Separatists in the southeast of Ukraine have declared a new country: “Little Russia”.
The announcement by Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, amounts to little, argues Gwendolyn Sasse of Carnegie Europe.
She points out that leaders in Luhansk, Ukraine’s other breakaway region, have distanced themselves from it. Russia, which otherwise backs the Donbas uprising, hasn’t voiced support either. And the local population doesn’t want independence. A survey conducted earlier this year found a majority in favor of remaining in Ukraine. Only a third want to join Russia.
We haven’t heard much from the Donbas recently, but the two separatist republics there are still slowly being annexed by Russia. It may ultimately be for the best for the rest of Ukraine.
Alexander J. Motyl, a Ukraine scholar, reports for World Affairs Journal that the Donetsk People’s Republic alone now spends more on propaganda than Ukraine’s Ministry of Information Policy. Its newspapers, radio and television stations constantly denounce the Kiev “junta” and the “fascists” who have supposedly taken over since the more pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, was ousted in a pro-European coup in 2014. Local museums are devoted to exposing the “atrocities” committed by the Ukrainian army.
In the Luhansk People’s Republic, a children’s magazine recently featured a story about an evil Fasciston (Washington) being defeated by a valiant Vladimir Putin-like Papa.
Economically, the two self-declared republics are drawing closer to Russia as well. They use the ruble as currency. Residents can apply for Russian passports. The Russian Ministries of Defense and Internal Affairs control the territories’ soldiers and security forces. Finance, infrastructure and transportation are all run through an interdepartmental commission in Moscow supervised by Putin’s advisor, Vladislav Surkov. Read more “Ukraine Would Be Better Off Cutting the Donbas Loose”
As the war in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region seems to be fizzling out, another conflict on Russia’s borders could soon be frozen.
Although a truce negotiated by the leaders of France and Germany last month is still tenuous and although Russia has yet to fully back down, the civil war it instigated in the largely Russian-speaking frontier region of its former Soviet republic is losing intensity.
After a two-day lull in fighting, Ukraine reported on Friday that three of its servicemen had died battling pro-Russian separatists in the southeast of the country. President Petro Poroshenko said in a televised speech that even “under the most optimistic scenario,” Russia would remain a “military threat” to his nation.
Despite the three deaths, Ukraine said it would continue to withdraw its heavy weapons from the frontlines in compliance with a truce French and German leaders helped negotiate in the Belarusian capital Minsk two weeks ago.
The rebels only started pulling back their artillery on Tuesday after capturing the strategic rail town of Debaltseve, situated between their Donetsk and Luhansk strongholds near the Russian border.
The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine have agreed to a ceasefire in the Donbas after lengthy negotiations in Belarus’ capital, Minsk.
German chancellor Angela Merkel, who had jointly initiated the talks with French president François Hollande, told reporters the deal offered a “glimmer of hope” but admitted obstacles remain in the way of peace.
Pro-Russian separatists in the southeast of Ukraine launched a new offensive against the port city of Mariupol on Saturday. City officials said at least thirty residents had died in rocket attacks.
The city of half a million, situated on the Sea of Azov, is vital to Ukraine’s grain and steel exports. Claiming it for the separatists would enable Russia to build a land bridge from its territory to the Crimea, the peninsula it took from Ukraine in March.
“The region is currently accessible to Russia only by air and across the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Robert Coalson reported last year. A land bridge, he argued, “would make it much easier for Moscow to supply Crimea.”
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has monitors on the ground in Ukraine, said in November it feared an assault on Mariupol.
A prolonged campaign against the city could be bloody, warned Edward W. Walker, a comparative political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley the same month. Unlike Ukrainians further east, the citizens of Mariupol are far from eager to live under Russian occupation and have had months to prepare a defense.
If they do take the city, the separatists would also be defending an even longer line of control.
Ukrainian forces originally withdrew from Mariupol in May when civil unrest broke out in the city. The army moved back in the following month.
The rebels’ latest offensive could indicate that the ambitions of Russia, which is partly orchestrating the insurrection in southeastern Ukraine, are broader than many Western analysts assumed. However hard it may be to push the Ukrainians out of the region, the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, may well be determined to restore Russian suzerainty over Novorossiya, a term he started using in speeches to refer to coastal southern Ukraine in the middle of last year.
The area, which stretches from the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk — both in rebel hands — in the east to Odessa, which has a large ethnic Russian population, in the west, was conquered by Russia in the late eighteenth century and transferred to Ukraine after the 1917 revolution. The Crimean Peninsula remained part of Russia until it was added to what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954.
Throughout last year, Russia denied Ukrainian and Western accusations it was supplying the rebels in Ukraine with weapons, including missile launchers that were likely used to shoot down a commercial airliner in June, killing nearly three hundred passengers and crew. The European Union and the United States imposed economic and financial sanctions after the annexation of the Crimea, triggering a trade war with Russia which banned certain agricultural imports from Eastern European countries and reduced natural gas flows to Poland and Slovakia.
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.” Read more “Russia Believed to Give Up on Donetsk, Luhansk Self-Rule”
NATO said on Wednesday it had observed columns of Russian military equipment entering southeastern Ukraine since the beginning of the week while the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe feared an assault on the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
Speaking in Sofia, Bulgaria, Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Philip Breedlove said Russian air defenses, artillery, tanks and troops had crossed the border into Ukraine. “We do not have a good picture at this time of how many,” he said. “We agree that there are multiple columns that we have seen.”
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. Read more “Why Russia Can’t Accept the Status Quo in Ukraine”
Ukraine accused its neighbor Russia on Friday of escalating the fighting in the Donbas region where pro-Russian separatists held an election last week that they say showed popular support for independence from Ukraine.
An Ukrainian military spokesman said a column of 32 Russian tanks, sixteen artillery guns and thirty trucks carrying ammunition and troops had crossed the border into southeastern Ukraine. NATO reported an increase in Russian equipment and troops along the Ukrainian border but could not yet confirm that tanks had entered the country.
Russia previously sent tanks and troops into Ukraine when the rebels fighting in the areas around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk appeared on the verge of being defeated by Ukraine’s army. Russian support gave the separatists the upper hand and the military situation in southeast Ukraine had seemed at a stalemate since.