Russia-Ukraine Notes: Early October Edition

October 2, 2022

After almost eight months of fighting, it feels like developments have been shifting in the Russia-Ukraine war in recent weeks, doesn't it? 

Separated at birth?

On the face of things, there is worrying news. The prospect of Russia using nuclear weapons is particularly frightening, without question. It is unclear what the US or NATO response would be to something like that, but at the same time I don't know how Putin's making these threats should change Washington's behavior right now. 

Nuclear blackmail, once successfully employed, would become a component of international relations, ultimately making the world more dangerous. If you don't like the idea of Russia of Russia using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, how would you like the possibility of Moscow making the same threat a year from now toward Georgia or NATO? Or how about from China toward Taiwan or North Korea vis-a-vis Japan? 

A Faux Nationalist in a Multinational Country

It has also been interesting to watch Vladimir Putin attempt to transform himself into a populist sort of nationalist leader, something that has never been a convincing part of his repertoire. As I've discussed elsewhere, this kind of taking-it-to-the-streets politics has not typically been in this guy's wheelhouse, to put it mildly. Instead, Putin has usually been most comfortable working behind the scenes. The selling point of his administration, at least insofar as Russians are concerned, has always been his competence, rather than his ability to sway large numbers of people through his rhetoric or theater.  

It's a dangerous move. One point that I brought up last December is that, for a federated republic like Russia, waging war in the name of "self-determination of peoples" involves some real risks. Yet this is precisely what the Russian leader is attempting to do. Look at the transcript of his speech from last week. While Putin is still careful to speak more in terms of "Russia" than "Russians," this war is transforming his position from one of caretaker over a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Russian Federation into that of a would-be leader of ethnic Russians more specifically.  

And how does that work, exactly, when you're the leader of a country in which roughly 10-15% of the population is Muslim? And where dozens of other nationalities live in republics, krais, oblasts, and other forms of territorially-defined districts? At what point do the populations in these regions start repeating the Kremlin line that yes, indeed, this is a war that is being fought on behalf of Russians? 

Well, it appears to be already happening, especially as most of the Russian casualties in the fighting have, it seems, been drawn from the non-ethnic Russian populations of the country--especially the North Caucasus and Buryatia. While there is definitely a strong whiff of wishful thinking in a lot of the American media coverage of the war, it does seem like anti-war protests are a real part of the landscape now in Russia, not only in places like St. Petersburg and Moscow, but also in, say, Dagestan. Notably, the protests in Makhachkala featured large numbers of women. There have been a number of small protests this month in Kazan as well. 

Meanwhile, Moscow has announced that it has "annexed" four regions of Eastern Ukraine: 
Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhia. Interesting move. You spend billions in fighting, lose thousands of soldiers in the process, and you end up with what? Four poor post-industrial regions of eastern Ukraine that no one in Russia wanted in the first place. As I noted back in January, it's a far cry from the annexation of the Crimea, which was accomplished without a shot being fired. More importantly, the Crimea was a region of Ukraine that many Russians actually liked the idea of annexing. These four regions, by contrast, were of much more use to Moscow as unstable parts of Ukraine than they will ever be as destroyed regions of Russia. 

It would be like going from San Diego to Youngstown, Ohio, only if San Diego were a thousand times cooler and Youngstown had been flattened. 

The News from Kyiv

Meanwhile, the government of Ukraine has officially applied to join NATO

Well, as everyone in academia knows, just because you apply for something, that doesn't mean you'll necessarily get it. In fact, this isn't even the first time that Ukraine has applied to join the alliance. Their first application was in 2008. 

I don't think there is any way that Ukraine will join NATO for as long as they're at war with Russia. Indeed, the word from Turkey this week is that Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has renewed his threat to block the accession of Sweden and Finland to the alliance. In Erdoğan's case, I think this is mostly bluster, but it serves as a reminder that decisions on admitting new members are made according to unanimous vote in NATO. Every country has a veto, an increasingly complicated rule now that the alliance has 30 members. 

In my opinion, the biggest risk that could stem from Ukraine's application would be this: let's say the Ukraine-Russia war ends with Russia occupying Ukrainian territory, and then Ukraine joins NATO. That would create an ambiguous situation. Would Ukraine be able to invoke Article 5 on the basis of occupation, rather than invasion? Because even if Ukraine manages to re-conquer all of its territory in the east, there would still be the matter of the Crimea to contend with. For as long as Russia is controlling any Ukrainian territory, including the Crimea, admitting Ukraine to NATO would risk a serious escalation with Russia. This would apply to Georgia as well, by the way. 

Something else interesting coming out of Kyiv this week: Zelensky has announced that, post-referenda, he won't negotiate with Putin. Well, maybe he's hoping that someone in the Kremlin will take care of this problem for him. It's not as if there's no precedent in Russia for declaring a medical emergency and moving on. Especially after a "hare-brained scheme" like the one we've been witnessing since February. 

Ex-Soviet Space

Finally, news from the Caucasus and Central Asia in the last two weeks serves as a reminder that this war has direct reverberations on other regions of the former USSR as well. Azerbaijan has taken this opportunity to reclaim more of its territory from Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh. Fighting on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border has also resumed. 

Most interesting of all, perhaps: Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, whose regime was shored up by Putin at a critical moment in January of this year, appears to be distancing himself from Putin. Noting that "a lot of people from Russia have come [to Kazakhstan] over the past few days," Tokayev observed that “Most of them are forced to leave because of the hopeless situation. We must take care of them and ensure their safety.”


All in all, it's a hairy situation--enough to make you regret putting down the glue bottle.  


Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.  

More commentary, photos, and links can be found in the Borderlands Lounge.   


Also see:

All Crimea/Ukraine posts since 2008

Re Russia-Ukraine: Changes Coming?

Back and Forth in the Quagmire

A "Mission Accomplished" Moment?

This past week...

More Thoughts Re Ukraine and NATO

The USA: NATO's Weakest Link?

Brown Trouser Time

Looking for the Long-Term in Putin's Moves

Moscow Recognizes Two Breakaway Republics: Why do this?

South Ossetia and the Fate of the 'Mini-Republics' (from 2008)

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