A shorter version of this article was published by Newsmax.
Unless you are with the U.S. Helsinki Committee, which tends to keep tabs on such things, Ukraine is not a hot topic for you. When most Americans even think about Ukraine, they tend to associate it with Hunter Biden’s shenanigans, as in the latest allegations about influence-peddling on behalf of a U.S. blacklisted oil oligarch, Dmytro Firtash.
However, Ukraine may soon be back in the news on its own. Russia’s foreign minister has just warned that if a war breaks out there again, it could be the end of Ukraine. The U.S. European Command has designated that nation to be a “potential imminent threat.” The reason is that there has been an uptick of fighting in the eastern, secessionist part of the country: the Donbas. Almost a score of people has perished there in the past three weeks roughly, including Ukrainian soldiers by sniper fire. By comparison with earlier times when no news meant good news of no violence, this may be a cause for concern.
It seems unusual as far as this frozen conflict goes. There are always local reasons for sniping back and forth, but an intensification of hostilities usually has its source in Moscow. What is the Kremlin up to? Since the invasion of 2014, Russia has fostered a secessionist war in the Donbas and instituted a permanent occupation regime on the Crimean Peninsula.
Crimea has been a focus of serious changes. Vladimir Putin strives to make it independent of Ukraine in terms of infrastructure, water, and population. Hence, the Russian leader blessed the building of a massive bridge that would link the peninsula to Russian territory. He further constricts maritime access there to anyone who refuses to recognize the occupation as legal. Next, he endeavors to eliminate Crimea’s dependence on fresh water from Ukraine (which will be the hardest). And, finally, the Russian president has resolved to change the demography of the occupied land.
By presidential decree no. 201, which went into effect on 21 March 2021, no foreigner (or foreign-owned entity) may own land on the peninsula. That ban includes all denizens who refuse to acknowledge the legality of the Russian occupation and, hence, cling to their Ukrainian citizenship. Accept Russian citizenship, and you may have a legal basis to keep your land and home. Of course, this will stand until such time as the Kremlin arbitrarily and retroactively changes the law again.
Putin’s decree not only puts the final seal of approval on the expropriation of Ukrainian government assets and land, but it also forces the local people to make a choice: renounce publicly your Ukrainian allegiance and embrace Mother Russia, or else. Else what? For now, the Russian government indulges in some demographic social engineering.
On the side of the negative outflow, within a year of the occupation, the Kremlin “blessed” practically everyone with Russian citizenship. If you refused openly, you were deported. A crackdown on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, schools, and national activists resulted in a flood of nearly 50,000 emigrants, including the Crimean Tatars, mainly to the Ukrainian mainland but also to Turkey and elsewhere. Add to it an illegal draft which forces young men to serve in the Russian military, usually outside of their Crimean home turf.
On the side of the positive inflow, a beeline of loyal Russian subjects turned into a sizable cohort: over 200,000 moved to the Crimea, aided by a hefty state subsidy. The new arrivals include military, police, and civilian officials (and their families) of the occupation regime. Further, there are retirees from all over the Russian Federation seeking a more ambient climate for their autumn years. Next, more than a few of the secessionists from the Donbas have made the Crimea their home. Moreover, some Central Asians and Caucasians showed up, mostly as migrant workers.
All this violates international law, but Putin does not care.
As far as the Donbas, there have been several immediate developments which should be seen in a broader context. First, Russia has beefed up its military presence along its border with Ukraine, a comprehensive effort to shift troops to an offensive posture along the entire western frontier, from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Second, Moscow has given the eastern secessionists a green light to reignite a low intensity conflict. In addition to disturbing the West and scaring Ukraine, the intensification of fighting in the Donbas may be seen, toutes proportions gardées, as analogous to Russia’s joint maneuvers with Aleksandr Lukashenka’s troops concurrently taking place in Belarus.
All that military posturing, including the violence in eastern Ukraine, serves to give the Kremlin an upper hand in its diplomatic negotiations within the framework of the so-called Normandy system. The system comprises Ukraine and Russia with France and Germany. This is an ongoing process of the EU’s most powerful states to solve the Ukrainian problem. It is also a show to hint broadly that the Europeans do not need the United States.
The result of the Normandy system negotiations is that the Western Europeans tend to agree to Russia’s attempts to meddle in Ukraine’s internal affairs via the secessionist territories. Moscow uses its Donbas proxies to influence Ukrainian parliamentary business. Germany and France largely sign off on that.
Meanwhile, confusion reigns in Kyiv. The government is perceived as weak; the parliament is divided. Military reforms have stalled; the Ukrainian armed forces struggle mightily to overcome their Soviet heritage with disappointing results.
On the sidelines, hard core Ukrainian integral nationalists chafe at the bit. They hate both the Muscovites and their own government. In the western part of the country, where they call the shots politically and culturally, they have continued the program of restoring the memory of their World War II heroes, including Stepan Bandera, to the national pantheon. One can understand their anti-Communism. However, the Jewish community points out their anti-Semitism and the participation in the Holocaust. The Poles bring up the Ukrainian nationalist campaign of bloody ethnic cleansing which commenced in Volhynia in 1943.
Waxing lyrical about Bandera and his comrades will not make contemporary Ukraine many friends abroad (and even at home, in particular in the center and east of the country, which are much less infected by this particular brand of exterminationist nationalism).
Ukraine needs good press in the West so the American public would care what happens to it at the hands of the Russians. Ukraine needs Poland to help against Russia.
The situation in the Donbas is again volatile. Imperialism is a crime of opportunity. Washington should lean on Kyiv not to give Moscow one. It should also tell the Kremlin to back down. The EU has not been very convincing in its Ukraine performance.
We should not be pulling anyone’s chestnuts out of the fire by deploying troops, but there are plenty of tools of statecraft for the U.S. to resort to in order to prevent the worst: another war that has potential to metastasize continent-wide, or at least to engulf the Intermarium.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 1 April 2021
Dr. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz holds the Kosciuszko Chair of Polish Studies at IWP and directs the Center for Intermarium Studies. He teaches several IWP courses, including Russian Politics and Foreign Policy and Intermarium: Politics and History of Central & Eastern Europe.