Why Russia Can’t Accept the Status Quo in Ukraine

Freezing the War in Donbas would allow Ukraine to get its house in order and deepen its ties with the West.

Russian president Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting at his country residence outside Moscow, October 13
Russian president Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting at his country residence outside Moscow, October 13 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Russia might have escalated its involvement in the separatist uprising in southeastern Ukraine in order to force its neighbor into a more favorable ceasefire with its proxies there, suggests Edward W. Walker, a comparative political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley who specializes in the former Soviet Union.

Ukraine accused Russia last week of sending dozens more artillery guns and tanks into the Donbas border region where two breakaway republics have requested annexation by Russia.

Russia had appeared to be drawing down its support for the rebels after a truce was signed in Belarus’ capital Minsk two months ago.

However, the truce was continually violated by both sides through the months of September and October. The fighting remained at a stalemate. The separatists were unable to significantly expand their territory while the Ukrainian army struggled to hold them back. Ukraine’s government also shied away from launching an offensive against the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk for fear of incurring civilian casualties there.

The problem for Russia, according to Walker, is that a stalemated “frozen conflict” in southeastern Ukraine would not stop the country from improving its relations with the West.

On the contrary, it would present Kiev with an opportunity to get its political and economic house in order and it would give the West the time and space needed to support Ukrainian integration into Europe.

It would also saddle Russia with the responsibility of resuscitating the Donbas’ destroyed economy but do nothing to keep NATO — which Russia continues to regard as a threat — from bolstering its eastern defenses.

I believe it is this strategic factor that accounts for the latest escalation in Russian military support for the Donbas separatists. The Kremlin, I suspect, has concluded that a lasting ceasefire and a separation of forces in the Donbas is not in its strategic interest and as a result it is taking measures to ensure that a genuine “freezing” of the conflict does not take place.

Beyond Ukraine, Russia is probably hoping to enter into some kind of deal with the West that secures Ukraine’s neutrality, limits NATO deployments on its borders and lifts the economic sanctions the European Union and the United States first imposed after Russia occupied and annexed from the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March.

Such a hope “reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the preferences, and the freedom of action, of Western governments,” according to Walker. Even if Russia were to pull its support from the Donbas separatists — which it is unlikely to do — it won’t withdraw from the Crimea and Western powers can’t accept its seizing of the peninsula. On this issue, neither side can afford to “blink” soon.

In Walker’s conclusion, that sets Russia up for “a very long geopolitical struggle with the West.”

The goal would be to use support of the separatists in eastern Ukraine, and military and political brinksmanship elsewhere, to divide the West politically, weaken the EU and weaken NATO. What makes this possibility so dangerous is that, while the effort is unlikely to succeed, it raises the risks of a military clash between Russia and the West, with all the attendant risks of escalation.

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