Author Rostislav Ishchenko (Ростислав Ищенко)
A sensible politician always respects his opponent and assumes that if to him (sensible politician) something appears obvious, his opponent took this possibility into account, and, if that option is undesirable for him (an opponent), he is looking for (or possibly has already found) an alternative non-obvious solution. Americans have lost several geopolitical rounds to Russia for the simple reason that they believed they considered all possible options and were forcing Moscow to choose between bad and very bad, whereas Putin managed to find a third move not anticipated by Washington.
Russian leadership, appreciating that the fate of the country is at stake, tends to take into account all possible developments and act prudently, having prepared a counter-move for every move of their opponents. Moreover, Moscow plans the game further ahead, and that is why Washington often gets into time trouble and is forced to improvise blindly responding to a well-prepared strategy of their opponents.
Domestic alarmists, in their ambitiousness and inadequacy, often explain their grievances with the authorities very simply – I do not understand what they are doing, which means they are wrong. However, even defeatists sometimes ask sensible questions. Here is one: “Suppose that Moscow and Donetsk believe that they trapped Kiev into Minsk agreements, and they are waiting when the junta attacks, thereby discrediting itself in the eyes of Europe and undermining the ability of the USA to mobilize EU to support its Ukrainian policy. However, Kiev and Washington must have anticipated this scenario. What happens if they don’t attack, but remain in their positions and keep shelling Donbass cities, as they have been doing for almost a year now?”
The alarmists consider unconvincing the argument that neither Kiev nor Washington has time and resources (especially with the coming new wave of global systemic crisis, which can eliminated old world order along with the weakened Hegemon) to prolong indefinitely the situation that does not yield a positive result. The alarmists’ viewpoint makes sense: empirically this model can be tested only as the situation develops, whereas there are no limitations to the theoretical models that can be constructed. Not to mention that history often demonstrates that the deviation of one year in timing is the usual thing (some events, like the coup in Ukraine, were supposed to happen later than they did, whereas other events were supposed to happen early, but still didn’t).
Thus, if Washington decides to procrastinate some more and revokes its marching orders to Kiev, it is necessary to have an alternative plan that would allow Russia to win the political game in the positional war.
I believe we can guess the key elements of this plan. At least, the sequence of events in the last 6 months suggests that it is not a series of responses, but a planned strategy. Or, even if the first responses were forced by the situation, by the end of the summer of 2014 a certain system emerged. One way or the other, today we observe not just reactions of Russian authorities to events, but rather a creation of mechanisms to direct those events.
What do I mean by that?
First, as a result of Ukrainian blockade of Donbass, economic ties of LPR/DPR were reoriented towards Russia (even though technically via South Ossetia).
Second, due to Ukrainian financial blockade the Republics introduced multi-currency system (hryvna/rouble/US dollar), which turned the territories not controlled by Kiev into the zone of Russian rouble, which accounts for >80% of cash transactions.
Third, due to administrative blockade by Ukraine the Republics tried to introduce their own identification documents. However, as LPR/DPR are not internationally recognized, these IDs do not have legal standing even in Russia. After that the plan emerged to give Donbass people Russian passports.
Forth, in the last days of August Russian media started discussing the possibility of referendum in Donbass as early as this fall regarding their unification with Russia.
While the first two items could have been a forced reaction to the situation, offering Russian passports is a political decision. By recognizing the residents of LPR/DPR as Russian citizens, the authorities take on a serious responsibility. Russia has an obligation to protect its citizens regardless of the place of their residency, regardless how and when they became citizens, by birth 20 years ago, or got it just yesterday by renouncing their Ukrainian citizenship. It is clear that millions of Donbass residents won’t leave for Russia. Half has already moved out, and this is likely the limit. Besides, many plan to return, and some are already returning. Thus, Russia will have to protect its citizens where they live, in LPR/DPR.
As Russian passport for most will serve as the only document allowing them to move beyond the tiny territories controlled by Donbass militia, it is easy to guess that the majority of Donbass residents would obtain Russian passports. What’s more, according to the Russian Immigration Service, more than a million people have already emigrated from Ukraine (mostly from Donbass) to Russia. Many of these will also use the opportunity to obtain Russian citizenship in Donbass. Within a short period of time, Donbass might have more Russian citizens than Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Transnistria. At this point a new problem will emerge. When Kiev regime murders its own citizens, it might not be good, but remains their internal affair (at least, the US considers it so, in contrast to what they believed about Libya), but when they start murdering Russian citizens, the Constitution demands that Russian authorities protect them. The difference between goodwill and the law is huge.
Finally, the most important aspect. Even before Russian passports are granted en mass, LPR/DPR leak the info (otherwise, where could the media have gotten this story?) that right after the October elections (i.e., in November-December, this year) they plan a referendum regarding LPR/DPR joining Russia.
What is so important about this? Information about the plans appeared and was spread before implementation of these plans. Hence, Kremlin wanted “our friends and partners” to know this and take it into account in their plans. In fact, they are told: “if you don’t attack by the end of September, we will give people Russian passports, then conduct a referendum, where Russian citizens will vote for joining Russia. Then we will talk to you in a very different political situation”.
Importantly, both Kiev and Washington know that the passports will be given and referendum will be held. Then, like in Abkhazia and Crimea, Russia will cite Kosovo precedent and the will of the people. And nobody would be in a position to shoot, because they would have to shoot at the territory that a nuclear power proclaimed as its own. And to shoot its citizens. And that will have dire consequences. Some might say that USA and Ukraine are ready to yield Donbass and would be only happy to do so. In fact, this is not the case. The US needs war, not peace, but only a war where Russia is the aggressor. Thus, the US would not let Kiev to cede Donbass via peaceful negotiations, but would try to make Kiev provoke Russia. However, lets assume that those, who believe in the possibility of Ukraine ceding Donbass are right.
Well – it won’t be able to cede.
First, referendum won’t be binding for Russia. Moscow can “think” as long as it likes, using the referendum to strengthen its negotiating position, repeating the official mantra about territorial integrity of Ukraine, but hinting that since March 2014 the situation has changed considerably to Kiev’s disadvantage, so that the demands to Kiev grew larger (in fact, Kiev could not meet its obligations even before that).
Second, the authorities of LPR/DPR did not define the territorial limits of their rule. In some cases they talked about the whole Donetsk/Lugansk regions. At the same time there still exists in Donbass the “parliament of Novorossia”, and LPR/DPR leaders sometimes talk about liberation of the whole Novorossia as their goal. What is Novorossia? Most include into it eight regions of Southern and Eastern Ukraine (Odessa, Nikolaev, Kherson, Zaporozhya, Dniepropetrovsk, Kharkov, Donetsk, and Lugansk). Some add Kirovograd region. Some call Kharkov and Sumy regions Slobozhanschina, considering Donbass as a separate region. Bottom line is, the boundaries of Novorossia are uncertain and can be expanded or shrunk at will.
Third, Zaharchenko promised several times that freedom fighters would reach Kiev and Lvov. By the way, it is a reasonable promise, as the war cannot be stopped until fascists are defeated in their homeland.
Thus, the question of the powers of the LPR/DPR governments and “the parliament of Novorossia” are not defined and can cover “certain parts of Lugansk and Donetsk regions”, as Kiev puts it, as well as the whole of Ukraine. Generally speaking, the powers of participants in the civil war are define by the capabilities of their armies.
It follows that Kiev might be unable to declare current front lines as the border. The recognition of Donbass independence by Kiev opens the prospect of Donbass joining Russia. Thus, the fight that lasted a year and a half becomes meaningful. As the result, the resistance to the junta might increase in Kharkov, Odessa, and other Novorossia cities. Kiev won’t be able to gather a new army and move it against these regions. Potential troops would remember that they fought for a year and a half against LPR/DPR, and then Kiev signed peace on conditions worse than it was offered in March of 2014 when Donbass only wanted federalization of Ukraine.
Thus, Kiev cannot voluntarily cede Donbass without endangering its own survival.
In essence, Moscow demonstrates to Washington that it is ready for the new escalation in Donbass and intends to do something terrible to Kiev (the threats were so clear, that Merkel and Hollande got alarmed and called Poroshenko to Berlin to convince him not to take that risk). Russia also demonstrates that even in the “no war, no peace” situation it is ready to force Kiev to choose peace with concessions, the full scale of which is unclear.
Now Washington has to choose between two evils. It can risk and, despite grumblings from its European allies, which can get out of control, initiate Kiev aggression in Donbass that would bury Minsk and deprive the EU of arguments in its dialogue with Moscow. It can also sit and wait while Moscow, using Minsk agreements as cover, unhurriedly, with visible pleasure and with whatever timing it deems convenient, digests Ukraine (starting with Donbass, but not ending there). During this time, Washington would have to pay for totally useless regime in Kiev until Moscow is ready to put an end to it.
In any case, even the info about the desire of LPR/DPR to conduct referendum about joining Russia expands the room for Russian political and diplomatic maneuvering. If the referendums were conducted, Russian positions in Ukrainian crisis would become unassailable. Collectively, the measures currently taken and planned in Donbass suggest that somewhat belatedly and with bigger losses Donbass will follow Crimea, while creating conditions for several other temporarily Ukrainian regions to follow suit. Still, as this scenario would be too good for Russia allowing it to divide and shape Ukraine any way it likes, I believe that the US will bet on war. Among other things, it would let the US take an active position and attempt to wrest the initiative from Russia’s hands. It is still not clear whether the US will start a war specifically in Donbass. Washington can choose a third option and initiate an all-out war on the territory controlled by Kiev regime.
Of course, this option would lead to the demise of junta, fragmentation of Ukraine, and rapprochement between Russia and the EU to solve a common problem of pacifying Ukrainian Nazis. It would allow Washington, though, to free up resources tied down in Ukraine and use them elsewhere, as well as be confident that the resources of Moscow and, partially, of Brussels will be tied down to pay for the reconstruction of Ukrainian economy, control of territories, and the attempts to achieve some kind of EU-Russia consensus regarding the fate of the remains of Ukraine.
Rostislav Ischenko, political analyst of “Russia today” information agency.