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Recognizing Two “Independent Republics” in Eastern Ukraine: What Does Putin’s Declaration Mean?

At this writing, it’s still unclear whether there will be a war in Ukraine. For Putin, an attack is not an easy option. Recognizing the independence of two self-proclaimed republics could be his way of avoiding a very risky invasion — at least for now.

Philippe Alcoy

February 23, 2022
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Anatoly Maltsev/EPA, via Shutterstock

The following article was originally published only hours before President Joe Biden yesterday afternoon declared Russian moves in the eastern part of Ukraine to be an “invasion” and implemented new sanctions on the country, in concert with the United Kingdom and the European Union. While this article does not reflect that late news, its analysis remains central to understanding what is happening in Ukraine right now. — Left Voice

In recent weeks, the information provided by the mainstream media, as well as the official speeches of the leaders of Western countries and Russia, have become almost pure propaganda. The leaders of NATO countries, beginning with the United States, have been announcing Russia’s imminent invasion of Ukraine for more than two months, since Moscow began amassing tens of thousands of troops and military equipment on its border with Ukraine. For their part, Russian leaders keep insisting that there is nothing wrong, and that Russia has no intention of attacking Ukraine.

However, in recent days, tensions and skirmishes have increased, between the Ukrainian army and the armed forces of the separatist republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Russia has supported these self-proclaimed republics since 2014, when a reputedly “pro-Russian” government was toppled by the Euromaidan movement. 1Translator’s note: Yevromaidan is a portmanteau in Ukrainian that combines “Europe” and “square.” It describes the wave of demonstrations in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv that began in November 2013 after the government decided to suspend the signing of an agreement to associate with the European Union. On Monday, February 21, Russians reported several incidents involving the independent republics and Ukrainians in the area. It was in this context that Russian president Vladimir Putin, in a speech that same day that was deeply anti-communist and full of revisionist history regarding the Bolshevik revolution, declared Russia’s recognition of the independence of these two republics. Putin also ordered his army to ensure the “peace” in the two breakaway republics, which could involve deploying a Russian peacekeeping force.

This announcement is already raising tensions in the region. It is a departure from the framework of the Minsk Protocol, in which France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia participated. These agreements, negotiated in 2014 and 2015, were a victory for Putin — but since then, virtually nothing has been done to implement them. Thus, Putin breaks a fragile framework whose impact on the ground was very limited (there were almost daily violations of the ceasefire, for instance). In this sense, this development is an additional blow to the mediation policy of France and Germany. It is also a setback for French president Emmanuel Macron who, after discussions with Putin and Biden, had announced a summit between the two presidents — which both actors have since ruled out, at least for now.

Western leaders have begun to announce sanctions against Russia, but their nature and severity remains to be seen. The United States has already announced sanctions against the republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, but not yet against Russia. The United Kingdom has targeted Russia directly with sanctions, andhe European Union may soon announce sanctions of its own. But this issue remains very thorny within the NATO alliance. Putin’s move is forcing the imperialist powers to take a stand on sanctions, which may put pressure on the fragile unity on display among NATO members in recent weeks.

Does this mean that we are moving steadily toward war in Ukraine? Clearly, that option cannot be ruled out. However, a war is far from inevitable. First, the NATO powers are not going to risk a conflict with Russia over Ukraine (at least not under the current conditions). And while Putin’s recognition of the separatist republics indeed raises tensions, and in some way escalates things, the situation is not comparable to a direct attack on Ukraine by the Russian army or, worse, a total invasion of the country.

Indeed, it has seemed over the past several days that the Kremlin decided to adjust its tactics, emphasizing not a direct conflict between Russia and Ukraine but exacerbating the crisis between the separatist republics in Donbas and the Ukrainian state. From the Russian regime’s perspective, this has the merit of not implying direct combat by Russian troops against the Ukrainian army, at least at first, while at the same time establishing a pretext for a possible deployment of those troops directly in the two republics.

Along these lines, Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian International Affairs Council, writes:

The impression arises that, regardless of who is to blame for the recent escalation, events in Donbas might unfold as they did in Georgia in 2008. Under this scenario, Moscow would recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed republics then send its troops into the region, thereby guaranteeing that the conflict in Donbas would last for years, if not decades to come. … Apparently, by stepping directly into the conflict on the side of the self-proclaimed republics, Russia could intimidate Kyiv into refraining from any more armed clashes in Donbas. But this is about the only advantage of granting formal recognition to the self-proclaimed republics.

This raises a central question of the current crisis: how can Russia achieve its goals? Moscow could try to exacerbate the crisis in Donbas and thus weaken the government in Kyiv enough to make it give in to its pressures and demands. Specifically, that would mean abandoning the prospect of NATO integration and adopting at least a “neutral” position toward Russia. But that objective is far from guaranteed.

An open Russian offensive to overthrow the government in Kyiv, or even an occupation of the country, would be even more dangerous for Russia. Even a hypothetical Russian military victory would fall well short of achieving its political objectives. These cannot be realized simply through military means. Recognition of the independence of the separatist republics cannot by itself guarantee that the government in Kyiv will yield to Russian pressure and Moscow’s demands. That is the weak point in Russia’s policy aimed at regaining its influence in Ukraine. As researcher Volodymyr Ishchenko writes:

It is not clear which social group would benefit from the occupation and on whom the pro-Russian government could rely. … Although wages and pensions are being increased in annexed Crimea and Russia is investing heavily in the peninsula, its general economic situation is still comparable to the poorest regions of Russia. The mobilization and radical redistribution of resources that would be necessary to ensure any semblance of social legitimacy in hypothetical pro-Russian Ukraine would be incompatible with the patronage capitalism of post-Soviet Russia.

The reality is that Russia is in a weak position vis-à-vis NATO. In the long term, it is threatened by the advance of the Atlantic alliance’s positions in Eastern Europe. Putin and the Russian regime are aware of the changes at the international level and know that the conflicts between powers will only increase. They also know that Washington considers Russia, alongside China, to be one of the enemies of the world order the United States defends. Moscow also fears that a possible explosion of the European Union in the long run could create blocs even more hostile to Russia, and that this would result in an increasingly persistent threat.

This is why Ukraine is so important to the Russian defense strategy: in Moscow’s eyes, it has the potential to be a buffer zone against a possible attack from the West. Moscow’s fear is that NATO will succeed in arming and training the Ukrainian  army well enough to become a vital danger to Russia. The question for Russian strategists is, therefore, whether attacking Ukraine now is less risky than waiting.

But that option carries its own risks for Russia. Just from a logistical point of view, without mentioning the political issues, we can already see constraints, such as the difficulty of properly housing and feeding mobilized Russian troops.

It is not clear that Putin’s primary intention was to attack Ukraine when he began to gather troops and military equipment at the border. Most likely, Putin was trying to impose his will through a kind of “armed diplomacy.” As Carnegie Moscow Center fellow Alexander Baunov writes in the Moscow Times:

Having achieved moderate results through a moderate, short-term concentration of troops [in April 2021], the Kremlin decided to maximize the efficiency of this new tool. Russia had long had a list of complaints that the West had ignored, refusing even to listen and dismissing them as having no prospects. Now Russia had found a way of eliciting a reaction: not just massing its troops close to Ukraine, but doing so in battle order and in the right composition to convince military experts they were seeing preparations for an invasion.

However, the various announcements and statements by Western imperialist leaders, along with the media coverage, have only increased the pressure. Thus, Western imperialism has helped escalate the situation. Baunov continues:

By announcing a foreign war, U.S. President Joe Biden has chosen a winning strategy. If there is a war, he will be proved right. If it doesn’t happen, it will be because he managed to pull off the feat of stopping his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in his tracks. What’s more, he will have done so without making concessions on key issues, and — crucially for Biden — in accord with U.S. allies, in the name of a unified West.

In this context, Putin has entered a delicate situation, one in which backing down would be risky if he hasn’t won concessions “equal” to the level of military mobilization. It is risky internally, with respect to Russian public opinion, but especially for the credibility of Russian threats in the future, as other conflicts with the West emerge.

Despite NATO’s façade of unity and the short-term effects, it cannot be said to represent a solidly united bloc. Putin’s latest moves will test this further. There are important differences between the American approach (and that of some of its lackeys in Eastern Europe), which is much more aggressive toward Russia, and that of the main European powers, such as France and especially Germany. Indeed, Europe faces much more exposure to the economic, social, and political consequences of a possible war in Ukraine. The destabilization of Russia should it suffer a humiliating defeat is not a very reassuring scenario for the European imperialists. Paradoxically, the stability of the Russian regime is an element in containing the deep economic and social contradictions generated by capitalist restoration in the entire region. Europe cannot afford the luxury of a Libyan-style scenario in Russia.

Therefore, although we cannot rule out the possibility of an invasion, or even a war in Ukraine, there are many strategic considerations that push Russia to avoid the consequences of such a conflict: even harsher sanctions, hundreds of thousands of refugees heading to Russia, a military and political defeat (which is not at all excluded), among others. That is why focusing the conflict on the separatist republics gives Russia some leeway and shifts some pressure to the Western imperialist side.

The situation is indeed very serious and dangerous, mainly for the poor and working classes of the region. Putin’s policies are totally reactionary; they defend the interests of Russian capitalism. NATO’s policy, especially the policies of the United States, are completely irresponsible and cynical; the Western alliance openly participates in escalating the situation in the name of the so-called defense of Ukraine, and “peace.” Moreover, it cannot be excluded that the United States looks favorably on the prospect of Russia becoming bogged down in a conflict in Ukraine that would force it to expend immense amounts of money and energy.

Regrettably, Eastern Europe has become a region with high reactionary potential. Any destabilization resulting from geopolitical frictions, in the context of a very weak organized workers’ movement, can only herald disasters. Yet the existence of a strong, organized workers’ movement, independent of the bourgeoisie and reactionary nationalist forces, as well as of the imperialist powers and Russia, would be the sine qua non for offering a progressive and revolutionary alternative to the reactionary options in dispute today.

First published in French on February 22 in Révolution Permanente.

Translation by Scott Cooper

Notes

Notes
1 Translator’s note: Yevromaidan is a portmanteau in Ukrainian that combines “Europe” and “square.” It describes the wave of demonstrations in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv that began in November 2013 after the government decided to suspend the signing of an agreement to associate with the European Union.
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Philippe Alcoy

Philippe is an editor of Révolution Permanente, our sister site in France.

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