By Paul Robinson, a professor at the University of Ottawa. He writes about Russian and Soviet history, military history and military ethics, and is author of theblog. He tweets at @Irrussianality.
While commentators spilled ink over the prospect of war between Russia & Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin last week took a major step towards absorbing the war-torn breakaway Donbass regions. And yet, bizarrely, nobody noticed.
Scares about imminent Russian invasions of Ukraine – and the apocalyptic conflict between East and West they would trigger – come and go on a regular basis. Sometimes it’s the Ukrainians who cry wolf, sometimes it’s somebody else. The last major war panic was back in the spring of this year and, as usual, it passed peacefully. The Russian incursion never happened. This, however, has not stopped a new war frenzy from erupting this month.
This time around it’s the Americans inciting the hysteria, with anonymous US officialsBloomberg that “Russia may be weighing a potential invasion of Ukraine as tensions flare between Moscow and the bloc over migrants and energy supplies,” pointing to an alleged “build-up of Russian forces near the Ukrainian border.” Other unnamed sources that the United States is contemplating sending “military advisers and new equipment, including weaponry,” to Ukraine in order to help the country defend itself.
After initially stating that it saw no evidence of the supposed Russian ‘build-up’, Ukraine has since changed tack and backed up the Americans’ alarmist claims. The head of the country’s military intelligence, Brigadier General Kirill Budanov,the Military Times that Russia was preparing to attack in late January/early February, and that the assault “would likely involve airstrikes, artillery and armor attacks followed by airborne assaults in the east, amphibious assaults in Odessa and Mariupol and a smaller incursion through neighboring Belarus.”
While it is quite likely that Russia would respond forcefully if Ukraine were to launch a full-scale assault on the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DLPR) in Donbass, nobody has to yet to come up with a plausible explanation of why it would launch an all-out invasion of Ukraine entirely out of the blue. Not only would such an attack be extremely costly in terms of lives and treasure, as well as permanently rupture Russia’s relations with the West, but it’s also impossible to see how the Russian government could explain such a war to its own people.
Besides this, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently penned an article explaining that Russia’s best policy towards Ukraine is to do precisely “nothing.” One assumes that Medvedev, as the deputy chairman of the Security Council, to some extent reflects opinion at the highest levels. But an invasion is the precise opposite of ‘nothing’. Russia’s leaders can hardly want to do both at the same time.
Barring some extraordinary provocation, we can safely rule out war between Russia and Ukraine in the coming months. The vast number of articles, TV reports, tweets, and other messages whipping up a war frenzy are a good way of attracting readers, viewers, and “likes”, but do nothing to enlighten the public. Their only purpose seems to be to serve the interests of the more Russophobic elements of the Western military-industrial-media complex.
Yet something significant is indeed happening in Russian-Ukrainian relations. This became clear last week when Putina decree entitled ‘On Rendering Humanitarian Assistance to the Population of Separate Districts of the Donetsk and Lugansk Regions of Ukraine’. The decree “stipulates equal access of Donbass goods to Russia’s state procurement tenders. It also removes quotas on the movement of goods across the customs border.”
The 2015 Minsk II agreement, which is meant to provide a mechanism for ending the conflict in Donbass, talks about the “full restoration of socio-economic relations” between Ukraine and the breakaway self-declared republics. Ukraine, however, has moved in the opposite direction, subjecting Donetsk and Lugansk to a tight economic blockade, in the apparent hope that life there will become so miserable that the locals will long to return to the relative prosperity of their former home. Putin’s decree is a much-delayed response to this. As Russia’s authorized representative in the Contact Group on Settling the Situation in Eastern Ukraine, Boris Gryzlov, said on Thursday:
“This is a purely humanitarian response to Kiev’s non-fulfillment of the Minsk accords, the economic and transport blockade of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions that has been in place since 2017 and the liberation of the region’s residents from the economic stranglehold created by the Kiev regime… This actually paves the way for the revival and recovery of the Donetsk and Lugansk economies that possess considerable resources and potential in the metals, energy and engineering sectors.”
The question is why Moscow has decided to do this now. The answer appears to be that the Kremlin has finally decided, as Medvedev put it, that “negotiations with them [the Ukrainians] are utterly pointless.” The Ukrainian government is, in Russian eyes, incapable of living up to the promises it made in the Minsk II accord, and therefore an alternative approach to dealing with the problem of Donbass must now be found.
It would also appear that Moscow has lost any hope it may once have had that Ukraine’s West European backers might pressure it into enacting the provisions of Minsk II. This can be seen in an unprecedented decision last week by the Russian Foreign Ministry to publish its correspondence with France and Germany, who with Russia and Ukraine are members of the ‘Normandy Format’, which is meant to help implement the Minsk II agreement. According to the Russians, the correspondence showed that rather than helping to implement Minsk II, France and Germany were sabotaging it.
Ever since the war in Donbass started, the Russian government’s official position has been that the Donetsk and Lugansk are part of Ukraine and should be reintegrated with it by means of the granting of substantial regional autonomy. Putin’s decree shows that Russia is now moving in a different direction – the gradual integration of the breakaway regions into its own country.
The decision in 2019 to allow those living in the Donbass to claim Russian citizenship was the first step in this direction. This new move is another. It will both undermine Kiev’s economic warfare strategy and make the territory a part of the Russian economic space. Little by little, it will contribute towards turning Donbass into a de facto region of the Russian Federation.
Moscow is now clearly ditching negotiation with Kiev. In the process, it is opting not for war but for the creeping annexation of Donbass. The further this process goes, the harder it will be to reverse it. Indeed, it may already be too late. Minsk II gave Ukraine a chance to regain Donbass. It may now have lost it forever
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.
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