In a transcript of a TV interview to German journalists published by the Kremlin this week, President Vladimir Putin declared: “There is war in the East of Ukraine. The Ukrainian government is using its army and even ballistic missiles. You [the West] are silent. Do you want the Ukrainian authorities to destroy everyone there [in eastern Ukraine], all their political opponents? You want that? We do not. We will not allow [this to happen].” Putin was replying to Ukrainian accusations that Russia was supporting the rebels with Russian arms and servicemen (kremlin.ru, November 17).
Since the Moscow-backed separatist rebellion began in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas (area including the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces) last April, Russia has been sending in volunteer fighters, heavy weapons and munitions. Last August, the Ukrainian military seemed close to crushing the Donbas rebellion, but Russian regular army units crossed the border and turned the course of the battle in a short, but deadly counteroffensive. Ukraine’s military was routed; thousands of Ukrainian soldiers were killed, wounded or captured; and the siege of the main rebel-held cities—Donetsk and Luhansk—was broken. The Russian authorities stringently deny any direct Russian involvement in the fighting, though the facts on the ground seem undeniable (see EDM, November 13). Now Putin has made Donbas an official Russian protectorate by declaring that Moscow “will not allow” a defeat of the rebels, implying more military support in the future.
In the same interview, Putin dismissed as “unimportant” allegations of Russia supplying the rebels with arms. He insisted: “People fighting for a just cause will, in the modern world, always find arms.” Putin agreed that the Donbas ceasefire agreements, signed last September in Minsk, are being violated by both sides and demanded the Ukrainian military withdraw further out of Donbas and surrender contested positions on the line of control, while vindicating the rebel ceasefire violations, “because they are fighting for their homes, families and their rights.” Putin called on Kyiv to stop playing with words and “federalize Ukraine” as the only possible way to solve the present crisis (kremlin.ru, November 17).
Russia’s long-term policy in Ukraine has been to press for “federalization,” turning the country into some lose confederacy where Moscow would continue to act as protector of Donbas and possibly other Russian-speaking regions in Ukraine’s Southeast (see EDM, March 21, May 14). This could give the Kremlin veto power over all major political and economic decisions in Kyiv, using pro-Russian regional authorities as proxies. The main strategic purpose of Putin’s involvement in Ukraine, the occupation of Crimea, and the escalating military support of the rebels is to prevent Ukrainian integration into European security, economic and political institutions (see EDM, November 13). Kyiv must stay within Russia’s sphere of influence, totally separate from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union. Speaking last July in Moscow at a gathering of Russian top diplomatic representatives of foreign countries, Putin declared the annexation of Crimea was “to prevent NATO troops from swiftly deploying in Sevastopol, dramatically changing the regional balance of power and erasing everything Russia has been fighting for since Tsar Peter the Great” (kremlin.ru, July 1).
This week, the Kremlin stated its demands with utmost clarity: Putin’s press secretary Vladimir Peskov told the BBC: “We want to receive 100-percent guarantees that no one is thinking to bond Ukraine to NATO.” According to Peskov, Russia is concerned about NATO forces moving closer to Russia, and his country may take additional countermeasures. Officials in Kyiv denounced Peskov’s demand, insisting they are a sovereign state that can make its own decisions and, in turn, demanded guarantees from Russia that it will stop interfering in Ukraine. In Brussels, North Atlantic Alliance officials expressed surprise, since Ukraine’s NATO membership is not being discussed at present; but they insisted NATO’s “open door policy” does not preclude Ukraine from perhaps joining someday (rbc.ua, November 19). Still Peskov was publicly supported by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said, “Non-alignment is in Ukraine’s national interests and essential to the stability of the Euro-Atlantic region” (Moskovsky Komsomolets, November 19).
The open guarantee of support Putin has given the rebels in effect means they can continue to violate the increasingly wobbly ceasefire in Donbas, allowing them to shell and attack Ukrainian forces virtually with impunity, since Russian forces are apparently ready to intervene, if the rebels find themselves in serious trouble. Ukraine is today a vibrant revolutionary democracy, and the rulers in Kyiv cannot ignore public opinion. According to fresh polls, some 36 percent of Ukrainians, apparently fed up with the constant deadly shelling and fighting in Donbas, want the resumption of hostilities to crush the rebellion—an increase of 14 percent since last month. Some 43 percent today support the Minsk ceasefire agreements and an approximately equal number (44 percent) opposes them (news.liga.net, November 20). The rebels, in turn, appear opposed to sustaining the ceasefire. The future of the Minsk agreements is dim, as Lavrov accused Kyiv of preparing an invasion of Donbas (Interfax, November 19).
Today, Ukraine is constitutionally a non-aligned country, and it historically never had a majority supporting NATO membership. The confrontation with Russia over Crimea and Donbas has been changing public attitudes over the course of this year: According to a latest national poll, some 51 percent are ready to vote “Yes” in support of NATO membership if a national referendum were held tomorrow, and only 25 percent would vote “No.” Another 25 percent are undecided or would abstain. A real referendum on NATO membership could receive some 60–70 percent votes in favor. A year ago, only 20–25 percent of Ukrainians supported membership. In the Russian-speaking South and East of the country, the Alliance enjoys less support, but the national trend is clear (news.liga.net, November 20).
Russian actions have accelerated Ukraine’s Westward drift, which Putin tried to reverse by political, economic and military pressure that escalated into an invasion. Now, Russian foreign and defense policies seem to be at a dead end, which is highly dangerous, since it leaves little room for any meaningful negotiated outcomes. Moscow claims it wants a sustainable ceasefire in Donbas, but its open-ended support of the rebels turns the Minsk agreements into nonsense. Top Moscow-based Western diplomats told Jamestown that Russian officials are constantly trying to place a map on the negotiation table to carve up Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe into “spheres of interests,” Molotov-Ribbentrop style. Moscow seems to be sincerely demanding an everlasting “non-NATO” pledge for Ukraine, which no one can legally provide—effectively ruling out the possibility of reaching a comprehensive, negotiated solution of the Ukrainian crisis.