In news coverage of the Ukraine conflict you often hear mention of the ‘Russian-speaking east and south of the country.’ This is itself a simplification, but it can lead to an outright misunderstanding – i.e. that language is the same thing as ethnicity. In fact, assuming that Russian-speakers in Ukraine are ethnically Russian is like assuming that English-speakers in Wales are ethnically English.
Of course, there are areas within Ukraine’s borders where the population is both predominantly Russian-speaking and ethnically Russian. These include the Crimean peninsula (still officially part of Ukraine in the eyes of most countries) and much of the conflict-ridden Donbass region in the east.
Given his track record, one might conclude that Putin wants to do to Donbass what he did to Crimea.
But according to James Meek in the London Review of Books, this is a “dangerous false assumption”:
“…what Russia actually wants is indirect influence over the whole of Ukraine, and for the West to pay for it.”
As noted before on the Deep End, Putin’s previous mini-conquests, in places like South Ossetia are a major drain on Russian resources. Meek believes that Putin has a different plan for eastern Ukraine:
“Putin and his inner circle know that if the conflict were frozen along present lines… He would add another tiny, needy enclave to his collection; Russia would be stuck with the bill; the rest of Ukraine would be lost to him entirely; sanctions would continue.
“Hence his current strategy: to create a puppet state, a region that is both a Russian protectorate and part of the Ukrainian body politic; over which the majority of Ukrainians have no real control, but which has powers to shape Ukrainian national policy, and which the majority of Ukrainians are obliged to pay to rebuild. And since Ukraine is, financially, dependent on the West, it is the West that would pay.”
Meek goes on to argue that Ukraine and the West should seek to freeze the conflict – leaving Russia to pay for the “pensioners and subsidised coal mines” of the territory under its control.
As with Crimea and the other Russian puppet states, there’d be no question of accepting any change in sovereignty. Rather, we’d simply acknowledge Russia’s de facto status as the occupying power. Indeed, given Putin’s refusal to admit the true extent of Russia’s involvement, a specific mechanism by which other countries could formally recognise both the reality and illegality of an occupation would be a useful diplomatic tool.
Freezing the conflict would leave Putin to stew in his own juice, give Ukraine time to reform itself into something like a functioning democracy and provide “some relief and security to the millions of people trapped in the war zone.”
But what if Putin keeps unfreezing the conflict by pressing forward into other Russian-speaking, though not ethically Russian, parts of Ukraine?
Militarily and politically this is a much riskier proposition for him. Meek makes the point that in the Donbass government forces were attacked from Russian territory and were therefore unable to hit back. Putin would not have this impunity if he tries to move deeper into Ukraine.
None of this is ideal. No country should get away with occupying so much as an inch of another country’s soil. But let’s not forget that it wasn’t a hot war that won the Cold War, but an effective containment strategy.