By Rakhahari Chatterji
Very soon the ongoing war in Ukraine will complete nine months, and but it is still without any sign of coming to an end. Despite its economic impact, most people outside of Europe and, perhaps, the US appear to have forgotten that the war is still on. Only the Ukrainians are paying for the war with their blood. Yet, forgetting the war would be very costly for, whichever way it goes, it would transform global politics in some fundamental ways.
Russia initiated a war apparently without any thought about how to conclude it. Probably, Putin assumed the Ukrainian resistance would quickly crumble or that a sizeable section of the Ukrainian population would welcome Russian forces with open arms. As neither has happened and, quite to the contrary, —who used to be a very successful comic actor—becoming its effective face, Russian intentions started getting hazier.
It is true that the source of the problem, perhaps, lay with Russia’s sense of insecurity in the face of an expanding NATO, which violated the Cold War ground rules by including some Warsaw Pact countries into its fold. While it is true, that an independent and sovereign country has the right to choose whom it will ally with; and, on that basis, if a country decides to join NATO, it could certainly do so. At the same time, it was, indeed, the West’s responsibility not to shake the ‘peace boat’ in Europe too carelessly by pushing Russia to the wall. No Great Power can accept being ignored and isolated by other Great Powers in an international system. Did the West corner Russia—which had gone through momentous changes in the last 30 years due to the implosion of the Soviet Union—into a ‘Versailles moment’? If it did, it must resort to effective diplomatic means to assuage Russian grievances even as it supports Ukraine’s resistance war. Sanctions have never been a successful instrument for promoting policies; and, in today’s globalised world, sanctions, while hurting the enemy, would hurt the sanctioning powers as well. This is the lesson the European Union (EU) states are re-learning at a great cost.
On the other hand, there are clear signs that Putin’s Russia is trying to expand Russian borders, with the intent to restore within it as much of erstwhile Soviet territories as is possible by taking advantage of the demographics in its neighbourhood—demographics that were most certainly created by the erstwhile Soviet policy of Russification in its non-Russian regions. The annexation of Crimea, which violated the Budapest Memorandum signed by Russia, the United Kingdom, and United States (US) in 1994, affirming to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea, was a good example. Crimea, which was a Tatar territory with , became a part of imperial Russia. Post Revolution, it was a part of the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic. By 2014, Crimea
What motivates Russia today?
The present invasion could be targeted towards a regime change in Kyiv, such that Russia could install a puppet regime; perhaps, bringing back Viktor Yanukovych, 014following widespread popular upsurge, known as Euromaidan, throughout Ukraine. That could, indeed, be a step towards creating a belt of Russian client states—like president Lukashenko’s Belarus—around the western borders of Russia as a buffer zone vis-à-vis NATO.
But regime change does not look like an easy option for Russia now, unless its ground forces occupy Kyiv—which it has failed to do so far. Hence, Russia could adopt the more brutal option, such as flattening Ukraine’s capital through aerial bombardment.
Alternatively, Russia is probably aiming at permanently incorporating Donbas within Russia, an industrial and mining region in south-eastern Ukraine (composed primarily of Donetsk and Luhansk), which, at one time, played an important role in the Soviet Union’s industrial economy. Today’s, Donbas is an important region for Ukraine, so, by separating it from Ukraine, Russia may hope to keep Ukraine weak and dependent on Russia, helping to wean it away from western influence.
From the mid-19thcentury, the western regions of Ukraine were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire while the eastern regions fell under the Romanovs in Russia. Further, as part of the Soviet Union in the recent past, Ukraine continues to have 80 percent Russian speakers whereas only 17.3 percent of Ukrainians are ethnic Russians. In the Donbas region, while the Russian presence is greater, it still is only the largest minority group, constituting 39 percent in Donetsk and 38.2 percent in Luhansk. In both these oblasts, Ukrainians constitute around 57 percent of the population. These figures are based on either the 2001 census, which was the last one held, or on research-based surveys. Thus, ethnic Russians and Russo-phones are predominant in the east and south of Ukraine, but they also have some presence in the rest of Ukraine with the exception of its western regions. Yet, it could be true, as some find, that most people, even in separatist-held areas in Donbas, want to live within Ukraine.
With the Euromaidan movement and the fleeing of Yanukovych from Ukraine, the end of the Donbas region’s centrality in Ukraine politics left many ethnic Russians disgruntled. In the complex mosaic of ethnicity and regionalism in Ukraine, there could have been a coupling of regional identity and ethnic Russian identity for some. This strengthened a regional insurgency aiming to separate Donbas from Ukraine. Whether or not this insurgency was inspired by Putin, he did see an opportunity to intervene through covert military assistance to the separatists to ‘protect’ Russians in Donbas. In 2014, the pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk declared the oblasts as “independent people’s .” The Minsk Agreement and Minsk II in 2014 and 2015 respectively were attempts by France and Germany to end the civil war in Ukraine by bringing the warring parties on a common platform with the help of all concerned, including Russia and the US. But none of the parties were sincere and the agreements collapsed, reviving the separatist insurgency.
In 2014, Russia had annexed Crimea to which it had some debatable claims. As this annexation apparently became irreversible, at least in the short run, it probably whetted Russia’s appetite for further territorial gains in Ukraine. In February 2022, three days before invading Ukraine, Russia officially . And now, —which is the entire Donbas region covering about 15 percent of Ukrainian territory.
Some would argue that , for the insurgency there was promoted by loss of regional preeminence within Ukraine as much as by ethnic identification with Russia. Russia is taking advantage of this. But it may be possible that not all ethnic Russians in Donbas support Putin’s policies.
Both the West and Russia should realise as either side winning would still bring about cataclysmic consequences. Should Russia get away with annexation on grounds of ethnicity, it would reinvent a dangerous proposition that was about to s, but this time in a nuclear age. Contrarily, once annexed, can the region be recaptured by Ukraine? And even if recaptured, would it end the Russia-backed insurgency for good, or even the present war? Probably, the only real answer to these questions lie in diplomacy.