Staunton, February 19 – Yesterday, Vladimir Putin officially recognized passports and other documents issued by the Donetsk Peoples Republic and the Luhansk Peoples Republic as valid for entry into and living in the Russian Federation, an action Ukraine and the West have condemned but that Russian nationalists see as a step toward the recognition of these “states.”
This latest manifestation of Putin’s preference for “hybrid” actions, moves that in fact mean one thing but that offer him plausible deniability in a world increasingly predisposed to accept alternate facts at least from leaders of nuclear powers, has so many consequences that not surprisingly it has sparked a huge number of commentaries in the last 24 hours.
Almost all say that Putin by this action has raised the stakes in the conflict in Ukraine with some suggesting that it points to a South Ossetia-style future for the Donbass and others denouncing it as confirmation of Russia’s occupation of part of Ukraine’s territory (regnum.ru/news/polit/2240709.html, kasparov.ru/material.php?id=58A94DC705758 and rbc.ru/politics/18/02/2017/58a877f39a79471cde800f53).
Many argue that this represents the end of the Minsk process and Putin’s “asymmetrical response” to US President Donald Trump’s declaration that Moscow must return Crimea (gordonua.com/news/war/v-posolstve-ssha-v-ukraine-zayavili-chto-priznanie-rossiey-dokumentov-ordlo-protivorechit-minskim-soglasheniyam-174608.html and kp.ru/daily/26645.5/3664228/).
And while some in Ukraine are demanding that Kyiv respond by ending its visa free regime with Russia (dialog.ua/news/111488_1487434509), others in Russia are celebrating what they say is Putin’s “recognition of the documents of countries he doesn’t [yet] recognize (forum-msk.org/material/news/12840817.html).
But perhaps the most useful of the initial responses to Putin’s latest move are two articles today, one by an individual Ukrainian commentator and a second which assembles the view of several Russian observers concerning what Putin is trying to do with his latest action and equally important who are the Kremlin leader’s intended target audiences.
Ukrainian commentator Vitaly Portnikov says that Putin’s latest move signal to several key audiences that Russia does not ever intend to leave the Donbass and that Moscow “not only intends to preserve its control over the occupied territories but to strengthen it” (ru.espreso.tv/article/2017/02/18/nabor_sygnalov_zachem_putynu_pasporta_quotdnrquot_y_quotlnrquot).
“Formally,” Putin’s announcement does not constitute recognition of either the LNR or the DNR but in fact his recognition of documents issued by those entities gives Russia “right now several opportunities for maneuver,” ranging from its proclaimed status “’until the end of the conflict’” up to full recognition of the two as independent states or candidates for annexation.
The common feature of all these possibilities is that Moscow plans to remain and that is “the main signal” to Kyiv, Portnikov says. Moreover, Putin’s latest move shows that the blockade isn’t working and that Moscow by allowing people under the control of these entities to leave is reducing the burden it will have to carry to maintain these two statelets.
In addition, the Ukrainian analyst says, this move is “a signal to the West,” one that “reflects the growing disappointment in Putin” in the new US president Moscow had placed so many hopes in. By moving in this way now, “Putin is trying to show” that the West cannot impose any conditions on him that he can’t rapidly respond to by acting on his own.
Putin’s move is of a piece and was taken at the same time as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s “idiotic” statement that Moscow won’t lift sanctions against the EU until the Minsk accords are fulfilled. This is one more case where the Kremlin wants to achieve “mirror-like” equality with the West.
But at the same time, Portnikov concludes, Putin’s action works to Ukraine’s benefit because it proves again something that ought to be clear to all: “Moscow is not a mediator but a participant in the conflict and is interested in the creeping annexation of the territory of others.” And that it can only be blocked from doing so by “energetic pressure on this cynical participant.”
In Moscow’s Novaya gazeta, journalists Yuliya Polukhina, Olga Musafirova and Tatyana Vasilchuk both summarize the Kremlin’s argument that the recognition of these documents is a “humanitarian” move but add that it has a political component in that it was signed just before a meeting of the Normandy four in Munich and soon after Trump’s declaration on Crimea (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2017/02/18/71560-gumanitarnye-motivy-i-politicheskie-prichiny).
Putin’s “partial recognition of the sovereignty of the self-proclaimed republics is the kind of asymmetrical response so beloved by Moscow” as it is not “a direct realization of the ‘Ossetian scenario’ … but a clear gesture of political support to the Donbass” and to those in Russia who want to annex that region.
And one should not ignore “the military aspect” of what Putin has done, the three Moscow journalists say. Ukrainian forces have been pressing LNR and DNR units in reach time, and now Moscow will have no difficulties at all in strengthening them with volunteers from Russia who can be given Donets passports in any number that may be required.
That this factor may be especially important now, they write, is suggested by the Friday declaration of DNR leader that they are ready to use force to “’return’ control over all the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts,” even though Putin’s press secretary has dismissed this as an “emotional” outburst.
Appended to this article are comments about Putin’s decision from three prominent Moscow writers, Gleb Pavlovsky, Dmitry Oreshkin, and Aleksey Chesnakov. The last simply comes out in support of the Kremlin line on Putin’s actions, but the observations of the other two are worth noting.
Pavlovsky suggests the move is all about putting pressure on the West, but it also means that those in the LNR and DNR territories will now be able to move to Russia if they are worried about the future in which Kyiv might restore control. As such, it is a signal that under certain circumstances, Moscow is prepared to withdraw.
That mixed message, he argues, is “very typical for the Kremlin.” And thus it may not work as the Russian powers that be hope and expect. It could even blow up in their faces.
Oreshkin says that Putin’s move above all is “connected with [the Kremlin leader’s] disappointment in Trump.” He really expected the new US president would quickly deliver what he appeared to promise during the campaign, a recognition of Crimea as part of Russia and a lifting of sanctions against Moscow.
As long as Putin had such hopes, he “conducted himself” in a more or less careful way. But now he no longer feels the need to do so given that Trump is clearly damaged goods when it comes to Russia and won’t be able to make any positive moves toward the Kremlin without suffering politically at home for doing so.
The Kremlin now is thus animated by a feeling of disappointment and a desire to show that it can do what it wants. At the same time, Oreshkin says, by not taking the ultimate step of recognizing or annexing the two statelets, Putin keeps the possibility of talks alive, something that will play well in some Western capitals.