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Putin’s war in Crimea and the Donbas. What are the Implications?

Many observers may be tempted to see the current stalemate in the Donbas as a crisis affecting only Ukraine. However, Putin’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, and its war in the Donbas have far wider implications. His actions have violated international principles and norms. No such brazen land grab as the taking of Crimea has occurred in Europe since the end of the Second World War. By setting a dangerous precedent, this act, and the attempt to repeat it in the Donbas, threaten the territorial integrity of all neighbouring states.

What are the implications?

First, the unilateral redrawing of borders flouts all existing agreements.If Putin succeeds in keeping these territories, he will have demonstrated that naked aggression works. He, and others, may be tempted to repeat the exercise. The modus operandi is simple: before invading stir up local resentment and claim human rights abuses committed against Russians or Russian-speakers. This tactic initially confused and delayed the international community’s response. Today, however, it is clear that these claims were part of a disinformation campaign. Does anyone speak any more of linguistic and ethnic divisions in Ukraine, and of Putin’s right to exploit them? Or doubt the role of the Russian army?

Second, Putin is trying to legitimize an aggressive form of nationalism – one that makes ethnicity more important than citizenship. He aims to achieve this by allowing the promotion of doctrines like “Eurasianism” and “the Russian World.” According to the latter doctrine, Russia has the right to “defend” Russian-speakers, ethnic Russians, and even “co-nationals” abroad, whether or not any of these groups ask for or require “defending.” The terminology is purposely elastic: “co-nationals,” for example, includes both former citizens of the Russian state and the Soviet Union, and their descendants.

And third, Putin’s actions aim to rehabilitate imperialism. The doctrine of Eurasianism implies Russia’s right to control a large geopolitical space. Putin insists on Russia’s superpower status, considers empires legitimate and necessary, and demands that smaller countries bow to this inevitability and remain within Russia’s “sphere of influence.” When smaller countries react to such threats by seeking to strengthen the defence of their borders (as Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Finland, and Sweden have done), this is viewed by thePutin administration as a hostile act.

The consequence for Russia of growing nationalism and imperialism has been a focus in domestic propaganda on the need for ideological unity and military strength. A search has begun for subversives who supposedly undermine the message of unity and strength. The enemy has variously been classified as Europe, America, or the West. Citizens have been informed that their country faces danger from a fascist or Nazi threat. But Russian society has also been taught to fear its own NGOs, civil society, and human rights groups, and the media has fed this fear by broadcasting a narrative of Russia’s victimization, humiliation and encirclement.

Putin’s propagandists have simultaneously taken up rewriting history in light of these views. The Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe after the Second World War is now described as a benevolent guardianship. Citizens are told that the Cold War ended as a stalemate, not a Soviet defeat. They are instructed that in the 1990s Russia was rebuffed and ostracized by the USA, Europe, or the West in general. In fact, after the fall of the Soviet Union the opposite occurred. Efforts were made to include and integrate Russia into the international economy and community in the expectation that all sides would benefit. At the beginning of this century the benefits to Russia of trade and cooperation were abundantly evident; they brought about a boom fuelled by sales of Russian oil and gas. However, by 2012 the strategy for modernizing Russia’s economy had been shelved by Putin and replaced with repression at home and military adventurism abroad.

Putin’s demands of the Westnowcome down tohaving Russia’s “sphere of influence” recognized. This means, above all, granting Russia control over Ukraine and Eastern Europe. But Putin also wants access to Western decision making, an atomization of all Europe from Lisbon to Moscow – something that would allow him to deal more easily with individual small states — and the exclusion of the United States from European affairs.

What are Putin’s demands of Ukraine? At the Valdai Discussion Club, which was held in Sochi on October 24, he stated that he wants Ukraine to

  1. amend its constitution to incorporate a law on special status for the Luhansk and Donetsk territories “upon agreement with these territories.” This goes further than the existing legislation that Ukraine enacted in 2014
  2. incorporate the new law into its constitution, thus making it permanent and impervious to future changes
  3. bring this “special status” law into effect without making it conditional on free and fair elections (because the leaders of the Donetsk-Luhansk self-styled Peoples Republics — the DPR and LPR – will not accept such a condition)
  4. draft the law on “local elections in these territories” by agreement with the DPR-LPR
  5. enact a blanket amnesty that would enable “all DPR and LPR leaders who face criminal charges” to freely participate in political processes. (Kyiv opposes such a blanket amnesty, but is prepared to consider amnesty on a case-by-case basis after valid elections have been held in the territories.)

 The key issue is that Putin now wants Ukraine to renegotiate terms directly with the Donetsk-Luhansk leadership. This is why new election dates for the occupied territories have been pushed back to February 21 and April 20, 2016. The Kremlin hopes in the meantime to extract Kyiv’s consent to sham elections that will legitimize the existing leadership in the two “republics.”

Russia’s new demand that must Kyiv renegotiate every clause with the Donetsk-Luhansk leaders invalidates what has already been agreed by insisting on more concessions. Even the clause agreeing to the removal of Russia’s military has disappeared. Ukraine is being pressured into agreeing to the acceptance of undemocratic elections even before Russian troops and weapons have left the country (See: Vlad Socor, Eurasia Daily Monitor, October 29, 2015).

But are the rebels, in any case, ready for a deal? A Guardian correspondent recently spoke to military leaders in Luhansk. They were clearly reluctant to respect a ceasefire, and insisted instead that the war was not over. In their view only their tactics had changed. One stated: “Our republic is not yet independent – it depends on help from Russia. We must first take more land, more industry, more cities. Only then can we finish the war.” The conflict, they argued, continues “just in different ways,” with fewer artillery attacks but more “special ops.” One commander admitted that the Kremlin was telling them that an offensive would be bad politically at the present moment and they should wait, or risk not receiving “white trucks” (Jack Losh, The Guardian, 2 November 2015).

Ukraine in its turn demands:

  1. fully democratic elections in the Donbas, held according to Western standards and Ukrainian law, with the participation of international observers
  2. removal of all Russian troops
  3. securing of borders and their monitoring by international observers

It is important in the current situation that Poroshenko not be pressured into allowing undemocratic elections, which would legitimize Russian proxy rule in the DPR-LPR . Ukraine must also continue its campaign against corruption and lack of transparency in government. Only then will the Ukrainian parliament win the hearts and minds of its citizens. Demands for the rule of law, transparency in government, and an end to corruption were, after all, key factors in the EuroMaidan protests of 2013-14. Finally, the West needs to strengthen its stance in dealings with Putin, in this way preventing further adventurism in Ukraine, the Baltic states, and other territories.

Meanwhile, it should be recognized that chauvinistic messages continue to emanate from the Kremlin. Russian bumper stickers with slogans such as “We got to Berlin, we’ll get to Washington too” and “We will repeat 1941-45” are popular. The first slogan is sometimes accompanied by a graphic depicting sexual intercourse. As is well-known, during its drive to capture Berlin the Soviet army committed an estimated two million rapes, with gang rape the preferred method. In the German capital alone ten thousand women committed suicide after being violated. The slogan and accompanying graphic are therefore threats based on a specific historical memory.

In Russia, it should be noted, war is glorified in expensive movies being made, while the democratic movement, which deplores such militarism, is condemned as subversive, and “anti-Maidan” violence is directed against it.

Putin’s propaganda prefers to remember the Second World War as glorious conquest and state expansion. Victory Day on May 9 has since 2008 been transformed into an enormous display, in which flags of Lenin and the USSR figure prominently. The military parade that accompanied the 2015 celebration was the largest in post-Soviet history. May 9 now combines glorification of tsarism and Sovietism, eclipsing in importance the holiday of November 7, which celebrated the Bolshevik revolution. May 9 has therefore emerged as Putin’s primary way of focusing society’s attention on the Soviet Union’s former superpower status. Of course, in these victory celebrations no mention is made of the Holocaust, Holodomor, Gulag, Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, or the post-war repression of Central and Eastern Europe.

What have the consequences of war in the Donbas been so far? According to conservative estimates, it has created between 1.5 and 2.0 million internally displaced people. Some 5 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. There have been 20,000 casualties and over 8,000 deaths. Ukraine has lost 7 percent of its GDP and 18 percent of its exports. The negative effects of the war have in many respects been even greater in Russia. The country has lost international markets, the rouble has devalued by 50 percent, and this year inflation is projected to reach 15 percent. Russia is quickly losing its role as a supplier of oil and gas to Ukraine. Its gold reserves are now paying for its wars and funding its annual deficit. In 2017 when these reserves are exhausted the economy will be bankrupt.

To rid itself of refugees and put more pressure on Kyiv, Moscow is threatening to expel more Ukrainians. A special migration regime for Ukrainians ended on November 1. From now on Ukrainians can no longer live in Russia for more than ninety days in every six month period.A Ukrainian citizen who does not “legalize” his or her status by obtaining a work permit or by securing residency will have thirty days to leave.According to Russia’s Federal Migration Service, there are approximately 2.6 million Ukrainian citizens on Russian territory, a million of whom are from the Donbas. Although Ukrainians from the Donets and Luhansk oblasts are excluded from the expulsion order, fewer than a thousand people have so far been given refugee status. This means that an enormous number of people could be deported (Euromaidan Press, 2 November 2015).

In order to pressure Kyiv to agreeing to new terms with the Luhansk-Donetsk leaders, Putin may well be tempted to heat up the war in the Donbas and initiate deportations.

22 November 2015

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