Moscow Recognizes Two Breakaway Regions in Ukraine: Why Do This?

Monday, Feb. 21, 2022

The Kremlin has announced that it will recognize two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine: Luhansk and Donetsk. Russian "peacekeeping" troops are being sent in

Why do this? And why now?

In my opinion, the Kremlin has made this move out of a recognition that their objective of bringing NATO to the bargaining table by holding a gun to Kyiv's head is failing. 

So, what to do? Choose the least damaging alternative: let the separatist suckers in eastern Ukraine do the fighting, and meanwhile keep the pressure on Kyiv. 

Why? Because this is the primary value of the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk to the Kremlin. These two areas are valuable to Putin only for as long as they are still part of Ukraine and are able to create headaches for Kyiv. On their own, however, Donetsk and Luhansk are poor, post-industrial regions that don't provide much for Russia on their own. Instead, they are only useful insofar as they remain inside Ukraine. If Russia were to actually invade and occupy these areas, they would become Moscow's headache, rather than Kyiv's. 

Putin is doing this because he would like to use threats against Ukraine as a means of slowing down or reversing NATO's expansion. Not because he is worried about NATO expanding into Ukraine per se.  

Even before Russia's recent build-up on the Ukrainian border, the idea of NATO expanding into Ukraine has been a very far-fetched notion for years. This is because Russia has, since 2014, occupied the Crimea, which every NATO member considers part of Ukraine. If NATO were to expand into Ukraine, that would mean Russia would be occupying the territory of a NATO member, which many would consider tantamount to declaring war. As NATO's Article 5 maintains, "if a NATO ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the alliance will consider this an attack against all allies." 

It seems quite implausible, to say the least, that NATO's 30 members--every one of whom has a veto over expanding membership--would think it a good idea to expand into a country that already has Russian troops in it. 

So, this means that not only Ukraine, but also Moldova (Transnistria) and Georgia (Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia)--where Russia has likewise stationed its soldiers in breakaway regions--are already quite safely outside of NATO's orbit, as least as far as Moscow is concerned.
So why is Putin making such a big stink over Ukraine now?  Putin has been bluffing about invading Ukraine for months, trying to get the attention of Washington and bring NATO to the negotiating table. The point isn't to keep Ukraine out of NATO--that's not happening anyway--but rather to work out a grand deal that will push NATO even further to the west. 
Who knows? Maybe Moscow is counting on someone who considers himself a master "deal-maker" winning the presidency in 2024 and surrendering NATO's position in Eastern Europe. Stranger things have happened. 

But you can only bluff for so long. Putin certainly realizes that if he keeps making threats he'll eventually have to do something, lest others begin questioning his resolve. But he's not a fool and probably realizes that it's not in Russia's interests to launch a messy and potentially destabilizing (for Russia) campaign. Unlike, say, the US under W. in 2003, Putin probably understands how destructive an actual war with Ukraine could be for Moscow. 
Separatist suckers in Luhansk and Donetsk can risk their lives fighting Ukrainian forces, while Moscow cheers them on from the sidelines. Sure, Russia will be sending in "peacekeepers," but this makes a lot more sense, from the Kremlin's perspective, than actually initiating a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. We'll see if Moscow is able to keep itself out of a larger conflict. 

And meanwhile, the hope will be in Moscow that the US and its NATO allies start bargaining over NATO as quickly as possible.  

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