Russia Does Not Plan to Annex the Donbass
Wednesday, May 19, 2021
Lucas Leiroz, research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
In recent weeks, tensions in Eastern Ukraine have risen sharply, reaching their highest level in years. In Kiev, there is a belief in Western alarmism about a “Russian plan” to annex territories in eastern Ukraine. Moscow publicly denies any incursion outside its current territory, but the Ukrainian government not only believes in the veracity of such an invasion plan but is preparing to face the Russian Armed Forces in a possible confrontation – with the support of NATO. A month ago, there were rumors that the Ukrainian Army would invade Russia during the tests of Defender Europe 2021 – as a preventive and tactical measure of anticipation in the face of a possible Russian invasion. But, after all, what is right in so many rumors? Why annexing independent republics in the Donbass region is not in the Kremlin’s plans?
When two nations that have always been integrated with each other, maintaining common historical, ethnic, and cultural ties, suddenly break their relations and disintegrate, the process of returning to the previous status is extremely complicated. A strong anti-Russian mentality has been spreading among Ukrainians for decades. Since the Soviet collapse in 1991, the way the Ukrainian people see Russia has been changed. The nationalists of the Svoboda Party have done a strong work on this point – certainly, encouraged and financed by foreign powers interested in changing the Ukrainian popular attitude towards Russia. Erecting a monument to Stepan Bandera in Lviv, for example, is an extremely symbolic act that cannot be ignored: controversial historical characters like Bandera who fought against Soviet Army during the WWII, are now popularly accepted and revered as heroes of the past.
Ukrainian nationalism, which in Bandera’s times was restricted to small factions of fanatics in Lviv, is now a living ideology, guiding public policies and forming genuine popular sentiments. It is clear that this change in perspective was strongly encouraged by the West, which invested millions of dollars in ways to create an absolutely artificial – but functional – anti-Russian “Ukrainian identity”. This type of identity, although constructed with heavy propaganda on the media channels, constant ideological discourse and the spread of historical narratives pointing Russia and Ukraine as enemy nations, is currently the undeniable social reality of a good part of the Ukrainian population. Many Ukrainians still speak Russian, but not only do they strive to forget but also to deny the ties between Russia and Ukraine. A generation is emerging that yearns to fight the Russians and serve NATO interests – believing they are honoring Bandera’s memory.
The paradoxical point in this reality is that, alongside Ukrainians who hate Russia, there are Ukrainians who not only speak the Russian language but want to “go home”. On the eastern border of Ukraine, there are communities that are absolutely Russian in their daily lives. They think with a Russian mentality, they speak Russian, they have a Russian culture – and they do not want to be subordinate to the power of a government that openly hates everything that refers to Russia.
Since 2014, at the height of tensions between Kiev and Moscow, the way Russia must deal with Russian communities within Ukraine has been the subject of several debates. On the one hand, there is a clear Russian interest in not repeating the Crimean experience, considering that after such an episode, Ukraine has turned even further to the West. Some experts suggest that Russia should ignore Ukraine and allow the country to sink its economy amid western competitiveness, which would certainly result in a rapprochement with Moscow later. Others suggest that Russia adopt frontal opposition to Kiev and embrace the Donetsk and Lugansk guerrillas.
The central problem between these alternatives is that Russia does not want Ukraine to further increase its ties with NATO – which would happen if there were Russian intervention in the Donbass and, at the same time, it wants to protect the ethnic Russian population there which is getting more and more complicated amid the growth of the “reconquest” mentality in the Ukrainian government. Furthermore, it is naive to think that a possible annexation in Donbass would be an isolated episode, when there are so many ethnic Russians outside Donetsk and Lugansk that could also follow the path of the rebels and take arms against Kiev waiting for a Russian welcome. The result of this would be an even more fragmented Ukraine and, consequently, more eager for NATO troops in its territory to guarantee its protection.
That is why the Russian wish is that there is complete adherence on all sides to the terms of the Minsk Agreements. The possibility of establishing mutual respect and an absolute ceasefire is the ideal scenario for Russian plans at the present time. Russia wants to protect its people under the Ukrainian state, but it does not want it to generate more NATO troops on its western border, as the consequences of this would be even worse. Therefore, Moscow’s plan is to keep Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but respecting the traditions, customs, and desires for autonomy – not sovereignty – of Russian communities. This is the most peaceful, stable, and beneficial scenario for all sides – and, for this to happen, it is essential that the Minsk agreements are respected by all sides.
For the Ukrainian government, which passively accepts any Western propaganda, this is a matter of life and death in which whoever takes the first step will win. The West says Moscow wants to annex the Donbass; Kiev believes and, to avoid this, plans a “reconquest”. That is why, for there to be peace in Donbass, it must be understood that there is no Russian plan for the annexation of Lugansk and Donetsk. The West will always say that this plan exists, as it serves NATO’s interests in occupying Ukraine even more, but it is up to Kiev to understand the reality in which it is inserted and not to allow an escalation of violence in its territory.
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