Ukraine Might Be Better Off If “Little Russia” Did Secede

Military vehicles of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic are seen in eastern Ukraine, May 30, 2015
Military vehicles of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic are seen in eastern Ukraine, May 30, 2015 (Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov)

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.

Yet it might be better for Ukraine if the region does secede. Read more

Ukraine Would Be Better Off Cutting the Donbas Loose

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observe damage in the area of Donetsk, Ukraine, May 27
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observe damage in the area of Donetsk, Ukraine, May 27 (OSCE/Evgeniy Maloletka)

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

French, German Leaders Give Putin Way Out in Ukraine

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and François Hollande of France meet in Paris, October 2
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and François Hollande of France meet in Paris, October 2 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

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

East-West Standoff in Ukraine Likely to Endure

Russian president Vladimir Putin answers questions from reporters at a summit in Ufa, Bashkortostan, July 9
Russian president Vladimir Putin answers questions from reporters at a summit in Ufa, Bashkortostan, July 9 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

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.

But not now.

Russian Troops, Weapons Gather on Ukraine’s Border

Russian army engineers take part in a military exercise, January 20
Russian army engineers take part in a military exercise, January 20 (Russian Ministry of Defense/Svetlana Umarova)

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.

Russian troops similarly entered Ukraine last year without identifying marks to seize the Crimean Peninsula. Russia denied for months its forces had been present in the country — even after annexing the Crimea in March.

The Crimea belonged to Russia for almost two centuries before Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954. After Ukraine split from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation recognized the peninsula as part of Ukraine’s territory.

Russia still denies it supports the separatist uprising in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region where fighting between government forces and rebels continues despite two ceasefires brokered by France and Germany.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense had no comment about the growing military presence on the border. Several soldiers told Reuters they had been sent to the base for exercises.

Russia has staged several army drills in the west through the last year.

But Reuters also reported that a dirt road leading across the steppe from the Russian staging area to the Ukrainian border had been freshly repaired, making it more passable for heavy vehicles.

Former American intelligence analyst and Naval War College professor John R. Schindler writes at his blog that Russia is either getting ready to launch an offensive or wants the world to think it is about to.

Deception, what Russians call maskirovka, is a well-honed art there, so it’s possible this is yet another saber rattle. But we don’t know yet.

NATO’s supreme allied commander, General Philip Breedlove, said earlier this month he believed the separatists were preparing for another offensive in eastern Ukraine.

Among the weapons spotted by Reuters were rocket launchers, self-propelled howitzers and tanks.

Frozen Conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas Becoming More Likely

Ukrainian soldiers conduct military exercises in Yavoriv, October 21, 2014
Ukrainian soldiers conduct military exercises in Yavoriv, October 21, 2014 (Arseniy Yatseniuk)

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.

Edward W. Walker, a comparative political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, believes a frozen conflict is now more likely. Neither the separatists, who are supported by Russia, nor the authorities in Kiev are in a position to decisively end the war, he argues.

Russia also appears to have concluded that an escalation of the war “would do nothing to solve what it sees as its key security problem,” according to Walker, “which is NATO’s growing military presence near its borders.”

If anything, Russia’s meddling in Ukraine has strengthened NATO’s resolve and aggravated the threat Russia believes it poses to its security. In the wake of Russia’s occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine last year, the Western military alliance for the first time deployed forces in the former East Bloc states that freed themselves from Moscow after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Walker suggests this may have led Russia to conclude “that it will be more effective at promoting Western disunity if it allows a lasting ceasefire to take effect while seeking to undermine Ukrainian political stability using more subtle methods.”

Perhaps this would not be the worst outcome for the rest of Ukraine. The crowdsourced consultancy Wikistrat argues that cutting away the self-declared people’s republics in Donetsk and Luhansk “offers perverse advantages.”

The rump Ukraine that remains could gain a new cohesion through the shared experience of struggle while the West — eager to teach Moscow a lesson — would both require and support the often-painful processes of political and economic reform the country so desperately needs.

Russia too would be better served by reversing its stated objectives. Suffering a serious economic crisis due to falling oil prices and Western sanctions — enacted after it took the Crimea — the country could find itself in an even worse position if it needs to continue to arm, guard, feed and support a puppet fiefdom in Ukraine. It would be better off forcing the rebellious regions back into Ukraine, according to Wikistrat — “like a rusty nail to poison the country’s bloodstream.”

That might not be politically feasible. President Vladimir Putin has staked his popularity on taking a “tough” stance against what Russians see as Western encroachment on their traditional sphere of influence. Retreating from Ukraine could be interpreted by the Russian public as weakness and threaten Putin’s hold on power.

The author is a contributing analyst for Wikistrat.

Despite Lull in Fighting, Ukraine Fears Rebel Attack

An armored personnel carrier takes part in a military exercise in Yavoriv, Ukraine, October 21, 2014
An armored personnel carrier takes part in a military exercise in Yavoriv, Ukraine, October 21, 2014 (Arseniy Yatseniuk)

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.

Ukraine fears the rebels will take advantage of the ceasefire to regroup and prepare an attack on Mariupol. The city of half a million has come under sporadic separatist attack since the beginning of this year. Read more