Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a long speech at the end of which he expressed his intention to recognize the independence of the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR) in Donbass in Eastern Ukraine. Here’s some very quick thoughts.
The speech was a massive outpouring of grievances, beginning with a long diatribe against Lenin, Stalin, and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In a sensible world, that would knock on the head the idea that Putin wants to rehabilitate Stalin and restore the USSR, but of course won’t do anything of the like. After his rant against the communists, Putin then moved on to express all his various complaints about the West and the behaviour of post-independence Ukraine. None of it was new, but it’s rare for it all to coming pouring out at once.
The purpose of the long list of grievances was clearly to justify the final decision – recognizing the DPR and LPR – but it’s interesting that so little of it had anything to do with the situation in Donbass. The overall sense I got was enormous frustration. Putin kept sighing, and every now and then would rap his palm on the table. It was like he was doing something that had very much not been his desire, but that he felt was the only thing left for him to do. I very much doubt that this has been his plan all along, and that all the incidents that have taken place in recent weeks have been carefully orchestrated to lead up to it. Rather, one gets the sense of something having snapped.
Of course, there was in all this a total lack of self-reflection – no indication by Putin that maybe things he’d done might have contributed to the current crisis. It was all kind of self-pitying. In this regard, Putin and his counterparts in the West who similarly swim in a sea of self-pitying grievance strike me as rather alike. Everyone is blaming everybody else for everything. It’s not very healthy.
The question now is what next?
Recognition of the DPR/LPR requires ratification by the Federation Council, but that will just be a rubber stamp and can be expected in the next couple of days. Along with recognition there are to be treaties of friendship with the rebel republics. A lot will depend on what those say and what sort of aid from Russia is envisioned in them. Economic and humanitarian aid will be one thing. Military aid will be another. But the act of recognition will provide legal cover should Moscow decide that military aid is required. For it can say that it is not sending weapons/troops or whatever into Ukraine but into independent states. After all, if Western states could recognize Kosovar independence and then provide Kosovo with support, Russia can do likewise. At least, that will be the argument.
Beyond that, the issue is whether this is a step on the path towards a full-scale invasion of Ukraine or rather an alternative to it. Obviously, those who have been boosting the prospect of such an invasion will believe the former. As someone who has always felt that an all-out attack on Ukraine out of the blue was unlikely, but also felt that it was very probable in the event of a major Ukrainian assault on Donbass, I see this as something of an alternative to war – as one of the ‘asymmetrical’ measures Moscow promised if the West failed to respond to its demands for security guarantees. The danger is that by seeming to rip up the Minsk agreements which looked to reintegrate Donbass into Ukraine, the act of recognition brings Russia and Ukraine more openly into conflict and so possibly raises the likelihood of all-out war between them.
Certainly, the situation is far from healthy. As I say, my strong impression is that this is not what Moscow had planned all along. Rather it’s a product of a realization that the West is not interested in meeting its demands (which to my mind were never very realistic) and also that Ukraine will never implement the terms of the Minsk agreements. Blocked from any other path, the Kremlin has therefore taken this one. Where it will lead, I do not dare to predict.