Putin and Poroshenko meet they talk to each other in Russian. Whilst this is a fact Poroshenko might not want Ukrainians to know, it rules the theory of a misunderstanding out.
If Poroshenko did not offer to hand over the Donbass to Russia, and if there was no misunderstanding, is Putin simply making the story up? That is very unlikely. Putin is usually very careful to give accurate accounts of his meetings. He would also know that a made-up story which included a claim that Poroshenko offered to hand over the Donbass would be bound to be made public even if it was given confidentially to a private meeting such as the one he had with the industrialists on 19th March 2016. Putin would also know that if the story ever became public the German and French leaders who were also present in Minsk would be able to refute it if it was not true.
So what did actually happen in Minsk?
We actually possess a very detailed account of what happened in Minsk provided the German magazine Der Spiegel based on information provided by Angela Merkel’s Chancellery. I have discussed Der Spiegel’s account of the Minsk negotiations in detail here. The description Der Spiegel has given of Poroshenko during the negotiations in Minsk is of a man intransigent to the point of delusion.
He refused to countenance any reference in the final document to autonomy for the Donbass or federalisation for Ukraine. He refused to meet – even informally – with the leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. To the exasperation of the German and French leaders he even refused to recognise that his troops in the Debaltsevo pocket had been encircled. He categorically refused their urgings to order them either to surrender or retreat. When they did eventually retreat, shortly after the Minsk meeting had ended, suffering heavy loss of life, Poroshenko preposterously declared they had won a great victory.
A man who behaves in this way is hardly the sort of man who would float a proposal to surrender the Donbass to Russia. Poroshenko and his government refuse to recognise Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and its union with Russia. On the contrary they not only dispute it but threaten with retaliatory action anyone who says they might recognise it.
It beggars belief that a Ukrainian President and government who refuse to recognise Crimea’s union with Russia would offer to hand over the Donbass to Russia.
What we know did happen in Minsk – and what seems to have been the genesis of the story in Forbes – is that Poroshenko also refused to resume social security payments to the people of the Donbass.
Putin pressed him on this issue pointing out that paying social security payments is an obligation Ukraine owes its citizens including the people of the Donbass. Poroshenko responded by telling Putin that Russia should pay the social security payments instead.
In what was by all accounts an angry exchange Putin replied that this was crazy and that if Ukraine was not prepared to discharge its basic responsibilities to its own citizens then it should accept their demand for independence.
Neither Putin nor Poroshenko spoke during this row of the Donbass becoming part of Russia and it has never previously been said that they did. An argument over security payments is being misrepresented to make it seem as if they did.
That it was this exchange that lies behind the story in Forbes is confirmed by the claim by Forbes’s source that Putin told the industrialists that Poroshenko asked him in Minsk to take financial responsibility for the Donbass. The source quotes Putin telling the industrialists that he told
Poroshenko that this would only be possible if the Donbass became part of Russia. Until then, and so long as the Donbass remained part of Ukraine, it was the Ukrainian authorities who were responsible for making the payments.
This of course is a garbled account of the row over social security payments that actually took place. The sequel to the row between Putin and Poroshenko in Minsk is that Poroshenko agrees that Ukraine would end its economic blockade of the Donbass. As with all the other things Poroshenko promised in Minsk, that never happened.
Putin has frequently described his row in Minsk with Poroshenko over the social security payments. It is one that clearly rankles with him. Obviously he did so again to the industrialists presumably in order to impress on them how difficult negotiating with the Ukrainians is.
The one question remaining is whether the source who spoke to Forbes deliberately distorted Putin’s words or whether there has simply been a mistake. Whilst it is impossible to know for sure, it is unfortunately highly likely that Putin’s words have been distorted intentionally.
Whilst Putin is supposed to have rejected Poroshenko’s offer, supposedly telling Poroshenko he was “out of his mind”, the story nonetheless conveys the impression of Putin as the puppet-master behind the events in the Donbass and makes him look untrustworthy and shifty, making claims about offers Poroshenko made to him which Poroshenko never in fact made.
Whether the truth of the motives behind this leak, it is a certainty the Russian authorities by now know who was the person responsible. Apparently 26 industrialists attended the meeting. The Russian authorities will have little difficulty tracing the source from such a small pool. Publicly misrepresenting words Putin said in private is something which is known to make him very angry.
The person responsible is no doubt going through a most uncomfortable time. As for the story itself, it should be treated as just another example in the seemingly endless succession of improbable or untrue things Putin is supposed to have said but never did.