The recognition by Russian President Vladimir Putin of the independence of the two secessionist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk came after a surreal live broadcast of a meeting of the Security Council in the Kremlin. Sitting before the 13-member council, Putin cajoled and argued as, one by one, his top officials – including Dmitry Medvedev, former president and former prime minister, and the country’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov – climbed to the lectern. to give his boss “reasons” for the formal recognition of the two republics in the east of the country as independent states.
Following this decision, he authorized Russian troops to cross into the republics as “peacekeeping.” It was also reported that the recognition treaties give Russia the right to establish military camps there.
Blaming the decision on Ukraine and Western governments – especially the United States – that “control” Ukraine, Putin questioned the very legitimacy of Ukraine’s existence as a nation-state on more than one occasion, making a very similar argument. to an essay he posted on the Kremlin website in July 2021, “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”.
Putin described the recognition as the decisive step of a true “great power” asserting its interests and protecting vulnerable “like-minded” communities. But the tactic raises more questions than answers. The most obvious of these is whether it is the end of the current crisis, or at least the beginning of the end of it.
An optimistic reading would be that recognition offers a way out for everyone. Putin saves face by humiliating Ukraine and the West, but avoids a full-scale war and the human and economic costs that this would entail for Russia.
If this is taken at face value – that Putin is only interested in protecting the rights of the two pro-Russian republics – accepting recognition would spare Ukraine a major military confrontation with Russia. It would also mean that Kiev would avoid the internal political difficulties and the socioeconomic costs what an application of the deeply unpopular 2015 Minsk agreement.
As with Georgia after the 2008 invasion – and with Crimea after its annexation by Russia in 2014 – recognition could lead to a gradual stabilization in the regions. Neither party has to continue arguing about the application of the minsk agreement. The impasse that had been reached in this process would cease to be a source of tension and mutual reproaches.
But this is an overly optimistic assumption. It would be a misreading of perhaps the most dangerous moment for European and world security since the end of the cold war.
As much as one desperately longs for a silver lining in the current situation, the fact remains that Russia’s recognition of the two breakaway republics is yet another gross violation of international law. Western sanctions are now being introduced and may include comprehensive and more punitive measures. the above disagreements between the EU, the US and the UK on the gradation of sanctions seem to have been overcome.
The Russian actions have, if anything, strengthened the determination of the West, as can be seen from the immediate responses of countries such as the United Kingdom and Germanywhich has announced that will not authorize the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
A dangerous new beginning?
The current crisis goes beyond the status of “certain areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions”, as the territories are called in the minsk agreement. It does not resolve the broader tensions between Russia and the West over the future European security order.
It is obvious that Putin has convinced himself that the continued status of Donetsk and Luhansk as de facto states within Ukraine – and thus as an instrument of influence over Ukraine and, by extension, over its Western partners – had ceased to serve the Russian purposes. But his hour-long televised address has given little reason for optimism that recognition of him has put an end to the “Ukrainian question.”
Significantly, Putin’s speech focused much more on the broader problems of Russian-Ukrainian relations than on the problem of the two Donbas republics. The Russian president reiterated a much broader agenda that clearly links the situation in Ukraine with his general challenge to the international order. Several passages in this regard are worth examining more closely.
According to Putin, Ukraine – as a result of the drawing of Soviet borders in the 1920s, 1940s and 1950s – became an “artificial” territorial construction. After the collapse of the USSR, it ended with “historically Russian territories” inhabited by ethnic Russians whose rights are violated in contemporary Ukraine.
Putin also claimed that these violations have been due in large part to the fact that Ukraine is a failed state in which decisions are made by corrupt authorities that are under the control of “Western capitals”. But, perhaps most importantly, he repeated that Ukraine, by drawing closer to NATO, has already created threats to Russia that Russia must respond to.
Together with the signature and immediate ratification of the “friendship treatiesbetween Russia and the now recognized breakaway republics and the decision of moving Russian troops into the newly recognized republics, Putin’s recognition speech and tone make it much more likely, therefore, that it is, at best, a brief interlude in a continuing and ever-increasing crisis. deeper.
In more realistic terms, the acknowledgment and the actions taken in the immediate aftermath signal a dramatic escalation on the part of Russia. Putin’s record since 2008 should leave no one in doubt that this crisis is far from over.