According to president Vladimir Putin, Russia’s objectives in Ukraine have been the same since the beginning of civil unrest there—a stable national government that represents and respects all of its people. Why then, has there been so little willingness to work together with Russia to end this crisis?
The most obvious answer is Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which many Western governments have interpreted as a rejection of the post–Cold War status quo and a possible prelude to further territorial expansion. To be fair, however, Putin addressed both of these points in his speech to the Federal Assembly on March 18. Crimea, he insisted, was an exceptional circumstance—a unique combination of the overwhelming desire of the local population to secede from Ukraine, and the need to prevent military clashes on the peninsula, which might escalate and involve the Russian troops already stationed there. Russia, he has said repeatedly since then, desires no expansion and poses no challenge to the international order.
Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine provide a good test of whether Crimea is indeed an exception, or a prelude to further expansion. Russia has responded to popular aspirations in eastern Ukraine very differently from the way it responded in Crimea. These differences, however, have been ignored by most Western observers, who base their analysis on three assumptions. First, that despite his disavowals, Putin is in fact actively supporting the rebels with weapons and finances. Second, that without this support, the rebellion would collapse for lack of popular support. And finally, that once the rebellion is suppressed, Ukraine will embark on economic and political reforms that will stabilize the country.
Because each of these assumptions is quite far from the mark, not surprisingly, so is Western policy toward both Ukraine and Russia.
Who Is Fighting and Why
The most remarkable thing about the claims that Russia is officially supporting the rebels in Ukraine is how little evidence there is to back them up after five months of fighting. During this time, Ukrainian officials have claimed almost monthly that Russian military forces have invaded. NATO has endorsed these claims by providing satellite images that it says show Russian military equipment inside Ukraine, but which Moscow claims are faked. But while Kiev recently claimed that “thousands” of Russian soldiers and hundreds of tanks are fighting on its soil, it has been able to demonstrate just nine soldiers who, according to Moscow, inadvertently crossed the border in late August. That is the sum total captured during the entire five-month period, though many more are said to have been killed.
American officials routinely support such claims by Kiev but have been at pains to provide any more evidence. Instead, State Department spokespersons have pointed to social media and blithely asserted that “the Russian separatists . . . could not be doing what they’re doing without the Russians.”
This is a telling statement, not only because it utterly confuses Ukrainians with Russians, and rebel insurgents with official troops, but because it assumes that the insurgency has no native resources or support. This fits with the notion, popular in the West, that the grievances of the Donbass are contrived, and that the entire conflict was manufactured in the Kremlin.
This view of the conflict, however, stands in sharp contrast to sociological surveys taken in April, May and June of this year—all since the onset of the military campaign against the rebels. Detailed survey findings are available in Russian on the website of the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, but a summary has recently been translated and posted on the website of the Washington Post by University of Ottawa professor Ivan Katchanovski.
Among its key points: the Ukrainian public remains sharply divided over the legitimacy of the protests on the Maidan, and the coup that removed President Yanukovych from office. While there is little love for Yanukovych anywhere in Ukraine, three-quarters of the populations in Ukraine’s eastern cities regard the Euromaidan protests as illegal.
Specifically, two-thirds of Donbass residents consider the Maidan to have been “an armed overthrow of the government, organized by the opposition, with the assistance of the West.” A similar percentage believes that the Right Sector is “a prominent military formation that is politically influential and poses a threat to the citizens and national unity.” That may explain why most people in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine (62 percent) blame the loss of Crimea on Kiev, rather than on Crimean separatists (24 percent), or on Russia (19 percent).
Majorities in Donbass (60 percent in Donetsk and 52 percent in Lugansk) disagree with the view that Russia is organizing the rebels and guiding their actions. Moreover, if a referendum were held today (April 2014), only 25 percent would want to join EU, compared to 47 percent wanting to join the Eurasian Customs Union.
It should be noted that early on, the rebel leaders in Donbass were demanding only greater local autonomy within Ukraine, through a referendum on federalism. After Kiev rejected this, however, local attitudes hardened. A Gallup survey in June of this year, funded by the U.S. government's Broadcasting Board of Governors, concluded that Ukraine “is more divided now than it was before events starting in Crimea in March." As much has been acknowledged by Kiev’s own appointed governor for the Donetsk region Sergei Taruta.
This is not to say that there have not been foreign volunteers crossing over the Russian border to fight alongside the rebels, just as there are foreign volunteers fighting in the forces fighting against them. In both cases, however, they seem to be a fairly small percentage of total fighters (nongovernment estimates range from a mere handful, to as high as 30-40 percent). Most media accounts have pegged the rebel fighters as disgruntled locals, and it is not hard to imagine that their ranks have been bolstered by some of the twenty-thousand law-enforcement personnel (nearly 1500 in Donbass alone) who have been summarily fired and threatened with prosecution for treason by the current Ukrainian Minister of Interior, Arsen Avakov.
It is sometimes said that the while Russia may not be officially supporting the rebels, it is surely providing them with indirect support by allowing volunteers and weapons to cross the border. Even this version of official Russian complicity, however, has been challenged by some Western reporters on the scene, most notably, Mark Franchetti who wrote a remarkable piece for the London Sunday Times after spending several weeks embedded with rebel forces. His assessment is backed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the OSCE observer mission that has been deployed to the border region since the end of July. Both say they have seen no evidence of weapons or military personnel crossing from Russia into Ukraine during this time, even as U.S. and NATO officials say the exact opposite. Moreover, between April and July of 2014, as Russian Ministry of Defense likes to point out, eighteen international inspection teams visited the border region and found “no violations or undeclared military activity.”
Nor can the presence of weapons manufactured in Russia among the rebels, even large caliber ones, be considered a wholly reliable indicator of official Russian involvement. First, because such weapons are in abundant supply in Ukraine. Second, because they were easily available to the rebels, either from units that defected to their side, from arms depots they had captured earlier, or by other means.
The following incident is highly suggestive. According to the hacked email correspondence, allegedly sent by the head of the Dnepropetrovsk military security service Colonel V. Pushenko, between June 20 and July 20, three Ukrainian military units under his jurisdiction “lost” (profukali) twenty-five tanks, nineteen infantry fighting vehicles, eleven armored personnel carriers, eleven multiple rocket launch systems (BM21), twelve Grad platforms, five D-30 howitzers, sixteen 82 mm caliber mortars, five automotive tractors and two antiaircraft guns. Somehow all of these wound up in rebel hands.
How Crimea and Donbass Differ
The absence of official Russian support for the rebel cause is important because it highlights the differences between Russia’s approaches to Donbass and Crimea that tell us a good deal about Russia’s overall objectives in Ukraine.
In Crimea, Russian legislators set the stage for official support by visiting the region early on at the request of the Crimean legislature. Only after this visit did Russia up its military presence on the peninsula, within the limits provided by the Black Sea Fleet Treaty, and arrange for some of these forces to assist the regional government and their militias in providing for the local defense. I remind you that this agreement was reached on March 1, when the Crimean parliament had not yet taken any decision on separation. This military boost proved sufficient to allow the Crimean government to hold a referendum on independence without interference from Kiev.
In Donbass, by contrast, the Russian officials quickly distanced themselves from the rebels, offering them nothing but generic statements about the need to respect the will of the people. When the rebels scheduled their own referendum on secession, President Putin publicly urged them not to hold it. They refused. Russia conducted military exercises near the Ukrainian border in late February, but returned these troops to their barracks in late April, after the beginning of Kiev’s antiterrorist military campaign. Most importantly, at the end of June, as the military campaign in the East was ramping up, Putin asked the Russian parliament to rescind his authority to use troops outside Russia. He also recognized as legitimate the de facto president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko. The substantial differences in Russian policy toward each region suggest that the Russian government decided, sometime in late April or early May, that it was not going to intervene on behalf of the rebel cause.