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”
French and German leaders compelled Ukraine on Friday to hold elections in its eastern border regions that are controlled by Russian-backed separatists, potentially giving President Vladimir Putin a way out of a conflict that has triggered the worst crisis in East-West relations since the end of the Cold War.
The agreement, brokered by French president François Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel, comes in spite of previous insistences from Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko that Russia ought to withdraw its support from the separatists first before local elections could be called. Read more “French, German Leaders Give Putin Way Out in Ukraine”
Russia’s standoff with Western countries over its aggression in Ukraine may not resolve itself for years, experts warn. Even if the status quo is unsatisfying for both sides — and a risk to peace in Europe — neither is likely to escalate or seek a diplomatic solution.
The civil war Russia instigated in the largely Russian-speaking frontier region of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, has lost intensity in recent months. But neither the government nor the rebels Russia backs seems in a position to break the stalemate.
If the conflict in the country drags on, so likely will the geopolitical tension between Russia on the one hand and NATO allies on the other.
Nikolas Gvosdev, a former editor of The National Interest, argues at World Politics Review that this impasse is unstable. European countries like Greece, Hungary and Italy want to wrap up Western sanctions against Russia. Russia’s economy is hurting. Ukraine’s is in freefall and needs international support.
Ukraine has been vocal in proclaiming its cause to be the West’s at large and this view is shared in Central Europe and the United States, according to Gvosdev, where there is support for arming the Ukrainians or even letting them into NATO.
A countervailing view is more prevalent in Southern Europe and among the German business community: the sense that any lasting settlement that allows Ukraine to have some degree of association with Europe requires accommodating Russia’s concerns.
If Russia were to pull back and tap down its threatening posture — like flying bombers, Cold War-style, through NATO airspace — “the image of Ukraine as the West’s first line of defense would fade,” Gvosdev suggests, “replaced by a more realpolitik approach to balancing interests in Europe’s eastern borderlands.”
Russia may seek such an accommodation. Despite its rhetoric about protecting Russian “compatriots” in Ukraine and seeking a fair political settlement in its former vassal state, its policy is really informed by geopolitical considerations, argues Edward W. Walker, a comparative political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley who specializes in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Ukraine was, and doubtless to a certain extent still is, a central element in the Kremlin’s ambitions to establish a Russian-dominated “Eurasian” pole in what it sees as an increasingly multipolar world. But more importantly, it has been and remains critical to the Kremlin’s goal of keeping the United States, the European Union and above all NATO from becoming politically, economically and militarily preeminent in the post-Soviet space.
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has had the opposite effect.
In the wake of its occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine last year, NATO for the first time stationed forces in the former East Bloc states that joined the alliance after the end of the Cold War. Nominally neutral border states like Finland and Sweden have increased their cooperation with the Western military alliance and support for joining NATO is rising there.
Russia also alienated an otherwise sympathetic Ukrainian population that overwhelmingly backed pro-Western parties in October’s election.
Walker believes Russia will hunker down in the short term, continue to build up its military forces and try to divide the West along the lines described by Gvosdev.
He is less optimistic about the possibility of a détente. “Western governments are not going to want to appear to reward Russia for using force to change internationally recognized borders,” Walker argues.
Nor are they, as a matter of principle, going to put a permanent halt to NATO or EU expansion or the movement of more hard power assets toward Russia’s borders, let alone withdraw those that have already moved in over the past year. At some point well down the road — perhaps in five or ten years — a grand security bargain with Russia may be possible.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that Russia is massing troops and weapons some fifty kilometers from the Ukrainian border, raising fears that the country is preparing another stealth invasion of its former Soviet republic.
According the news agency, military vehicles at the makeshift base were without number plates while many of the servicemen there had taken insignia off their fatigues.
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.
The United States are rethinking whether to send weapons to Ukraine in order to help the country fight a Russian-backed insurgency in the southeast, senior administration officials said on Monday.
“It’s getting a fresh look,” one official told the Reuters news agency. “Where things will end up, we don’t know.”
The reevaluation comes days after eight former American officials, including Ivo Daalder, the former permanent representative to NATO, and James Stavridis, the former chief NATO commander, called on Western powers to provide military support to Ukraine in a report (PDF).
President Barack Obama has also come under pressure from senior lawmakers, including members of his own Democratic Party, who urged him on Tuesday to “rapidly” increase assistance to the Ukrainian government in the form of antitank weapons, armored jeeps and counterbattery radars.
The United States already provide binoculars, body armor and small boats. The administration has delayed on providing more lethal equipment.
Arming the Ukrainian army could escalate the East-West standoff in Ukraine where Western powers say Russia is actively supporting a separatist uprising. Since occupying and annexing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March last year, Russian troops and weapons have found their way into the southeast of the country. However, Russia still denies it is involved in the war there.
The European Union and the United States responded to Russia’s seizure of the Crimea by imposing economic sanctions that are likely to help push Russia’s economy into recession this year. But the sanctions do not appear to have deterred its president, Vladimir Putin. Instead, he seems to have ramped up his support for the separatists in recent weeks.
The Ukrainian army has proven a poor match for the rebels and would be even harder pressed to fight off an overt Russian intervention in the conflict.
Western countries are unlikely to give Ukraine the amount and sort of weapons it needs to completely put down the rebellion in the Donbas region for fear of triggering a wider conflict with Russia, its former Soviet master.
But they could at least help blunt Russia’s offensive, argues The Washington Post. The newspaper cautions against inaction for fear of provoking Russia, pointing out that it has steadily stepped up its aggression in the absence of a military response. Russia could interpret the West’s failure to help Ukraine as weakness and next test NATO’s resolve elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Eugene Rumer, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment, rejects that advice, writing in the Financial Times that it would be of little help send Western weapons to Ukrainian troops not trained in their use. Were the United States to also deploy trainers to help Ukraine’s soldiers use the weapons, “they will be sending Americans into a warzone with Russia as the enemy. It will be hard to pretend then that America is not a party to the conflict.”
The best possible outcome is a frozen conflict, according to Rumer. “A free and independent Ukraine, a solid defense of the European order and a firm rebuff of Russian aggression are worthy goals,” he admits. “But they do not absolve us of our responsibility to consider the consequences of our actions. The current proposal to arm Ukraine does not meet that standard.”
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.