It has been my rule not to join the vast majority of my fellow political commentators at the scrimmage line in sterile debates of the one subject of the day, week, month that has attracted their full attention. Their debates are sterile because they ignore all but a few parameters of reality in Russia, in Ukraine. For them, ignorance is bliss. They do not stir from their armchairs nor do they switch channels to get information from the other side of the barricades, meaning from Russia.
I will violate this overriding rule and just this once join the debate over how Russia’s ‘special military operation’ will end. Nearly all of my peers in Western media and academia give you read-outs based on their shared certainty over Russia’s military and political ambition from the start of the ‘operation,’ how Russia failed by underestimating Ukrainian resilience and professionalism, how Putin must now save face by capturing and holding some part of Ukraine. The subject of disagreement is whether at the end of the campaign the borders will revert to the status quo before 24 February in exchange for Ukrainian neutrality or whether the Russians will have to entirely give up claims on Donbas and possibly even on Crimea.
As for commentators in the European Union, there is exaggerated outrage over alleged Russian aggression, over any possible revision of European borders as enshrined in the Helsinki Act of 1975 and subsequent recommitments by all parties to territorial inviolability of the signatory States. There is the stench of hypocrisy from this crowd as they overlook what they wrought in the deconstruction of Yugoslavia and, in particular, the hiving off of Kosovo from the state of Serbia.
I mention all of the foregoing as background to what I see now going on in Russian political life, namely open and lively discussion of whether the country should annex the territories of Ukraine newly ‘liberated’ by forces of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics with decisive assistance of the Russian military. By admission of President Zelensky yesterday, these territories now amount to 20% of the Ukrainian state as it was configured in 2014.
In the past several weeks, when Russia concentrated its men and materiel on the Donbas and began to score decisive victories, most notably following the taking of Mariupol and capitulation of the nationalist fighters in the Azovstal complex, leading public officials in the DPR, the LPR and the Kherson oblast have called for quick accession of their lands to the Russian Federation with or without referendums. In Moscow, politicians, including Duma members, have called for the same, claiming that a fait accompli could be achieved already in July.
However, as I see and hear on political talk shows and even in simple political reportage on mainstream Russian radio like Business FM, a counter argument has raised its head. Those on this side ask whether the populations of the potential new constituent parts of the RF are likely to be loyal to Russia. They ask if there is truly a pro-Russian majority in the population should a referendum be organized.
This is all very interesting. It surely is a continuation of the internal debate in Moscow back in 2014 when the decision was taken to grant Crimea immediate entry into the RF while denying the requests for similar treatment from the political leaders of the Donbas oblasts.
However, there surely are other considerations weighing in on the Kremlin that I have not seen aired so far. They may be likened to the considerations of France following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when the possible reunification of Germany was the talk of the day. Sharp witted observers said at the time that President Mitterand liked Germany so much that he wanted to continue to see two of them. Today Vladimir Putin may like Ukraine and its brethren Slavs so much that he wants to see three or four of them.
To be specific, from the very beginning the number one issue for Moscow as it entered upon its military adventure in Ukraine was geopolitical: to ensure that Ukraine will never again be used as a platform to threaten Russian state security, that Ukraine will never become a NATO member. We may safely assume that internationally guaranteed and supervised neutrality of Ukraine will be part of any peace settlement. It would be nicely supported by a new reality on the ground: namely by carving out several Russia-friendly and Russia-dependent mini-states on the former territory of East and South Ukraine. At the same time this solution removes from the international political agenda many of the accusations that have been made against Russia which support the vicious sanctions now being applied to the RF at great cost to Europe and to the world at large: there will be no territorial acquisitions.
If Kiev is compelled to acknowledge the independence of these two, three or more former oblasts as demanded by their populations, that is a situation fully compatible with the United Nations Charter. In a word, a decision by the Kremlin not to annex parts of Ukraine beyond the Crimea, which has long been quietly accepted by many in Europe, would prepare the way for a gradual return of civilized relations within Europe and even, eventually, with the United States