Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 486, 23 February 2022

Russia’s Ukraine salami slicing
D Suba Chandran

In the news
On 21 February, Russian President Putin signed an executive order recognizing “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” – two regions in eastern Ukraine, that were waging a separatist war with Kyiv. Two separatist leaders Denis Pushilin (Donetsk), and Leonid Pasechnik (Luhansk) were with Putin in Moscow for the event. On the same occasion, Putin also signed two separate agreements – “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance” with  the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the “Lugansk People’s Republic.” The treaty “reaffirms the policy of the Russian Federation to develop comprehensive, forward-looking cooperation” “provides for broad cooperation in the political, economic, social, military and humanitarian areas” with the two regions. On 22 February, the Duma ratified the order. 

On 21 February, a White House statement on Biden’s discussion with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy affirmed “the commitment of the United States to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” It also said: “President Biden strongly condemned Russian President Putin’s decision to purportedly recognize the “independence” of the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine. He updated President Zelenskyy on the United States’ response, including our plan to issue sanctions. President Biden reiterated that the United States would respond swiftly and decisively, in lock-step with its Allies and partners, to further Russian aggression against Ukraine.”

On 22 February, UN Secretary General Antonia Guterres on the crisis said: “Let me be clear: the decision of the Russian Federation to recognize the so-called “independence” of certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions is a violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. Such a unilateral measure conflicts directly with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations – and is inconsistent with the so-called Friendly Relations Declaration of the General Assembly which the International Court of Justice has repeatedly cited as representing international law.  It is also a death blow to the Minsk Agreements endorsed by the Security Council. The principles of the UN Charter are not an a la carte menu. They cannot be applied selectively.”

On 22 February, the White House announced its intentions to “impose significant costs on Russia for Russia’s actions.” The statement read: “Today, the administration is implementing the first tranche of sanctions that go far beyond 2014, in coordination with allies and partners in the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, and Australia. And as President Biden promised, we worked with Germany to ensure the Nord Stream 2 pipeline will not move forward.” 

On 23 February, a White House release had President Biden’s statement, that read: “Since Russia began deploying troops to the Ukrainian border, the United States has worked closely with our Allies and partners to deliver a strong, unified response. As I said when I met with Chancellor Scholz earlier this month, Germany has been a leader in that effort, and we have closely coordinated our efforts to stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline if Russia further invaded Ukraine. Yesterday, after further close consultations between our two governments, Germany announced that it would halt certification of the pipeline. Today, I have directed my administration to impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG and its corporate officers. These steps are another piece of our initial tranche of sanctions in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. As I have made clear, we will not hesitate to take further steps if Russia continues to escalate.”

Issues in the background
First, the Russian salami-slicing in Ukraine. It all started in Crimea in 2014; following an invasion by armed men in February 2014 in the region, the Crimean Supreme Council held a controversial referendum, that saw more than 95 per cent of people voting for acceding to Russia. The accession happened on 18 March 2014. After annexing Crimea, Russia started looking at the two separatist regions – Donetsk and Luhansk, referred to as the Donbas region of Ukraine. Ever since the annexation of Crimea, the pro-Russian separatists in the above two regions within the Donbas were fighting against the Ukraine state. The Minsk Protocol signed in September 2014, which included Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), called for a ceasefire, decentralization of power, and continued consultations. The separatists from these two regions were supported by Russia; their leaders finally signed the two agreements with Putin on 21 February 2022, after the latter recognized the independence of LPR and DPR.

Second, the failure of the Minsk agreements. The 2014 agreement collapsed subsequently, as violence resumed in the Donbas region. In February 2015, following intense diplomatic efforts led by the leaders of Germany and France and Russia, the Minsk-II agreement was signed. Besides the above three, Ukraine and leaders of the two separatist regions from Luhansk and Donetsk were also a party to the agreement. The slow progress in the Minsk agreements was a part of multiple discussions and meetings between Europe and Russia.

Third, the new security demands by Russia, and the limits of diplomacy. Tensions over Russia’s demands on Ukraine’s future (vis-à-vis EU and NATO) became a primary concern between Russia and Europe, and also between Russia and the US. Russia wanted certain written guarantees over the same, and is against Ukraine joining the EU and NATO. During the last few weeks, multiple discussions were held at the organizational levels between Russia and the OSCE, and at the leadership levels between Antony Blinken and Sergei Lavrov, between the French President Macron and the Russian President Putin, and between the German Chancellor Olaf Schulz and Putin. The primary difference is over the future of Ukraine. Russia started massing troops along the borders, and conducting military exercises in Belarus, while the West has been threatening with sanctions. Kremlin’s decision to recognize the two regions on 21 February should underline the limits of diplomacy, and also the threats of sanctions. 

In perspective
First, a resurgent Russia willing to risk sanctions and use force. President Putin is looking forward to asserting Kremlin’s claims over the region. Though these have been the Russian concerns since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Putin is now sending a message to Europe and the US that he is willing to achieve those claims through military action if necessary. This is a new assertive Russia, post-1991, the rest of the world has to take notice and get ready to respond. Second, Putin questions not only Ukraine’s sovereignty but also the international order, law and norms. As the UN Secretary-General commented regarding the principles of the UN Charter, international law and norms cannot be pursued as an a la carte menu and applied selectively. The global response to Ukraine will be the biggest challenge to the international and European orders since the Cold War. Third, Putin’s challenge in Europe will upset the US calculations not only in Europe but also elsewhere; it would undermine Biden’s efforts to keep the primary American focus on China and pull him down in Europe. Fourth, China may emerge as the biggest beneficiary; without firing a single shot, it would pin the US back in Europe, as happened during the Cold War era, and have a larger political space elsewhere. This would also prevent the US from having a larger push in the Indo-Pacific.

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