“You were right.”
This was a comment posted on my website this morning from a reader of my last essay “Meet the new Proactive Russia” posted on 16 February, though in light of the latest developments it now seems ages ago.
Yes, indeed, Mr. Putin yesterday moved on from the stalled talks with the USA and NATO over Russia’s 15 December draft treaties creating a new security architecture in Europe. As I had foreseen, he moved on to Plan B. He formally recognized the independence and sovereignty of the two breakaway provinces, Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republics in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, he signed treaties of friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance with both. What “mutual assistance” means was made clear immediately when the Russian President ordered his armed forces to move into the respective republics as “peace keepers.”
Barring some quixotic wish of Ukrainian president Zelensky to enter into armed conflict with Russia over the Donbas and face certain annihilation of his army and of his regime, it is probable that the smoldering war in Eastern Ukraine of eight years duration will now become a “frozen conflict,” in line with South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, with Transdnistria in Moldova. Of course, that does not mean that Mr. Putin has resolved his broader problems with Ukraine, as I discuss below. But invasion would be the least effective way of addressing them, as we shall see. There are other options to get the job done without spilling blood and without giving the Collective West cause to impose the ‘sanctions from hell’ that still remain in abeyance.
Being “right” about any prospective development in Proactive Russia’s new dealings with the Collective West is not easy. But it is also not just idle guesswork. There are obvious thinking patterns and relevant past history of action by Vladimir Putin which make it easier to predict what comes next, which I will do in the last section of this essay.
Let us look first at the speech itself to get into the mind of the Russian President.
At 22 typed pages of text, the speech is very long for an address intended to announce to the Russian public the treaties he had signed with the two Donbas republics earlier in the day. One Western commentator remarked that it was a rambling speech. That is true in the sense that it covers a number of different subjects which are related to one another only in the context of Russia’s foreign policy priorities of the moment at different levels. These interrelationships would not be obvious to the general public.
Putin says right at the start that the purpose of the address is not merely to give the audience his perspective on where things stand at the moment with respect to the Donbas but also to inform the nation “about possible further steps.” That one statement makes it imperative to go through the document with a fine tooth comb.
The first 16 pages deal with Ukraine. Putin offers an overview of the history of the modern Ukraine state going back to the early 1920s and the formation of the Soviet Union from the debris of what had been the Russian Empire, when the new Communist rulers consolidated their power by granting the appearance of sovereignty within a confederated union to satisfy the nationalist ambitions of Ukraine and other constituent Union republics. He explains how this loose federation was gutted by the centralizing policies of Stalin, through nationalization, the Terror and other compulsory means though the constitutional guarantees remained on paper. Then after WWII, Stalin added to the Ukrainian territories lands that he took from Hungary and Poland, to which Khrushchev contributed the gift of Crimea.
Putin’s point is to demonstrate that the Ukrainian state which emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 had been created from the top down, not from the bottom up and so was ill-prepared for statehood.
The Russian president then continued the post-Soviet history of Ukraine to explain the pauperization of the nation, the massive loss of population due to departures abroad of job seekers under conditions of economic ruin at home, the skimming of all wealth by oligarchic clans, and their deal making with foreign powers who established a virtual protectorate over the state in exchange for banking and other favors to that oligarchy.
From there he explains how the popular outrage over misrule which led to the Independence Square anti-government demonstrations was manipulated by radical nationalists with foreign help as cover for the coup d’état of February 2014 that brought to power those same nationalists. Together with neo-Nazi militants they were intent on building a Ukrainian identity based on rejection of everything Russian. What has followed is suppression of the Russian language in government institutions, in schools, in the media, even in shops and a vicious genocidal campaign against the two Donbas oblasts which, like Crimea, refused to accept rule by the illegitimate new powers in Kiev.
This background brings Putin to the key four pages in the speech on how the United States and NATO have worked with the anti-Russian regime that they helped to install in Kiev in 2014 to further their own interests. They are using the territory of Ukraine as a platform to forward position personnel and infrastructure threatening the security of Russia, even without any formal entry of Ukraine into the North Atlantic Alliance. He enumerates the Ukrainian airfields not far from the Russian border which now host NATO reconnaissance aircraft and drones that monitor all of Russian airspace to the Urals. He describes the potential of the US-built naval station at Ochakov, near Crimea, which is assuming the function of the base to monitor and potentially to neutralize the Russian Black Sea fleet that NATO had hoped in 2014 would be fulfilled by Sevastopol before the Crimea seceded from Ukraine and successfully joined the Russian Federation.
He explained how NATO is planning to station missiles in Ukraine that will be capable of delivering nuclear strikes across Russia to the Urals and beyond and would have flight times to target measured in as little as five minutes when the hypersonic variants are ready. He claimed that Ukrainian military units are already integrated into the NATO command structure to the point where they can be ordered about from NATO headquarters. He spoke of the 10 large-scale military exercises planned by NATO to be held on Ukrainian territory during 2022. And he pointed to the training “missions” which NATO member states have set up in Ukraine, units which could otherwise be described as military bases and would then be seen to be in strict violation of article 17 of the Ukrainian constitution.
Finally, in this section of the speech Vladimir Putin raised an issue we have not seen in public discussion before, because it only surfaced when introduced by President Zelensky himself at the Munich Security Conference the week before: the possibility of Ukraine becoming a nuclear power. Putin said this was entirely possible, not just some act of bravado by the Ukrainian leader. After all, Ukraine possesses the technical documents on manufacture of the Soviet nuclear bombs, it possesses enrichment technology and has both aircraft and short range missiles capable of delivering tactical nuclear weapons.
I pause here to note that this lengthy explanation of the way Ukraine is now practically speaking a junior partner of NATO against Russia, of the way it can be used as an attack platform on Russia and of the country’s nuclear potential if it proceeds with withdrawal from the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 which denuclearized Ukraine – all of this is so utterly threatening to Russian state security that it is unthinkable Putin will not proceed to resolve this set of problems quite apart from whatever happens in and around the two Donbas republics that are now independent.
Unlike the past, these detailed complaints are not just idle words. They must be seen as justification for actions which Russia will be taking in coming days and months to remove the listed threats. I will mention how the Kremlin may go about this in the concluding section of this essay.
The other noteworthy section of the speech deals with the separate question of Russian relations with the United States. This comes to five pages out of the 22 pages in total. It begins with the familiar story of the broken promises of 1990 not to move NATO one inch to the east of the Elbe River once Germany was reunited. It proceeds from the disappointments over the five successive waves of NATO expansion from 1997 to 2020.
This section of the speech ends with the US and NATO response to Russia’s calls for a rollback in the draft treatises sent to Washington and Brussels on 15 December 2021: by ignoring the three key points and only offering several ideas for discussion on secondary issues.
Some Western commentators have seen this as just more Russian whining about American treachery. But in the context of the newly Proactive Russia such a dismissive interpretation would be seriously erroneous. I will suggest what Mr. Putin may be planning to deal with these issues in the days ahead.
When Vladimir Putin presented his ultimatum to the United States and NATO in December some of my peers published shopping lists of measures the Kremlin might use to force capitulation. These included various kinds of military action. Military action of the most violent nature was widely found in comments in the blogosphere.
Though from the beginning I had stressed Putin’s likely reliance on psychological rather than kinetic warfare to win his objectives, I also succumbed to the temptation of more dramatic methods. I eventually listed “surgical strikes” against offending infrastructure, like those ABM bases in Romania or the Ochakov naval installation in Ukraine.
However, we see so far that violence is not in Putin’s playbook. The recognition of the two republics is, like the massing of troops earlier at the Ukrainian border, a way of preventing violence. Moreover, in diplomatic discourse, this recognition can be likened to the precedent that the United States and its NATO allies set when they recognized the independence of Kosovo from Yugoslavia. The justification then was alleged genocidal intentions of the Serbs, the very same issue that Putin has raised with regard to Kiev’s intentions in Donbas.
In these circumstances, how is Vladimir Putin going to respond to the security threats that Ukraine poses now and forestall the far greater threats it will pose in the future as NATO continues to build installations there, not to mention if Ukraine is allowed to develop a nuclear arsenal?
One solution mentioned in Russian television talk shows bears repeating: by establishing a total economic blockade on Ukraine. At present, Ukraine receives electricity, oil and gas transit revenues from Russia, and despite everything there is a substantial two way trade. This could all be halted at a moment’s notice with or without Zelensky’s possibly cutting diplomatic relations. Russia can claim that Ukraine is a hostile nation and put an end to all commercial dealings. Still more, Russia could impose a naval blockade just as the USA once did to Cuba to force the removal of Soviet missiles. All of this has historic precedent to support it. Moreover, with its great love for draconian sanctions, the United States and its allies cannot say a word about any sanctions Russia chooses to impose on Ukraine. Obviously, the objective would be to destabilize the Kiev regime sufficiently to promote regime change.
With regard to the problem of NATO rollback, Vladimir Putin already alerted us that there is a Plan C: “Russia has the full right to take measures in turn to ensure our own safety. That is exactly how we will proceed.” The possibilities were named by my peers back in December. What we missed was the proper sequencing of Russian actions. I have in mind two types of threat to America’s overblown sense of its invulnerability. The first would be for Russia to position its latest hypersonic missiles and Poseidon deep sea drone in international waters off the U.S. East and West coasts. Some ‘peek-a-boo’ surfacing of untracked Russian submarines carrying these super weapons off the coast would attract a good deal of media attention That would expose the American political establishment to the same kind of threat the Russians see coming from America’s various offensive missile systems targeting them with negligible warning times.
The other possible Russian counter measure that has been mentioned among analysts in Russia is the stationing of Russian strategic bombers and nuclear armed naval vessels on permanent watch in the Caribbean, making use of port facilities in Nicaragua, Venezuela and possibly Cuba.
Note that all of these measures have in common their reliance on precedents established by the USA and all may be categorized as psychological threats rather than military action which invites escalation and heads us off to Armageddon.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022
35 thoughts on “Putin recognizes Donbas republics: what comes next?”
Thanks for your thoughtful and honest analysis.
I listened to Putin’s speech in its entirety (translator). He was visibly angry and contemptuous of the United States. The Ukraine military will be annihilated, and NATO will have to call off the exercises… unless they want to fight a war with Russia. It is just beginning.
I was right.
You sure were!
Speaking of precedents Russia could turn the rest of the Ukraine into ‘an open air prison’ and ‘mow the lawn’ whenever needed.
Russia’s problem has been that the US has neither the respect nor fear of Russia that it once did. I suspect that Mr Putin won’t be stopping until both attitudes are reversed.
Recognizing the Donbas republics and sending peacekeepers / a tripwire force is the minimum thing Putin could do in regard to Ukraine, short of doing nothing. In this sense it still fits his previous MO or being cautious and reactive. However, just hearing his recent speeches makes me wonder if he has changed, is fed up with the West, and is willing to make a break with Europe.
A naval blockade of Ukraine will (rightly) be treated by the West as not much different than an invasion, and could anyway be circumvented through rail and truck traffic through Poland. There are other landlocked countries on earth and they get by. An economic boycott would just lead to an even more complete Ukrainian break with Russia and embrace of the West. It’s not like Ukraine hasn’t already shown a willingness to take economic pain to escape Russia.
I’m beginning to think all this American talk of a Russian invasion wasn’t some clever 4D chess plot to egg Russia on, but just real intelligence suggesting an invasion. I continue to think Russia is in an unenviable position because it cannot really use its military strength against NATO without risking nuclear war, and it is without mistake economically very weak compared to the collective West. The only card they have to play is their energy exports, which they can halt to Europe and the USA, even playing their own secondary sanctions game of not allowing gas (or oil) reshipments to “sanctioned” countries. Also they would need significant, active Chinese assistance to weather the worst western sanctions. Like setting up special Chinese government-linked banks and trading companies to deal only with Russian companies. But I don’t think China will go so far to bat for Russia. Instead they will just help Russia muddle through with half-baked, suboptimal barter systems, black market stuff. Russia could also actually go to war against the west, but a non-lethal type of war that would be unlikely to escalate into a nuclear exchange, like for example “hacking from hell” or shooting down satellites. But this is all very fanciful.
If I am reading you correctly, Ukraine has substantial trade with EU and minimal to no trade with Russia. From what I read on the other websites Ukranian trade with Russia is substantially greater than with EU. May be Mr. Gilbertdoctorow can clarify the issue. Thanks
“they would need significant, active Chinese assistance to weather the worst western sanctions. Like setting up special Chinese government-linked banks and trading companies to deal only with Russian companies.”
Maybe you have been living under a rock, but the EU itself blocked SWIFT sanctions on Russia for the scenario of full scale russian invasion and take over of Ukraine. No one is going to stop trading with Russia because oil, gas, coal, electricity, food, metals, fertiliseres, wood etc. prices are spiking all over the place and Russia has lots of those. Which, according to the likes of Fitch Ratings and Qatar can not be replaced, due to systemic underinvestment in those strategic sectors all around the world, in connection with “green” policies.
So, if I understand correctly, the good news is that the military-technical measures are likely to be political / economic / psychological more than kinetic, even in Ukraine. That’s a relief!
Although “Mr. Zircon on line 1” is pretty funny as a trope, it’s actually pretty scary in its real world potential.
Ukraine has land links to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary & Romania. In addition, it still has control over its skies for now. In that scenario, how would Russia impose its blockade? What am I missing? Thanks.
There’s no need for a total blockade. Ukraine depends on Russia on a most fundamental level: to sustain its energy sources. “Reverse gas” schemes are a hoax. Ukraine depends on Russian gas flowing through its pipelines to transport gas across its regions.
Should Russia cut off the incoming gas, vast areas of Ukraine will be left with nothing. Not because Ukraine doesn’t have its own gas, but because it can’t transport it to the various destinations where it’s needed.
Other energy sources are also to a large extent controlled by Russia. The coal is in the Donbass. And the nuclear fuel is Russian-made.
Having land links to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania won’t help. None of them can replace Russia.
That was useful to know. Thanks Yury!
Maybe someone could answer a question that I haven’ t been able to answer for myself. The last time I was on America was maybe 10-12 years ago. Already, if one wanted to, one could see the advanced decay of civilization. Since then the pace has quickened, as has the descent into barbarism. How can leaders of such a country still be bent on world domination? What I mean is, if the major cities look like war zones in many places, what makes the leaders think that they are capable of dominating anything? if they cant even manage their own cities, among other things? I just dont understand the thinking, if there is any, and am at a loss to explain it to myself.
the owners don’t care about the people at home, nor their decaying cities and infrastructure. in fact, the owners are in the process of looting all of those things into oblivion and forcing the people there to accept all of it because “we can no longer afford x (civilization)”.
it’s one giant scam. the U.S. is a military/intelligence arm of transnational capitalist rentiers. it has no concern for the citizens unless to con them into supporting more wars, and sending their poorest sons to die and kill in them for small potatoes (yet more and more important, in a decaying land) benefits like college fund or lifetime health coverage, mortgage aid, etc.
the citizens, being awash in nonstop fake-news propaganda from all sides, can’t see any of this and just keeps wondering why every time they turn around, there’s a fresh set of emergencies our military “needs” to respond to, and another 800 military budget that needs approval, while the roads and water systems become dysfunctional right in front of their eyeballs.
Listen when you drink too much of cool aide of American exceptionalism and then beat the shit out of some Third world countries you start thinking yourself as the greatest and the best the world till the reality hits you.. I believe this is such a moment. First of all,, all the leaders of the west left Kiev and all of them will not send troops to fight. What does it tellyou?
I don’t believe Russia will apply any further pressure on Ukraine this year, no naval blockade, no further military incursions (except some shuffling around of the DNR/LNR borders perhaps). I’m hoping for peace in Ukraine for the first time in 8 years, as Ukraine will no longer fight the DNR/LNR.
This whole hullabaloo is already having its psychological effect within Ukraine. Many of my friends and acquaintances and even President Zelensky himself, people who would’ve never considered talking to Russia are now considering exactly that. Although the anti-Russian rhetoric is still strong, I smell a change. Ukrainians feel more betrayed at the American/Western response (or lack thereof) than at any perceived Russian threat. Biden’s call to all American citizens to evacuate Ukraine and their abandonment of the embassy in Kyiv makes everyone question whether America can be a reliable ally. Protests have been staged at the American embassy in Kyiv — by radical Ukrainian nationalist voices like FEMEN. Ukrainians are now waking up to the fact that the Collective West will not protect them and they need to take their security into their own hands, which includes dialog with Russia (although we haven’t reached that stage yet, I think it will take at least another election cycle). Dmytry Kuleba’s last ditch call for more sanctions is a desperate attempt to get the West to “put their money where their mouth is”, if not their troops. I read his tweet like a threat to the West: this is your last chance to prove your loyalty to us: if you don’t help us now, we cannot rely on you to help us ever again.
I was completely wrong. Woke up to explosions at Kharkiv 5AM this morning.
we were all wrong. yesterday I wrote that violence was not in Putin’s playbook. I am prepared to eat my hat. I have a dedicated straw hat (boater) for this purpose. I am preparing a new essay to deal with Putin’s speech last night on launching the ongoing military operation. In broad terms, while I was wrong about the military response, I was right that the Kremlin could not just be satisfied with independence of the Donbas, but would have to take on directly the NATO presence in Ukraine.
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Thank God there are cool minds like you, Gilbert, who take the trouble to scrutinize Putin’s speech, and clarify what his reasoning is all about. While foolish Western apparatchiks are competing who can invent the best sanctions on Russia, you demonstrate that the Russian president has a few next moves in mind, all intended to get his way peacefully. Bravo!
There is another angle to this: the axis Russia-China may soon expand to include Iran. With negotiations in Vienna in their final stage, a new deal is at arm’s length. Once sanctions will be lifted, Iran’s economy will get a tremendous boost. Iran’s oil and gas supplies to the world will enable a high drop of world market energy prices. I just launched an article on the subject:
Viewers can easily translate the Dutch text by hitting the ‘translate’ box at the right upper corner.
I would say: keep up the good work, Gilbert. If only Western media would take a look at your texts, the usual bla bla may soon change for the better, and developments in the world likewise. Cheers!
Looking at history, if I were the Russian leadership, I would welcome maximum sanctions from the West.
Back in the very early 2000s, Russia really was just a frozen Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons. The Russian elite was content with making very easy natural resource money and dissipating it living the high life in Western Europe. It is the sanctions (and government initiatives) which helped drag the Russian business class, kicking and screaming, into developing the economy to the point where it is now. Further sanctions, if handled well by the government, will drag a business class which I would describe as still having creaky joints, into creating a full-spectrum industrial and consumer product economy.
If you look at Japan and S Korea during their high growth phases, they effectively put “sanctions” on themselves and closed off their economies to imports in order to develop their own industries. This import substitution worked in Japan/S Korea where it failed in Argentina or India because the Japan/S Korea worked to insure competitive domestic markets (the magic of capitalism is the competition) without monopoly producers, and with an export focus as a way of disciplining domestic companies to become world-class. If Russia ensures domestic competition with a robust anti-monopoly policy, sanctions could be the best thing that ever happened to it. Russia can always sell to the enormous Chinese market, not to mention the other BRICs as well as the entire developing world.
Another thing Russia could do, and I have no idea why it hasn’t already done so, is insist on using the ruble or gold as the settlement currency for its exports. Coupled with an alternative to SWIFT, this would 1) force many countries to hold ruble reserves, boosting the value of a currency that is currently under American threat, 2) establish the ruble as a reserve currency on par with say the Swiss Franc within a year or two, and 3) be a huge shot across the bow of the USA. China doesn’t want the yuan to be a settlement currency. Why not use the ruble?
Mr Doctorow, you highlight many important points about Mr Putin’s speech but neglect one. Mr Putin mentioned the Brest-Litovsk treaty in which the territory of modern Ukraine (among other territories) was ceded from the Russian Empire in 1918 by the Bolsheviks. He then moved on to the topic of the “de-communisation” that took place after Ukraine’s independence and threatened to show Ukraine what full de-communisation would look like. This seemed to me an unequivocal threat to annex this ‘lost’ land in its entirety. Whether Russia will actual do so is a different question of course.
Well Sasha – you sure called that one. Good on ya! I, too, was just assuming that Putin was a completely rational chess player when he obviously has emotional historical baggage in his tool box. I now see his response as more of an expression of how sick and tired he has become from the daily, all-embracing and endless attacks on Russia by the USA (even in the world of sports for chrissakes along with the fake “Russia-gate” crap!)).
Truly amazing to read this run-down of Putin´s speech! I can hardly even listen to the MSM anymore – they are so full of shit. If Doctorow´s viewpoint could actually become known the whole brouhaha would disappear.
I think that there is an unspoken context here, which is that the West’s foreign policy establishment, particularly in the US, is eager for war, hopefully of the cold variety, and that the overwhelming majority of the Russian polity, from Putin to Navalny, believes that the US and Nato never stopped waging war against Moscow.
I believe Ukraine is Putin’s and Xi’s cat’s paw for weakening the Atlantic alliance.
Rather than imposing a blockade on Ukraine, Putin sent the majority of his amphibious forces to the Mediterranean and Black Seas to accomplish two objectives:
(1) to punish Odessa for the neo-Nazis’ 2014 genocide of Russian-speakers.
(2) to inflict costly but repairable damage to Odessa’s port facilities through which Ukraine’s wheat and corn is exported to MENA nations.
Europe will be left rescuing the MENA nations from starvation or facing another mass migration into its cities.
This aged poorly.
yes and no. a violence free playbook? I was wrong. not tolerating the bigger issue of NATO exploitation of Ukraine as a base against Russia, I was right. will explain in a further essay today examining the speech Putin delivered just after midnight Central European time explaining and justifying his new ‘military operation’
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