Although some in the west still insist that ‘Russia has invaded eastern Ukraine’, for those with open eyes and ears, the interesting question is ‘Why HASN’T Russia intervened in Eastern Ukraine’?
The reasons are subtle and demonstrate a lot about Russia’s pragmatic reaction to world events.
As things stand, Donbass is governed by two republics, that of Donetsk and Lugansk. Both republics held independence referenda in May of 2014 in which the majority of people voted to separate from the regime in Kiev.
Whilst supporting human rights in Donbass, offering aid and repeatedly calling for an end to the violence rained down on the people of Donbass by Kiev and their auxiliary terrorist gangs, Russia has not formally recognised the statehood of the two republics.
Russia could easily recognise the two republics. Western sanctions on Russia have been ineffective and you cannot sanction someone you’ve already sanctioned.
Put another way, there could be few meaningful political or economic consequences for Russia if she did recognise the independence of the Donbass republics, republics which are comprised of Russian people who are loyal to Russia and would be happy to formally enter politically the Russian family of which they are culturally speaking, already a member.
However, if Russia did recognise the republics, it would change the legal definition of the conflict from a civil war into a war between states. This would therefore make an easier case for two impaired republics to call on Russia to intervene in the war. And this leads one to the reason that Russia has not ‘invaded’.
Russia wants less war not more war, even though a war between the Russian army and Kiev’s fighters would be an easy victory for Russia.
Russia’s restraint in Donbass is a crucial case study of Russia’s role in international politics.
Russia seeks to be a mediator in conflicts, not a force which exacerbates such conflicts. Whilst NATO have given Kiev new weapons, Russia gives Donbass food, medicine, blankets and fuel.
Russia has tried and continues to try to force a sensible political settlement to the fighting and continues to do so even after thwarting a Kiev sponsored terrorist attack on Russian territory.
Various conspiracy theories have emerged as to why Russia does not militarily intervene in Donbass.
Some say that Putin wants Donbass to remain in Ukraine so that the country can remain politically divided and consequently be permanently paralysed in respect of making a decision on cooperation with Russia versus cooperation with the EU.
The truth of the matter is that with or without Donbass, the country is deeply divided, the borders of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic being incompatible with an independent unitary state and furthermore whilst cooperation with Russia is mechanically, economically and technically possible, cooperation with the EU is not.
Ukrainian trains for example cannot run on European tracks but they can run on Russian tracks. Ukrainian heavy manufacturing is compatible with Russian standards but not with EU standards. Moreover, the EU has so many economic and political problems to grapple with that taking on the basket case of Kiev’s economic situation is more or less impossible.
Ukrainian politicians may boast that they are happy to replace Britain as an EU member but frankly, Serbia, Albania or Montenegro have a better chance of becoming EU member states than Ukraine does.
Another theory is that Russia does not want to spend the money on reconstructing a war ravaged Donbass.
This is simply untrue. Russia has been providing Donbass with aid throughout the war and will doubtless providing technical assistance in rebuilding when the final gun goes silent. Absorbing a small area with an infrastructure totally compatible to Russia’s into a mammoth Russian Federation would neither be difficult nor expensive.
The truth is that Russia knows that the current regime in Kiev cannot sustain itself. It won’t be around forever and most people in most parts of Ukraine will be all too happy to see the putsch regime fall on its own sword.
When this happens, it will then be possible to decide the future of the country based on a new political settlement which respects self- determination whilst rejecting war and terrorism.
Russia wants justice without violence and when this cannot be achieved, Russia calls for a de-escalation of violence.
Crimea voted to join Russia without a shot, but in Donbass this was not possible because of geographical factors which made Kiev’s potential to rapidly ignite a conflict all too easy. Considering the blood lust of those in Kiev, war in Donbass went overnight from being unthinkable to being inevitable.
Russia therefore is waiting for the day when moderate leaders emerge in Kiev, who might be able to negotiate what should have been negotiated in the 1990s, a velvet divorce where eastern and southern parts of the country go one way and the western and northern regions go another.
Time will tell whether this means loose confederation or two new independent states, but one way or another something along these lines is destined to happen.
We live in a world where western powers engage in wars they cannot win whilst Russia refrains from entering a war which she could win easily and rapidly.
The issue for Russia is not about winning and losing, but rather it is about ending a conflict through a political rather than military solution.
It is a mature approach that will be studied by future generations throughout the world.