As it was to be expected, Russia’s decision to recognize the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic has been met with widespread condemnation by Western politicians, experts and media alike. The West has accused Putin of violating the Minsk Agreements. Some other experts said that Putin was attacking the principle of non-intervention established with the Westphalian peace of 1648.
The last accusation, of course, is absurd. Since 1648 the world has seen many interventions, much interference, and a lot of wars. Referring to a far-away historical datum may look like a nice piece of erudition and provide for a clean overarching narration, but the clean overarching narration is obviously out of place here, a dishonest simplification. Two very recent examples in the post Cold War era easily come to mind: the recognition of Croatia and Slovenia in 1992 and the recognition of Kosovo’s independence in 2008.
The recognition of Croatian independence was led by a recently unified Germany, and while this choice had met the opposition of most European countries and the United States in late 1991 and early 1992, soon much of the world was going to follow suit. The recognition of Kosovo followed Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008. As of today, half of the countries in the world, including Russia, China and India, but also Spain, Ukraine, Argentina and Brazil, do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Clearly a state’s independence can often be a controversial matter. Today’s borders in Europe are the product of violent clashes and past wars.
What strikes in the Western reaction to the recognition of the two new states by Russia is the feigned shock and outrage. Suddenly, after eight years of conflict, the West remembers about the Minsk Agreements. The last of the two Minsk agreements was signed in February 2015 after a limited Russian intervention in the Donbass region. The agreements promised elections and a degree of autonomy to the Donbass and Ukraine would retake control of the Donetsk and Lugansk.
Seven years have passed and we have seen little of that. It is true that after the second Minsk Agreement the most violent phase of the conflict was over, but shelling has continued regularly and sometimes it would intensify like in recent days. Moreover, Ukraine, which enjoys the full and unconditional support of the West, has abundantly made clear over the years that she is not interested in implementing the political part of the agreement. The West, in spite of declarative statements, did not push Ukraine to do anything to implement the agreements. Instead, it watched uncritically and was even silently supportive of Ukraine turning away from the Russian culture and heritage when Ukraine pursued a more nationalist course that was bound to disaffect large parts of the population in the East of the country.
For all those years, Ukraine has continued to refer to Donetsk and Lugansk as “territories temporarily occupied by the Russian Federation” and to portray herself as “at war with Russia”. Not with separatists supported by the Russian Federation, but with Russia. If Ukraine really believes that the territories have been occupied by Russia for eight long years, what should the formal recognition of the independence of the DNR and the LNR provoke such an outcry? How is the de jure recognition of the DNR and the LNR changing anything on the ground? If Russian forces were already there in large numbers and Russian forces were the bulk of the occupying forces and this has been the case for the past eight years, then certainly a belated formal recognition of this status by the Russian Federation is not going to change much.
For the past eight years, Donetsk and Lugansk have already de facto been independent, with their own parliaments, governments, elections, schools, and even banking system. Eight years is a long time. Ukraine likes to go back to one hundred years ago, after the Russian Revolution, a time marked by the First World War and the Russian Civil War, to claim a tradition of modern statehood. All these competing Ukrainian protostates that emerged in rapid succession in the chaos of foreign occupation and war lasted each no more than a few months.
Russia had already made clear that it would intervene in the Donbass in case Ukraine decided herself for a military takeover of Donetsk and Lugansk. Much has been said in the last few years in Ukraine about the Croatian operation “Storm”, when Croatia in 1995 decisively dealt with the last outpost of Serbian separatists with a rapid attack. Some have looked at Croatia as a model to end the war with resounding victory. The 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with Azerbaijan taking back much of Nagorno-Karabakh, an area formally recognized as Azerbaijan but populated mostly by Armenians, has also been an inspiration. In a four months long war, Azerbaijan successfully employed Turkish made Bayraktar drones. Ukraine bought around 30 such drones from Turkey last year and employed them in the Donbass “for recognition purposes”.
It is unclear what the following developments may be. The Minsk agreements, signed 7 years ago, did not work. The fighting had intensified in recent days, just after the date of a predicted Russian invasion passed and a large scale invasion failed to materialize. Now with Russian peacekeepers entering Donetsk and Lugansk, different outcomes are possible. The West has been accusing Russia to plan to invade Ukraine since October. It has been alleged that Russia would want to take Kiev. This seems extremely unlikely. The US and the UK still want to convince the world that Russia has plans for a larger invasion.
“This is the moment – the moment to stand up and defend the United Nations and our international order as we know it,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, said. She expressed doubt on Russian troops as “peacekeepers” in the Donetsk and Lugansk areas. “He calls them peacekeepers. This is nonsense. We know what they really are,” she said.
“Putin’s absurd, angry spectacle will be a turning point in his long reign. This was a supreme leader marshalling his minions for a decision that will change the security architecture in Europe and may well lead to horrific war”, writes the Guardian today.
In practice, little may change on the ground. The official Western line is that the entire responsibility for the Eastern Ukraine conflict lies with Russia and that both the separatists and their Russian backers were Russian forces. At the same time, Donetsk and Lugansk have severed all ties with Ukraine since 2014 and Ukraine has refused to speak to representatives of the DNR and the LNR since then. In fact, Ukraine had already de facto recognized their independence well before yesterday.