Staunton, June 10 – Over the last several days, many in the West have professed to see Moscow pulling back from its subversive aggression against Ukraine and expressed confidence that the crisis Vladimir Putin’s actions there have caused is approaching an end that both Russia and the West will be able to live with, however angry Ukrainians may be.
But two Moscow analysts, Vitaly Leybin and Valery Fadeyev, argue in Ekspert that Russia’s “political leadership has taken the maximum possible number of steps to meet its Western partners concerning the situation in Ukraine.” Instead, they say, “the struggle for Ukraine is moving toward a decisive stage”.
They suggest that Putin’s next actions in support of the “Russian world” in the south east of Ukraine may take different but no less consequential forms as far as the future of Donetsk, Luhansk, the Donbass more generally, and Ukraine are concerned, even if and indeed because they may attract less attention and opposition from the West.
That conclusion rests in part on the evolving conditions on the ground, the two analysts say. The pro-Russian forces and those who backed them had expected Moscow to support them in the way it did their counterparts in Crimea, but that has not happened and Kyiv forces have inflicted real losses on them.
At the moment, those identified as pro-Russian still are, but “the situation could change” and do so quickly because many of them see the concessions Moscow has made in response to Western demands as”the betrayal of ‘the Russian world.’” And others elsewhere who are watching this are drawing similar conclusions.
But in thinking about the future, one needs to understand what the real limiting factors are on all the actors involved. Ukraine, they say, “even if it is preserved as a single country (without Crimea) will ll the same never be what it was. A return to the times before the Maidanis impossible.”
Moreover, the two Moscow analysts continue, “the Donbass already will never be part of Ukraine if the latter tries to stand on the foundations of unitarism and an ethno-national ideology. The Donetsk and Luhansk peoples republics in a definite sense are already a part of Russia” and important players in the struggle for “the Russian world” that Moscow cannot avoid pursuing.
In reality, Levybin and Fadeyev say, “the rapid unification of the Donetska and Luhansk republics with Russia as happened with Crimea is impossible for a variety of reasons,” including the ethnic composition of the population, its attitudes toward Moscow and Kyiv, and the absence of a major Russian military base as in Sevastopol.
Blocking NATO from expanding into Crimea as part of Ukraine was and remains far more strategically important, they say. “One must not lose Sevastopol, [and] this in fact has been recognized by the West.” There is no equivalent in Donetsk or Luhansk.
Moreover, the annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk “could lead to an uncontrolled escalation of tensions between Russia and the West,” a development that would entail “risks – political, economic and military” for both the international system as a whole and for Russia in particular.
A civil war of the kind now raging could have been avoided, the two analysts argue, if Kyiv had met the relatively limited demands of the people of the south east for elected governors, greater autonomy, fiscal federalism, and the provision of official status for the Russian language. But that is something Kyiv would not and will not do.
After the events in Odessa, they continue, the residents of Donetsk and Luhansk were radicalized and voted for independence. In response, the two Russian analysts say, “Kyiv began its punitive operation against the citizens of its own country.”
Kyiv’s leaders do not understand even yet that “a unitary Ukrainian state in its former border is impossible.” There are only four possible outcomes: the military victory of the regional groups and the creation of an independent state of Novorossiya, the victory of these groups and the inclusion of the two republics in Russia, the forcible suppression by Kyiv of the regions, or the restoration of relations between Donetsk and Luhansk with Kyiv.
“It is important to note,” they say, that in none of these cases will Ukraine be able to return to the status quo ante.”
Could the two regions remain in Ukraine? they ask. That would require that Kyiv agree to end military operations, negotiate with the activists from the two places, and seek a compromise resolution, something Kyiv is unwilling to do because that would change the nature of the Ukrainian state.
In principle, such an outcome would not be impossible nor would it be inconsistent with what the Russian Federation has done in the past. Moscow, they point out, “has its own experience of complex federative relations of the center with the regions,” as with Chechnya, which has, as is quite obvious, “relations which are not the same as those with Tambov Region.”
If the Ukrainian military defeats what it sees as the secessionists, something it can do only with outside assistance, the consequences would be dire in the case of the two regions but also for Ukraine as a whole and mean it could exist as “a mono-cultural and mono-national state” only by repression might quickly break down.
The possibility of a complete victory by the irregular forces supporting the self-proclaimed regimes in Donetsk and Luhansk is also improbable unless they receive massive outside assistance. “The most probable outcome of military actions” is thus not the victory of one side or the other but “a continuation of local clashes.”
According to Leybin and Fadyever, a Novorossiya would have a much greater chance “to acquire real independence” than have Abkhazia or Transdniestria. It would have a vastly larger population, 6.6 million as opposed to the 240,000 of Abkhazia or the 513,000 people in Transdniestria, it has a larger industrial base, and it has more direct access to Russia.
Moscow can and Putin should and probably will help, they say. “The official introduction of regular [Russian] forces is now impossible.” It would cause a self-inflicted wound on Russia and would “not help the residents of the Donbass because it would lead to the escalation of the conflict.”
More limited military intervention, however, remains possible, especially regarding the provision of airpower and heavy artillery. If Moscow provides these, then there will be no chance for Kyiv to have any “illusions that a military victory” by Ukrainian forces will ever be possible.
But equally important Moscow can provide humanitarian and economic assistance, something that “in contemporary wars” is especially importance because no side can win “without the support of the population, and the support of the population [for pro-Russian forces] must be guaranteed.”
Not surprisingly, the leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk are focused on military issues, but they need to do a great deal more to shore up their position with the civilian population, and Moscow can help them. The possibilities in this regard are large, and not all of them are financially onerous or likely to spark antagonism in the West.
Among these are giving medical help to those who have been hurt by Ukrainian attacks, eliminating quotas on university enrollment in Russia for Donetsk and Luhansk students, providing assistance for those who wish to resettle in Russia, and sending specialists and investment to help build up the economies of these hard-pressed regions.
Moreover, Russia needs to be ready to help Donetsk and Luhansk deal with a step Kyiv has not yet taken but could. The banks in these two regions are branches of Ukrainian banks and Kyiv could tie up the economy of both by restricting the flow of cash. Moscow needs to open Russian banks there and consider the introduction of Moscow-backed national currencies.
Such actions would go a long way to ensure that “the Russian world” would be defended and that Putin would have a kind of victory, and they would do so in ways that neither Kyiv nor the West is likely to be able to mobilize in response. As a result, the two analysts say, these are Putin’s likely next steps and why he won’t make any more concessions on Ukraine.