The People’s Republic of Donetsk seems likely to be perpetuated as a chronically unstable catastrophe, as Russia wants neither independence nor sustainable federalisation. For the time being, she desires just chaos and exhaustion of the West’s energies.
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By Matthew Parish
History plays the angles, but some goals are not destined to be achieved. The Donetsk People’s Republic is one such elusive historical phenomenon. This quasi-state, established in Eastern Ukraine as an autonomous region by virtue of a popular plebiscite held in May 2014, is currently the subject of a low-level civil war in which Russian-backed separatists seek to uphold the outcome of the referendum against the Ukrainian central government. The fact that the civil war is low-level is in itself revealing. Separatist militias seized key government buildings, but their control of the Donbas region (incorporating the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Eastern Ukraine) is incomplete. At the time of writing, Donetsk City Council continues to operate a number of municipal functions while distancing itself from the paramilitary forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Both separatist and Ukrainian military checkpoints exist across the road network of the Donbas region. Donetsk airport, the only airport of any size in eastern Ukraine, has been closed since a gun battle on 26 May but is nominally under the control of troops loyal to Kiev. Police forces are split; at the time of writing, it is estimated that some 17,000 Police officers have defected to the rebel forces.
Nevertheless this state of limbo will not crystallise into an independent state or a union with the Russian Federation. In this regard the Donetsk People’s Republic stands in contrast to Crimea, which has been permanently absorbed into Russia. To understand the difference between the two scenarios, we must acknowledge the psychology and incentives of the principal regional player in the region, Russia, and her appreciation of her own limitations.
Perhaps the most manifest point is that if Russia wanted to annex the Donbas region, she could easily do so. Her military strength is vastly superior to that of Ukraine. Until recently Russia had up to 40,000 well-armed troops situated on the Ukrainian border and ready for combat. Those troops could have invaded at a moment’s notice, and annexed large quantities of Ukrainian territory within days. Regular American troops – not just the CIA operatives currently present in the country – would have needed to enter Ukraine to prevent this from taking place. The US government has no desire to risk war with Russia, when both sides retain so many nuclear weapons. Hence the option of annexation was open to Russia, but she elected not to take it. She has now withdrawn many troops from the Ukrainian frontier. It appears that this is an abiding election, at least for the time being. Nevertheless Russia continues to fund and foment rebellion in the east of Ukraine, supplying arms and irregular troops such as the so-called Vostok Brigade, a Spetsnaz division previously operating in Chechnya, that appears now to have taken control of central Donetsk. Hence Russia has decided to fuel unrest without wishing to engage in a more formal and complete absorption of Donbas. Why has she taken this course, and why has she not gone further when she could and did so in Crimea?
One explanation of Russia’s intentions might be that she was planning to invade Ukraine, and annex an arc of eastern and southern Ukraine to create a land bridge. This would straddle Russia, the Crimean peninsula, and also the pro-Russian separatist para-state of Transdniestr, a region of Moldova separated from the capital Chisinau since a brief civil war in 1992. We might surmise that her military forces were amassed in substantial numbers on the Ukrainian border for precisely this purpose. However she was deterred by western threats of sanctions, and an unexpectedly substantial degree of Ukrainian nationalist resolve. But this view seems naive. Russia has no desire to invade Ukraine. Her accrual of forces was pure theatre, for her goals are more subtle. Occupation of a country with, at its most optimistic, divided loyalties towards her was never a realistic Russian interest. Her true goal is to preserve perennial instability in Ukraine, because the Russian attitude towards her western borders is defined by the fear of invasion inculcated over centuries. Russia’s determination is that Ukraine remains outside the western orbit, which means outside NATO and without strong links to the European Union. Russia has no wish now to occupy, as she once did, an ethnically divided and poor nation without a significant degree of loyalty to her. The wish is rather to ensure that Ukraine remains a neutral buffer zone between East and West.
While Ukraine remained under the sway of approximately democratic politics, loosely divided between East- and West-leaning factions, there remained little danger of the country falling into an exclusively western orbit. The Party of the Regions, the political party of the former President Viktor Yanukovych would retain a sufficient balance of power in Kiev to preserve a modicum of Russian interests in the institutions of Ukrainian central government. But once western powers intervened with money and political support to overthrow the Party of the Regions, Kiev’s polity became altogether more alarming to Moscow. Russia was driven by a desire to rebalance Ukrainian politics. If the institutions of central government were lost to western influence, she would ensure that those institutions be indefinitely paralysed through fighting a perennial eastern insurgency. Russia’s goal is instability in the East, not annexation. The borders of an eastern annexation would prove too difficult to control; the populace too hostile to subdue; and a Ukrainian rump state would be implacably hostile to Russia, which is not what she desires. A neutral or helpless Ukraine is the aim, not the genesis of a diminished foe.
Russia has scant regard for the inviolability of national boundaries. This much has been proven in the Caucasus: land grabs in Georgia have been as prevalent as the ease with which Moscow has handed off central control of the Muslim regions of Chechnya and Dagestan to local warlords. The borders of the Russian Empire shifted perennially over centuries. Although the principle that international borders should not move obtained currency in western Europe at the end of World War Two, as part of the pact for a European Economic Community to prevent recurrence of war between the by then atrophied European powers, the Soviet Union remained an imperial force unimpeached by this philosophical sea-change. The sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic will never become a reality, but not by reason of Russia’s commitment to unadaptable borders as a principle international law. Rather it is because it is inexpedient for Russia to engage in this particular act of territorial expansionism. Instability in the Donbas is more attractive than annexation.
There is a temptation to misunderstand Russian political psychology, which is premised not upon the sustenance of principle but rather upon the balance of power. The West purports to be incensed by Russia’s disregard for a 1994 treaty in which she promised to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine in exchange for Ukraine’s abandonment of a share in the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. Yet the very notion of respect for such a treaty offends against all Russian theories of international relations. Treaties are not legally enforceable contracts; they are temporary truces between the ever-circling vultures, and a person who agrees to exchange legal principle for the tools of political threat is foolish indeed. Russia’s nuclear weapons are precisely why its conventional armed forces can infringe upon Ukrainian territory (either to achieve direct annexation in Crimea, or to foment indefinite inconclusive rebellion in Donbas) without significant consequences. Russia can point its nuclear weapons at Ukraine, without ever firing them, just as it can amass 40,000 troops on Ukraine’s border without those troops ever crossing into Ukrainian territory. In a game of international relations dictated by the balance of power, the threat is quite sufficient. Ukraine has nothing to point back.
This lens upon the universe of international relations also explains the confusing and conflicted political messages emerging from Moscow. One moment Russian government officials say they are withdrawing frontline troops. Nothing changes. Then suddenly it does. Russia says the Donbas plebiscite should be delayed, but ensures it goes ahead nonetheless. Russia says the Ukrainian Presidential election should be delayed; then calls upon it to be respected. Only the credulous would conceive that any of these statements reflect the Russian government’s actual positions. In a liberal democracy, government is beholden to at least some degree to avoid the principles of hypocrisy or deceit, lest they be subject to domestic political attack. In Russia, government is free deliberately to engage in tactics sewing chaos and confusion in one’s enemy, to catch them off-guard. This is the purpose of Russia’s political statements about Ukraine. They are designed to ensure that Western strategists cannot predict what Russia will do next. That is because the Russia specialists that populated western capitals during the Cold War have now retired. In fact Russian international relations are remarkably predictable, if one stops listening and starts observing. It is simple a matter of noting the strategic interests of Russian Realpolitik and the Russian predilection for brinkmanship. This cycle is easy to learn from a casual study of recent history. The student of the Cuban Missile Crisis could easily have understood Putin’s recent strategies in Ukraine. It seems those lessons of history have already been forgotten.
Will Moscow ultimately abandon its support for the secessionist movement in the Donbas, satsified that it has repead sufficient chaos to cause long-term damage to the Kiev government? This seems unlikely. The separatist movement Russia now supports was home-grown in Ukraine. The Donetsk Republic Movement of pro-separatist political agitators has existed for some years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and was banned in 2007. The Donetsk People’s Republic, and the so-called “New Russia” Movement for creating a Russian-dominated proto-state out of swathes of eastern and southern Ukraine, are born from native Ukrainian movements for dissolution of the country. Moscow latched onto pre-existing secessionist sentiment which it may now prove difficult to abandon. Russia could starve the separatists of funds and military resources; but it is unclear why she would want to do this, given that the commitment required to maintain the Ukrainian state in perpetual disorder is relatively modest. Moreover the West is, in reality, footing the entirety of the bill: since revolution in Kiev, Russia has cut its gas subsidies to Ukraine which is now having to pay billions of US Dollars extra per year to Russia for its energy supplies. The Ukrainian state being bankrupt, the West is paying through IMF credits and other international funds. Russia has nothing to lose.
Finally, the heavily industrialised Donbas region is strategically important to Russia for another reason. A number of the factories necessary to maintain Russia’s still-massive nuclear arsenal are in eastern Ukraine. Continued chaos ensures the region remains economically beholden to Russia, and the Ukrainian central government cannot cut off industrial support to the Russian military. Appreciating this danger, Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarch Rinat Ahmetov, who controls the majority of the factories in Donbas, recently came out against Moscow after being faced by the Russian government with a “tax bill” payable to the separatist proto-government of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Yet his workers seem lukewarm to the prospect of facing down Moscow, and he may come to rue the day when he crossed the Kremlin. His leverage may not be as strong as he would hope: he needs to sell into Russia, and Russia can do untold violations to his assets in Donbas through comparatively trivial quasi-military commitments in Ukraine’s east.
The People’s Republic of Donetsk therefore seems likely to be perpetuated as a chronically unstable catastrophe. Russia wants neither independence nor sustainable federalisation. For the time being she desires just chaos, and exhaustion of the West’s energies. Her interests will always be more sustained than those of the west, by reasons of geographical proximity and the strategic importance of the region to her sovereign interests. In the medium term, Vladimir Putin no doubt calculates that the Ukrainian people will regret the nationalist course into which the Europeans and Americans goaded them, irrespective of the imperfections of the Yanukovych regime. He will find another more agreeable face for Russian interests in Kiev politics, and in time he will use Russia’s massive wealth to elevate that person to government. Within four to six years, Ukraine may once again fall into the Russian orbit.
Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, and a frequent writer and commentator upon international law and international relations. In 2013 he was elected a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, and Bilan magazine named him as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. His third book, Ethnic Civil War and the Promise of Law, will be published by Edward Elgar later this year. For more information, please visit: www.matthewparish.com