Russia has abandoned the idea of promoting independence for the Ukrainian breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, a liberal newspaper in the country reported on Monday. But that might not be enough to satisfy the West.
A report in the Novaya Gazeta — one of the few Russian newspaper critical of President Vladimir Putin’s government that has been allowed to remain in circulation — cites Kremlin sources saying they have given up fostering independence for the Russophone areas in the southeast of Ukraine and instead intend to “push the republics back into Ukraine on conditions of some kind of autonomy.”
The newspaper doesn’t say what has changed Russian policymakers’ minds. But the separatists’ poor performance on the battlefield and the potentially high costs of saving them from economic ruin could explain why Russia has balked at the prospect of taking the two breakaway republics under its wing.
The areas on the Russian border declared independence from Kiev after Russia occupied and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March. That came after Ukrainians had overthrown their relatively pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, who refused to enter into an association agreement with the European Union. His successor, Petro Poroshenko, signed the treaty — which commits Ukraine to the approximation of its economic and judicial policies to those of the countries in the European Union — this summer.
Russia ignored the Donetsk and Luhansk rebels’ pleas for annexation but did sent tanks and troops when they appeared on the verge of being defeated by the Ukrainian army and irregular forces. Russia’s intervention gave the separatists the upper hand and the military situation in southeastern Ukraine has seemed at a stalemate since.
The Donetsk and Luhansk republics are internationally unrecognized and would need Russian support to remain independent.
With Western economic sanctions — imposed in the wake of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and strengthened after a civilian airliner was apparently downed by rebels in July — and a falling oil price pushing Russia’s economy into recession, it can ill afford to sustain two rogue states in the Donbas area. The price of incorporating the Crimea into Russia, which previously depended for its electricity and water supply on Ukraine, is already staggeringly high.
However, if Russia hopes that by withdrawing its support for Donetsk and Luhansk independence it can enter into some sort of deal with the West that secures Ukraine’s neutrality, limits NATO deployments on its borders and lifts the economic sanctions Europe and the United States have imposed, it is misreading “the preferences, and the freedom of action, of Western governments,” wrote Edward W. Walker, a comparative political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley last month.
Russia would still not withdraw from the Crimea, now formally its territory, and Western powers cannot accept its seizing of the peninsula. On this issue, neither side can afford to “blink” soon, according to Walker, and 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.