21 February 2022   Leave a comment

Russian President Putin delivered a speech today in which he recognized two parts of Ukraine as independent states–the “Luhansk People’s Republic” and “Donetsk People’s Republic”. These are two regions in Ukraine in which Russian-speaking separatists have sought to break away from Ukraine–with Russian support–since 2014. He has apparently ordered Russian troops into these regions as a “peacekeeping” force. The policy is similar to the one adopted by Russia in 2008 when Russian troops invaded Georgia and recognized two parts of Georgia as independent states: South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The international community has thus far refused to recognize either Abkhazia or South Ossetia as legitimate independent state. Nonetheless, Russia has created military bases in the two regions and has waged low-level conflict to slowly enlarge the borders of the two rump states.

We will have to see if Russia does send in additional troops to Luhansk and Donetsk. Right now, the Russian move does not change the status quo. Ukraine and Russian forces have been fighting each other since 2014 and about 14,000 have died in the conflict. So, technically, an invasion has yet to occur. But the territory occupied by the separatists does not include the whole of the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, as indicated by the map below.

So the question for the US and Europe is how to respond to this Russian action. We already know that President Biden has flatly ruled out sending any NATO forces into Ukraine, so the issue is how many and what type of sanctions will be imposed on Russia for sending additional troops into an area already controlled by Russia. US Secretary of State Blinken issued the following statement after the Russian move:

“We strongly condemn President Putin’s decision to recognize the so-called “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” as “independent.”  As we said when the Duma first made its request: this decision represents a complete rejection of Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreements, directly contradicts Russia’s claimed commitment to diplomacy, and is a clear attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“States have an obligation not to recognize a new ‘state’ created through the threat or use of force, as well as an obligation not to disrupt another state’s borders.  Russia’s decision is yet another example of President Putin’s flagrant disrespect for international law and norms.

“President Biden will sign an Executive Order that will prohibit all new investment, trade, and financing by U.S. persons to, from, or in the so-called ‘Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics’ regions of Ukraine. We will continue to coordinate with Ukraine and our Allies and partners to take appropriate steps in response to this unprovoked and unacceptable action by Russia. The E.O. is designed to prevent Russia from profiting off of this blatant violation of international law. It is not directed at the people of Ukraine or the Ukrainian government and will allow humanitarian and other related activity to continue in these regions.

“Our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as for the government and people of Ukraine is unwavering.  We stand with our Ukrainian partners in strongly condemning President Putin’s announcement.”

We will have to see how Russia reacts to these sanctions. They do not pose any substantial threat to Russia or its leadership. But the next step for Russia is to hold an election or a referendum in the break-away regions in order to create a patina of legitimacy for the new “states”. The international community will likely ignore the results of such elections and then the most difficult question is how fiercely the Ukrainians will fight to regain their territory. If the Ukrainian challenge is manageable, then Russia will probably hold fast. But if the Ukrainians pose serious challenges to Russian military control, then escalation is the next step for the Russians and for NATO. We will have to see how this situation evolves. But Putin’s domestic position is much weaker than it was in 2014. The Economist describes the scene surrounding Putin’s speech:

“Earlier, Mr Putin had staged a bizarre televised spectacle to clear the way for recognition of the republics. The move to broadcast an extended meeting of Russia’s national security council was unprecedented. The exchanges with the council members were just as extraordinary. From his position in a white chair, Mr Putin called on his minions, one by one, to speak their minds. He helped those having difficulty making them up. ‘Speak plainly,’ he scolded the foreign intelligence chief, Sergei Naryshkin, who at one point appeared to misstep. ‘You would support it—or you do support it?’ Mr Putin stressed that he had not consulted with his aides beforehand and there was only one decision-maker in the country.

“The pained faces of some in the room suggested that not everyone was happy with the direction of travel. Yet they unanimously hewed to what, one must assume, they knew the president wanted to hear—a line that would at best void a seven-year-old set of agreements aimed at producing peace in the Donbas region, and at worst set off a spiral of sanctions and war. Ten of the speakers urged Mr Putin to recognise the breakaway republics immediately. Only three suggested giving diplomacy a final chance. Full recognition would suggest territorial claims on areas currently controlled by Kyiv, since the breakaways claim the whole of the Donbas—and that in turn could prefigure a big new military intervention.”

Calm and quiet persistence are necessary to prevent further escalation. NATO and President Biden should make clear that the Russian move is utterly unacceptable but should avoid incendiary rhetoric and brash moves.

Posted February 21, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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