As we await the form of the local elections in the areas of the Donbas occupied by the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (the DNR and LNR), there is much speculation in the Western media whether the Minsk agreement will be upheld. Much revolves around Russia’s intentions, as well as the attitude of the militant separatist leaders who wish to use the elections to remove their fiefdoms from Ukraine.
Over the past days according to the reports of the OSCE and other sources, overt conflict in the separatist regions seems to have ended and some of the separatist leaders have either been removed or else appear to have migrated—at least for now—to the Russian Federation. Vladimir Putin is reluctant to remain involved in a war that is going nowhere, but costing Russia sorely in terms of commitment of weaponry and manpower, and even more in terms of alienation from Europe and the United States.
Some observers have noted a sustained buildup at Tartus, Russia’s military base in Syria in support of the forces of President Bashar Al-Assad. Predictably, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denies any increase in Russian forces and maintains that it is little changed from earlier.
Nonetheless, that Russia has increased its commitment to Syria while reducing that to the territories of ‘Novorossiya’ in the Donbas is evident. It is unclear whether in the event of a Ukrainian attempt to regain its former territories there would be much opposition in the Kremlin. Rather, as almost occurred in the summer of 2014, Russia might prefer to abandon the separatist regimes and leaders to their fate.
How can such a move be equated with the apparent commitment to Ukrainian separatists and the construction of ‘Novorossiya’?
Some reasons can readily be dismissed, such as the decisive impact of Western sanctions. Sanctions have had some effects, but there is no indication that they have had a serious impact on Putin’s popularity or Russia’s ability to withstand prolonged recession.
Instead, more important are the following. First, the annexation of Crimea has proven extremely costly, and has become more a symbolic triumph than an act of wise statesmanship. True, many Crimeans may have supported it. But providing services to Crimea is difficult, and the peninsula, other than providing bases for the Russian Black Sea Fleet, has little to offer.
Second, the militants, unsurprisingly given their dearth of ideas and commitments, have failed to attract support of he populations in the areas they control. A case in point is Aleksandr Zaharchenko, the leader of the DNR, who continues to make bellicose statements as the peace process makes advances. Though there are many important distinctions between the DNR and LNR, both require conflict to make advances rather than periods of stability. Both require the continued investment of Russian troops, equipment, and personnel that Moscow is no longer prepared to offer given the remote chance of long-term success.
Third, and related, ethnic Russians in Ukraine and Russian-speaking Ukrainians outside the small separatist enclave have no interest either in joining Russia or supporting a prospective full-scale Russian invasion. Even Sergey Aksionov, the appointed leader of Crimea, would make little headway in a free election, as was evident in the last pre-annexation elections when his party achieved less than 5% of the vote. When pro-Russians failed in their attempted takeover of cities like Kharkiv in the late spring of 2014, it was evident that Vladimir Putin had misinterpreted the signs of support in Ukraine.
In short, opposition to Euromaidan did not signify pro-Russian sentiment or separatism. Most opponents of the protests in Ukraine would, given the choice, put up with the new government, particularly if it secured economic stability, just as they endured the turbulent years of the Yushchenko presidency, or for that matter the corruption of the Yanukovych years. Insofar as the concept of ‘Novorossiya’ existed, it was limited to a small coterie of gunmen and Russian idealists who for a time had the backing of the Kremlin.
Fourth, Russia has moved on. One of the few identifying aspects of the Putin leadership, as with his personal image, is the need for instant triumphs without sustained commitment, images over concrete achievements. That requires foreign policy maneuvers that might enhance the prestige of the regime and allow it to maintain profitable contacts with the Western world. Rhetoric aside—and there has been much of it—Moscow prefers to keep the lines open to the markets of the West while adopting the role of a major player in international affairs.
As far as Syria is concerned, perhaps the logic is that by maintaining Assad in power, Russia can persuade the West that it is better to keep it as a partner rather than an adversary. Just as in 2001, Moscow and Washington can join forces against terrorists, in this case the Islamic State. That is not to say that such a policy will receive much sympathy in Washington, which perceives such intervention as exacerbating the conflict.
Another theory is that by intervening in Syria, Russia will bring the West to the negotiating table, with an agreement that if the Russians keep out of that conflict, they might be given a free hand in Ukraine. But as argued above, that is not what they are seeking at present. Rather the goal is to be recognized as a significant power—in short, it is alienation that rankles rather than sanctions. Russia would like to return to the G8 and believes that there is a possibility of doing so.
Where does that leave Ukraine? Over 8,000 have died in the Donbas conflict to date and over a million residents have left the region. Analysts in the West continue to debate whether there is a civil war or a Russian war in Ukraine. The correct answer is probably a little of both. But the fact remains that the rebels would not survive for long without Russian support. Once they lose it, and given the Kremlin’s current acceptance that an invasion would be highly unpopular both in the area and at home, the likelihood is that DNR and LNR will once more come under Ukrainian control.
None of the above should lead to a conclusion that the Russian government recognizes the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Rather it prefers to wield influence from afar, to ensure that in terms of security interests, both Ukraine and Belarus are in the Russian sphere. A new accommodation with the West would then, in theory lead to the return of economic growth, decreased commitment of military personnel and equipment, and assurance that there should be no further buildup or expansion of NATO.
There is also herein an assumption that there must be some logic to Russia’s latest policy moves, an apparent commitment to the peace processs of Minsk as well as to the government of Syria. In reality such moves may be no more than feelers to elicit the reaction of Western powers. Still, Russia is clearly dissatisfied with the status quo, in Ukraine and elsewhere. And that is bad news for the leaders of the DNR and LNR.