Interestingly, a writer at openDemocracy noticed that last week, the Russian parliament gave Putin the green light to recognize Ukraine’s breakaway areas of Donbass and Luhansk. Despite that development, and the West supposedly having clever Russia experts, I don’t see any evidence that our military-intel apparatus or our Russia watchers gamed out this possibility. Mark Ames, who watches this beat much more carefully than I do, confirms this take:
Lot of that frustration stems from the sense that the much-promised WW2-style invasion of Ukraine that so many thinktankers and OSINTwerps have been panting over may not happen after all
— Mark Ames (@MarkAmesExiled) February 21, 2022
To put it more bluntly, it’s as if the US was trying to goad Russia into a bar fight using typical macho aggression (chest-poking, insults, standing way too close). But instead of delivering the sought-after punch, Russia poured its beer on the West’s crotch.
As best I can tell, here is how the big pieces hang together, at a 50,000 level. The US is very mad at Russia for having turned what supposed to be a big setback in Ukraine into a victory by managing to wrest Crimea from the West.1 Those still suffering from TDS, most of all Hillbots, are even madder at Russia because Trump can’t possibly have won in 2016, those clever dastardly Russians must have poisoned our precious bodily fluids body politic. Oh, and interfered in 2020 too.
Trump made some friendly noises at Russia. But as Brookings pointed out, Trump’s talk didn’t match his actions. He imposed quite a few new sanctions.
In April 2021, Russia increased its troop concentration near the Ukraine border.2 Mind you, it normally had a fair number of military personnel there under ordinary circumstances. Russia made no demands. The West got all wound up about a possible invasion despite the lack of Russian form here and any particular reason to want to own Ukraine. The US imposed a bunch of new sanctions mid-April for alleged sins like 2020 election interference, the Solar Winds cyber hacking, Crimea (still!) and the poisoning of Alexander Navalny. These appear to have been in the works and not related to the martial moves. Russia reduced its troop concentration to its old normal at the start of May.
In November, Russia was widely reported in the West as increasing its troop concentrations again. The better informed commentators pointed out that the definition of “near the border” seemed to include bases 150 miles away, and even if there was an increase from recent levels, it was below the April peak, which got much less media play than this one did.
The Russians offered draft treaties setting forth what they wanted. The big demand was no NATO in Ukraine. That might not seem reasonable until you think through how the US would react if Russia started to arm Mexico and sent in lots of “advisers”.
The US refused to provide a written reply, yet accused Russia of not being willing to negotiate.
The war drumming from the West got louder. Macron tried de-escalating with a speech to the EU Parliament, a meeting with Putin, and a proposal, with Germany’s support, to revive the Minsk Accords, or at least the Minsk process. If you read the outline of Minsk I and Minsk II (2014-2015), it wasn’t even a real deal as much as a de-escalation, presumably to at least put a pause on hostilities and potentially open the door to wider-ranging talks. But the US never supported the deal and so it foundered. And these points, from the summary in Wikipedia, are presumably why:
Decentralisation of power, including through the adoption of the Ukrainian law “On temporary Order of Local Self-Governance in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts”.
To ensure the permanent monitoring of the Ukrainian-Russian border and verification by the OSCE with the creation of security zones in the border regions of Ukraine and the Russian Federation…
To withdraw illegal armed groups and military equipment as well as fighters and mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine.
What I must confess I had not worked out (and I suspect all but the most interested US readers are in the same boat) is that calling Donbass and Luhansk separatist areas does not quite do the situation justice. “Separatist” evokes a considerable independence movement, like in Quebec, the Basque, or more recently Catalunya.
But Donbass and Luhansk have gone further by setting up, or at least trying to set up, actual republics. Wikipedia calls them “self proclaimed breakaway states.” This occurred in 2014, at the time of the Maidan regime change.
Of course Russia has been meddling, via providing arms, no doubt “advisers” and more recently, letting residents of the wannabe-breakaway regions get Russia passports.
Now let’s look at the recent timeline.
The leaders of France and Germany tried to push Ukraine to comply with the Russian spin of the Minsk Agreements during their recent visits to Kyiv, sources in the Ukrainian government and foreign emissaries told the Kyiv Independent.https://t.co/qS2ZdMqMzh
— The Kyiv Independent (@KyivIndependent) February 15, 2022
The appeal from the lower house of the Russian Parliament to Putin to recognize the separatist regions came on the 16th. It sounds as if they were reading the intel from the France-Germany-Ukraine discussions more attentively than Western leaders.
Then on the 17th:
Kremlin [menacing military buildup]: “This will stop if no Ukraine in NATO.”
NATO/Zelensky: “Whoa, this is serious. Tens of thousands will die if this gets worse. So here’s our response: Ukraine can enter NATO. Also, Minsk peace deal is dead. Now go get your fuckin shinebox.”
— Mark Ames (@MarkAmesExiled) February 18, 2022
Doubt Zelensky would’ve made that declaration yesterday — calling Minsk peace process essentially dead — without first clearing it with US/NATO.
— Mark Ames (@MarkAmesExiled) February 18, 2022
I’m not sure this interpretation is correct, but it suggests that at least the separatists saw the Zelensky repudiation of Minsk as an escalation of hostilities:
Breaking news – Ukraine is trying to break through the front line. Zelensky said they never should have signed Minsk. . Both republics LNR and DNR ordered a general evacuation of the entire population to Russia.
This is confirmed https://t.co/6H8kXpEJQt
— Simona Mangiante Papadopoulos (@realSimonaMP) February 18, 2022
Weirdly, on the 20th, the Wall Street Journal and others published the story: “Biden Accepts in Principle a Meeting With Putin Proposed by France’s Macron.” Maybe Macron still hoped the Minsk revival was not dead? Or the Putin-Biden meeting was on its own track and not yet registering new events?
What happened today was wholly foreseeable. The Russians warned for years that their patience would eventually run out over Ukraine’s failure to implement Minsk. Biden, Macron & Scholz should have made clear to Zelensky the risks he was running. They chose instead to indulge him.
— George Szamuely (@GeorgeSzamuely) February 21, 2022
Yet the Western press is braying that Russia repudiated the Minsk Protocol when it was simply taking a strategic path opened up by Zelensky trashing it.
In fact, this remark from Lavrov provides further support for the idea that Zelensky rejecting the revival of the Minsk Protocol was the trigger for the Russian recognition of the separatist regions, that they’d be willing to trade that (as in accepting Minsk means accepting Ukraine sovereignty over those regions, although Minsk also called for more regional autonomy and non-retaliation).
Lavrov earlier today on Biden … give him 2-3 days to make Zelensky abide by Minsk https://t.co/uTUzwty7zI
— Cara TXZEAL (@Cara_TXZEAL) February 21, 2022
Frankly, Lavrov is likely just making deadly clear what the trigger was, since a US reversal is inconceivable at this point.3 If anyone at State were paying attention, he’s trolling them.
Some Twitterati also contend that implementing Minsk would serve to keep Ukraine out of NATO, since it would become a federation and would not be eligible to join (as in Minsk contained a poison pill). This is over my pay grade, so I would welcome informed input:
My guess, several world powers are putting a lot of pressure on Ukraine to accept the Minsk agreement. The agreement would transform Ukraine into a federation and make it impossible for them to join NATO/EU in the future. So Zelensky makes it clear that they will not accept it. https://t.co/oeMvvYG39d
— AndreiVlah (@AndreiVlah) February 19, 2022
The Saker argues in a provocative piece that the US has reacted just as Russia expected, to Russia’s advantage. I’m not sure I’d be that triumphalist, but as in the Middle East, Russia again has played what looked to be a weak hand extremely well. Key parts (emphasis original):
Let me make this clear: this recognition should NOT, repeat, NOT, be seen in isolation. It is just ONE PHASE in a PROCESS which began at least a year ago, or more, and there is much more to come.
Next, that must be repeated again, this is NOT about the LDNR, the Donbass or even the Ukraine, this is about a new security architecture on Europe and, therefore, on our entire planet.
This means that Russia expected exactly the reaction she eventually got (western politicians are fantastically predictable, being both ignorant, stupid and arrogant) and that gave her a legal basis to take the current action(call it R2P, or moral duty, or genocide prevention or whatever else you wish)….
Next, I want to mention four specific threats made by Putin today (note, since the PR folks at the Kremlin are still working at their usual snail’s pace, I will have to make them by memory, please keep that in mind):
- Those responsible for the massacre in Odessa will be punished by Russia.
- Putin is demanding an immediate cessation of the shelling and shooting along the LOC.
- Russia will physically prevent the Ukraine from US/NATO deploying offensive weapons to threaten Russia.
- Russia will show Banderastan how to organize a *real* “decommunization” (after indicating that the Ukraine was created by the CPSU)….
Unless the Ukies get it – and they probably won’t – I fully expect Russia to openly extend here “military umbrella” over the LDNR. That does not mean that she will have to move troops in, though that now is also a possibility, but that any future Ukie ground operation will be countered by the full might of the Russian military. Officially this time. The Ukros along the LOC have heard it from Putin’s own mouth: we got a crosshairs on each one of you. While I wouldn’t put *anything* beyond the Ukros, I believe that today’s clear threat will have a strong deterrent effect, whether the Ukies admit it (not gonna happen) or not.
Finally, to the issue of sanctions, which the Saker discusses and our Nick Corbishley is posting on in more detail.
First, the West made clear they were going to impose them no matter what, so any deterrent value was nil.
Second, the US has shot its sanctions wad. Russia has become more of an autarky despite or more accurately because the West has kept pounding it. All the US has left is Nord Stream 2. Russia can sell any surplus gas to China initially and diversify a bit more if it wants to later. In the meantime, sanctions would amount to the US cutting off Europe’s nose to try to spite Russia’s face.
Mark Ames’ comment on a long speech Putin gave after the Donbass/Luhansk recognition (I tried listening but the simultaneous translation was painful):
Angloid mainstreamers too conformist to respond to the meat of Putin’s speech—the litany of grievances—with anything more than virtuous sneering. It’s clear VVP assumes the only thing our political elites understand is the language of violence. So here we are.
— Mark Ames (@MarkAmesExiled) February 21, 2022
Now with that long-winded intro, to the alert openDemocracy piece that recognized that the Russian parliamentary vote was significant, even though it went of the rails on some key points, like assuming there would be no follow through. However, it argues that Russia has created facts on the ground that make the breakaway regions de facto parts of Russia.
By Dmitry Sidorov, who works for “Takie dela” and has also published with “Russkaya Planeta”, “Colta”, “Kommersant” and other independent Russian media outlets. Originally published at openDemocracy
“This is a Kremlin propaganda stunt against the backdrop of the crisis in Donbas,” Ukrainian political commentator Vitaly Portnikov said, when I asked why there are moves in Russia to potentially recognise the separatist territories in eastern Ukraine this week.
“If the Kremlin really wanted to recognise the independence of the territories, it would have been done completely differently. Putin would have suggested this, or at least Dmitry Medvedev” he added.
As an apparent invasion deadline came and went on Wednesday, the lower house of Russian parliament voted on Tuesday to send president Vladimir Putin an appeal to recognise the independence of the ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ and ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ – the pro-Russian separatist entities set up in eastern Ukraine after the country’s Euromaidan revolution in 2014. The push for recognition came from the Russian Communist Party. It was supported by 351 out of 450 parliamentary deputies.
Shortly after, firing resumed in the Donbas region, with a school in Ukrainian-controlled territory hit by shelling. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the “situation near the border of Russia can ignite at any moment”, referring to “provocative actions” by the Ukrainian military. On Tuesday, Putin referred to the situation in Donbas as “genocide”, provoking fears of further Russian military action.
To understand what Russia’s recognition of the so-called ‘People’s Republics’ could turn into, openDemocracy spoke to the Communist Party officials behind the initiative, as well as Ukrainian and Russian political commentators.
The Communists’ Proposal
“I find it funny when our political opponents and certain media say that the Communist Party is opportunist,” said Dmitry Novikov, first deputy chairman of the Russian parliamentary committee on international affairs. “The issue [of Donbas’ status] remains unresolved, and we have always proposed this kind of solution.”
As fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine in the summer of 2014, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov called on the Russian authorities to recognise the independence of the ‘People’s Republics’ to “protect” them from the central Ukrainian authorities. The Russian authorities, another Communist parliamentarian, Nikolay Osadchii, told me, “were about to recognise [the separatist territories] – but at the last moment everything changed”.
Numerous reports have tied Russia to military intervention in eastern Ukraine, but it does not consider itself a party to the conflict. Ukraine, the US and the EU, meanwhile, regarded the independence referendums held in eastern Ukraine in 2014 as illegitimate. Russia “treated the results with respect”, but did not recognise them, though later recognised parliamentary elections held in the ‘People’s Republics’. At the time, separatist leaders asked directly to become part of the Russian Federation.
Yuri Afonov, another Communist Party MP, told openDemocracy he believed that recognition could prevent a “military adventure” by Ukrainian armed forces, citing the fact that more than 700,000 people living in the ‘People’s Republics’ now hold Russian passports.
Indeed, the Communist Party has lobbied to reduce the cost of applying for Russian citizenship for residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as well as a simplified application process. Afonov further remarked that the Communists have been “building integration ties with the [separatist territories] for several years”. According to official statements, the party has sent 93 humanitarian convoys to the Donbas since 2014.
On Tuesday, parliamentary deputies from the Communists, the ruling United Russia party, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and Just Russia voted for the petition to recognise the two ‘People’s Republics’, which was drawn up by the Communists. Sixteen deputies from a new centre-Right party, New People, voted against.
The Communist Party’s initiative to recognise the territories does not say anything about the further integration of these entities into the Russian Federation, but economic, political and military ties are already in place. The Russian rouble is the official currency in the ‘republics’, residents with Russian passports voted in last year’s parliamentary elections in Russia, and a Russian presidential decree in November 2021 significantly simplified trade between Russia and the ‘republics’
“It was quite obvious: without recognising the republics according to the models of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it would be impossible to stop this conflict,” says Yuri Afonin, Communist Party MP. Novikov adds that the two breakaway territories in Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, were recognised by Russia according to the same scheme as the Communist Party has proposed over Donbas: the process began, in part, via Russian parliamentary initiatives.
Against the backdrop of an unprecedented Russian military build-up, and measures to prepare for a military escalation inside Ukraine, this week Putin himself commented on the initiative to recognise the separatist territories.
“We must do everything to solve the problems of Donbas, but we should do this… first of all, based on the as yet unrealised opportunities for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements,” he said, referring to the deadlocked ceasefire and reintegration process.
While the Russian government’s reaction to the Communists’ proposal has been “extremely diplomatic”, said Communist MP Nikolay Osadchy, he believes it could still happen.
“We understand that these kind of matters are often decided overnight,” he said.
Abandoning the Minsk Agreements
“The Communists’ initiative is probably a PR move,” said Alexey Tokarev, a senior researcher at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.
“It’s meant to say: we are here, we do not quarrel with the [Kremlin], we did not listen to you on domestic policy issues, but we can offer a loyal initiative on foreign policy issues,” Tokarev explained, referring to the Communist Party’s relative success at September’s parliamentary elections. The only possible scenario for Russian recognition would emerge, he believes, if there was a large-scale offensive by the Ukrainian armed forces.
Vitaly Portnikov, speaking to openDemocracy, agreed with Tokarev, calling the Communist Party “ordinary stupid puppets”. If the Russian authorities did go ahead with recognition, Portnikov believes, “the issue would be closed. Russia would have abandoned the Minsk Agreements. It would no longer be able to reproach Ukraine for violating them.”
He called the possible recognition a “gift for Ukraine” in the sense that it would lead to a deterioration in Russia’s position in the international arena, following the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the annexation of Crimea.
Likewise, Portnikov believes that the Kremlin will not agree to the recognition of the separarist territories: following a ceasefire, the Minsk Agreements foresee the reintegration of these territories back into Ukraine via a special autonomous status in the country’s constitution. Recognition of their independence, therefore, would remove the Kremlin’s most important lever for putting pressure on Kyiv.
“With the help of constant shelling of Ukrainian territory from the Donbas, Russia maintains political instability in Ukraine, maintains a feeling of constant war inside Ukraine,” he said.