I said the other week (and I was not the first to do so) that in the tussle over Ukraine, “the loser gets Donbas.” Russian president Vladimir Putin has not yet defined himself as a loser, but he appears to have decided to cash in his chips and take what he can get from the current crisis, recognising the “independence” of the separatist Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
It’s possible that Putin intended this outcome all along, or it may be (as I’m inclined to think) that he had no definite plan and was just out for whatever he could get. He may well have hoped to provoke Ukraine into starting a war that would enable him to push back the existing de facto frontier, and recognition of the rebel republics may be just such a provocation, but the Ukrainian government is most unlikely to oblige him.
The important thing to understand about this morning’s decision, and the no doubt imminent arrival of Russian “peacekeeping” forces, is that it doesn’t change anything on the ground in the Donbas: it merely recognises what has been the case since 2014. The BBC today says that “it would be the first time Russian soldiers have officially entered rebel-held territory,” but the word “officially” is bearing a lot of weight there. In reality, the rebels have depended all along on Russian military personnel, uniformed or not.
It was therefore always Russia’s decision as to whether the conflict would remain “frozen”, or be expanded, or be terminated by a negotiated settlement as envisaged in the Minsk agreements. Since neither Putin nor the Ukrainians were ever very keen on the third option, it is not surprising that he would settle on the first.
Ideally Putin would probably like to extend the rebel territory a little, with the acquisition of Mariupol or Kramatorsk, but moving beyond the existing cease-fire line will be difficult. Even when such a line is originally quite arbitrary, over time it solidifies as the local population sorts itself to either side of it (as, for example, with the Belgium-Netherlands boundary, or more recently the division of Cyprus); the unoccupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces are now much more anti-Russian than they were eight years ago.
Of course the Russian move is a blatant violation of international law – more so, in my view, than the 2014 annexation of Crimea (which was historically Russian territory and had a Russian majority) and the 2008 recognition of the breakaway territories of Georgia (which were ethnically non-Georgian and had been de facto independent for a decade and a half). But Putin is far from alone in that category.
The Georgia parallel, however, is relevant here, because it was a move away from war. Putin demonstrated then that he had the capacity to destroy Georgian independence but chose not to do so, because he calculated (no doubt correctly) that the cost/benefit ratio simply did not stack up. Ukraine shows the same calculation on a larger scale.
Putin hopes that his show of force will deter any Ukrainian adventurism, and indeed it probably will. But this is not a salami strategy for the conquest of Ukraine, because nowhere else in the country has the same sort of popular support for joining Russia. The Donbas separatists were a minority when they started out, but a substantial one; there is nothing comparable elsewhere in the country.
So while Russia could use its military buildup to seize Odessa or Kharkiv, it would (as I keep saying) be paying a huge cost to acquire a hostile population for little obvious benefit. A reckless or impulsive leader might do it anyway, but that is not Putin’s style.
Nor is the Donbas in any way essential to Ukraine’s security. That is the key difference from the other historical parallel cited recently, the 1938 Munich agreement (brought to mind also by the fact that last week’s security conference was in Munich). Giving up the Sudetenland was fatal to Czechoslovakia’s ability to defend itself, but Ukraine has no such need for the Donbas – the rebel territories represent less than five per cent of its territory and not much more in population. And after eight years of intermittent fighting they are economically a basket case.
The better parallel, as I suggested last time, is with Bismarck’s annexation in 1871 (against his own better judgement) of Alsace-Lorraine from France. That prevented reconciliation and gave France a continuing grievance; it laid up problems for the future, but it did not lead to renewed fighting in the medium term. It was 43 years before the two countries went to war again, and even then Alsace-Lorraine probably didn’t make much difference.
Despite his fondness for historico-philosophical disquisitions, Putin doesn’t care that much about the far future. His relationship with Ukraine was poisonous already – if holding on to the Donbas makes it worse still for his successors, it seems unlikely that that will worry him.
2 thoughts on “Putin blinks?”
I hope you’re right. It would still be a pretty big loss of face.
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