"Putin recognizes Donbas republics: what comes next?"
By Gilbert Doctorow
gilbertdoctorow.com (February 23, 2022)
“You were right.”
This was a comment posted on my website this morning from a reader of my last essay “Meet the new Proactive Russia” posted on 16 February, though in light of the latest developments it now seems ages ago.
Yes, indeed, Mr. Putin yesterday moved on from the stalled talks with the USA and NATO over Russia’s 15 December draft treaties creating a new security architecture in Europe. As I had foreseen, he moved on to Plan B. He formally recognized the independence and sovereignty of the two breakaway provinces, Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republics in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, he signed treaties of friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance with both. What “mutual assistance” means was made clear immediately when the Russian President ordered his armed forces to move into the respective republics as “peace keepers.”
Barring some quixotic wish of Ukrainian president Zelensky to enter into armed conflict with Russia over the Donbas and face certain annihilation of his army and of his regime, it is probable that the smoldering war in Eastern Ukraine of eight years duration will now become a “frozen conflict,” in line with South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, with Transdnistria in Moldova. Of course, that does not mean that Mr. Putin has resolved his broader problems with Ukraine, as I discuss below. But invasion would be the least effective way of addressing them, as we shall see. There are other options to get the job done without spilling blood and without giving the Collective West cause to impose the ‘sanctions from hell’ that still remain in abeyance.
Being “right” about any prospective development in Proactive Russia’s new dealings with the Collective West is not easy. But it is also not just idle guesswork. There are obvious thinking patterns and relevant past history of action by Vladimir Putin which make it easier to predict what comes next, which I will do in the last section of this essay.
Let us look first at the speech itself to get into the mind of the Russian President.
At 22 typed pages of text, the speech is very long for an address intended to announce to the Russian public the treaties he had signed with the two Donbas republics earlier in the day. One Western commentator remarked that it was a rambling speech. That is true in the sense that it covers a number of different subjects which are related to one another only in the context of Russia’s foreign policy priorities of the moment at different levels. These interrelationships would not be obvious to the general public.
Putin says right at the start that the purpose of the address is not merely to give the audience his perspective on where things stand at the moment with respect to the Donbas but also to inform the nation “about possible further steps.” That one statement makes it imperative to go through the document with a fine tooth comb.
The first 16 pages deal with Ukraine. Putin offers an overview of the history of the modern Ukraine state going back to the early 1920s and the formation of the Soviet Union from the debris of what had been the Russian Empire, when the new Communist rulers consolidated their power by granting the appearance of sovereignty within a confederated union to satisfy the nationalist ambitions of Ukraine and other constituent Union republics. He explains how this loose federation was gutted by the centralizing policies of Stalin, through nationalization, the Terror and other compulsory means though the constitutional guarantees remained on paper. Then after WWII, Stalin added to the Ukrainian territories lands that he took from Hungary and Poland, to which Khrushchev contributed the gift of Crimea.
Putin’s point is to demonstrate that the Ukrainian state which emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 had been created from the top down, not from the bottom up and so was ill-prepared for statehood.
The Russian president then continued the post-Soviet history of Ukraine to explain the pauperization of the nation, the massive loss of population due to departures abroad of job seekers under conditions of economic ruin at home, the skimming of all wealth by oligarchic clans, and their deal making with foreign powers who established a virtual protectorate over the state in exchange for banking and other favors to that oligarchy.
From there he explains how the popular outrage over misrule which led to the Independence Square anti-government demonstrations was manipulated by radical nationalists with foreign help as cover for the coup d’état of February 2014 that brought to power those same nationalists. Together with neo-Nazi militants they were intent on building a Ukrainian identity based on rejection of everything Russian. What has followed is suppression of the Russian language in government institutions, in schools, in the media, even in shops and a vicious genocidal campaign against the two Donbas oblasts which, like Crimea, refused to accept rule by the illegitimate new powers in Kiev.
This background brings Putin to the key four pages in the speech on how the United States and NATO have worked with the anti-Russian regime that they helped to install in Kiev in 2014 to further their own interests. They are using the territory of Ukraine as a platform to forward position personnel and infrastructure threatening the security of Russia, even without any formal entry of Ukraine into the North Atlantic Alliance. He enumerates the Ukrainian airfields not far from the Russian border which now host NATO reconnaissance aircraft and drones that monitor all of Russian airspace to the Urals. He describes the potential of the US-built naval station at Ochakov, near Crimea, which is assuming the function of the base to monitor and potentially to neutralize the Russian Black Sea fleet that NATO had hoped in 2014 would be fulfilled by Sevastopol before the Crimea seceded from Ukraine and successfully joined the Russian Federation.
He explained how NATO is planning to station missiles in Ukraine that will be capable of delivering nuclear strikes across Russia to the Urals and beyond and would have flight times to target measured in as little as five minutes when the hypersonic variants are ready. He claimed that Ukrainian military units are already integrated into the NATO command structure to the point where they can be ordered about from NATO headquarters. He spoke of the 10 large-scale military exercises planned by NATO to be held on Ukrainian territory during 2022. And he pointed to the training “missions” which NATO member states have set up in Ukraine, units which could otherwise be described as military bases and would then be seen to be in strict violation of article 17 of the Ukrainian constitution.
Finally, in this section of the speech Vladimir Putin raised an issue we have not seen in public discussion before, because it only surfaced when introduced by President Zelensky himself at the Munich Security Conference the week before: the possibility of Ukraine becoming a nuclear power. Putin said this was entirely possible, not just some act of bravado by the Ukrainian leader. After all, Ukraine possesses the technical documents on manufacture of the Soviet nuclear bombs, it possesses enrichment technology and has both aircraft and short range missiles capable of delivering tactical nuclear weapons.
I pause here to note that this lengthy explanation of the way Ukraine is now practically speaking a junior partner of NATO against Russia, of the way it can be used as an attack platform on Russia and of the country’s nuclear potential if it proceeds with withdrawal from the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 which denuclearized Ukraine – all of this is so utterly threatening to Russian state security that it is unthinkable Putin will not proceed to resolve this set of problems quite apart from whatever happens in and around the two Donbas republics that are now independent.
Unlike the past, these detailed complaints are not just idle words. They must be seen as justification for actions which Russia will be taking in coming days and months to remove the listed threats. I will mention how the Kremlin may go about this in the concluding section of this essay.
The other noteworthy section of the speech deals with the separate question of Russian relations with the United States. This comes to five pages out of the 22 pages in total. It begins with the familiar story of the broken promises of 1990 not to move NATO one inch to the east of the Elbe River once Germany was reunited. It proceeds from the disappointments over the five successive waves of NATO expansion from 1997 to 2020.
This section of the speech ends with the US and NATO response to Russia’s calls for a rollback in the draft treatises sent to Washington and Brussels on 15 December 2021: by ignoring the three key points and only offering several ideas for discussion on secondary issues.
Some Western commentators have seen this as just more Russian whining about American treachery. But in the context of the newly Proactive Russia such a dismissive interpretation would be seriously erroneous. I will suggest what Mr. Putin may be planning to deal with these issues in the days ahead.
When Vladimir Putin presented his ultimatum to the United States and NATO in December some of my peers published shopping lists of measures the Kremlin might use to force capitulation. These included various kinds of military action. Military action of the most violent nature was widely found in comments in the blogosphere.
Though from the beginning I had stressed Putin’s likely reliance on psychological rather than kinetic warfare to win his objectives, I also succumbed to the temptation of more dramatic methods. I eventually listed “surgical strikes” against offending infrastructure, like those ABM bases in Romania or the Ochakov naval installation in Ukraine.
However, we see so far that violence is not in Putin’s playbook. The recognition of the two republics is, like the massing of troops earlier at the Ukrainian border, a way of preventing violence. Moreover, in diplomatic discourse, this recognition can be likened to the precedent that the United States and its NATO allies set when they recognized the independence of Kosovo from Yugoslavia. The justification then was alleged genocidal intentions of the Serbs, the very same issue that Putin has raised with regard to Kiev’s intentions in Donbas.
In these circumstances, how is Vladimir Putin going to respond to the security threats that Ukraine poses now and forestall the far greater threats it will pose in the future as NATO continues to build installations there, not to mention if Ukraine is allowed to develop a nuclear arsenal?
One solution mentioned in Russian television talk shows bears repeating: by establishing a total economic blockade on Ukraine. At present, Ukraine receives electricity, oil and gas transit revenues from Russia, and despite everything there is a substantial two way trade. This could all be halted at a moment’s notice with or without Zelensky’s possibly cutting diplomatic relations. Russia can claim that Ukraine is a hostile nation and put an end to all commercial dealings. Still more, Russia could impose a naval blockade just as the USA once did to Cuba to force the removal of Soviet missiles. All of this has historic precedent to support it. Moreover, with its great love for draconian sanctions, the United States and its allies cannot say a word about any sanctions Russia chooses to impose on Ukraine. Obviously, the objective would be to destabilize the Kiev regime sufficiently to promote regime change.
With regard to the problem of NATO rollback, Vladimir Putin already alerted us that there is a Plan C: “Russia has the full right to take measures in turn to ensure our own safety. That is exactly how we will proceed.” The possibilities were named by my peers back in December. What we missed was the proper sequencing of Russian actions. I have in mind two types of threat to America’s overblown sense of its invulnerability. The first would be for Russia to position its latest hypersonic missiles and Poseidon deep sea drone in international waters off the U.S. East and West coasts. Some ‘peek-a-boo’ surfacing of untracked Russian submarines carrying these super weapons off the coast would attract a good deal of media attention That would expose the American political establishment to the same kind of threat the Russians see coming from America’s various offensive missile systems targeting them with negligible warning times.
The other possible Russian counter measure that has been mentioned among analysts in Russia is the stationing of Russian strategic bombers and nuclear armed naval vessels on permanent watch in the Caribbean, making use of port facilities in Nicaragua, Venezuela and possibly Cuba.
Note that all of these measures have in common their reliance on precedents established by the USA and all may be categorized as psychological threats rather than military action which invites escalation and heads us off to Armageddon.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022