Russia is still massing troops on Ukraine’s border. Most of the posturing is for effect — but if push comes to shove, Russia will be the one doing the shoving.
Russia’s political leaders appear to be taking a particular pleasure in the planned and co-ordinated dismemberment of Ukraine. As with any unprincipled thug, Russia’s only constraint is ensuring it remains internationally unaccountable while continuing to dismantle its vulnerable neighbour.
Russia is now breaking off pieces of the country at will and ignoring international protestations while feigning innocence. The eastern Ukraine town of Slaviansk is now firmly under the control of thinly disguised Russian troops and their local compatriots, with Ukraine reluctant to act for fear of provoking even greater Russian intervention.
That pro-Russian militia took military observers from Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe hostage only further highlights Russia’s intransigence towards a genuinely negotiated resolution of the crisis. The arrest of the observers, on the pretext they were spying, was a simple demonstration of Russia’s rejection of any external involvement in events in eastern Ukraine; the release of one on health grounds was an all-but-inconsequential gesture.
European and United States protestations at the events in eastern Ukraine are having no effect on Russia’s actions, nor are proposed economic sanctions by the G7 expected to be strong or co-ordinated enough to be meaningful. In any case, Russia has already factored sanctions into its game plan.
As with threats of US intervention following the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria last year, Russia has fobbed off US concerns by agreeing to terms it had no intention of keeping. Russia was to urge moderation on pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, retaining the fiction that they are not actual Russian soldiers.
While some of the heavily armed and uniformed militia in eastern Ukraine are, no doubt, locals who have volunteered or been recruited to the service of the militant separatist movement, others are clearly uniformed Russian soldiers without identifying insignia. These Russian soldiers are identical to those Russian troops without insignia who, with support of Russian-speaking locals, overthrew Ukraine control of Crimea in February.
Meanwhile, despite Russia’s earlier agreement to draw down troop numbers massed on Ukraine’s border, there are some 40,000 soldiers still in place, along with military “exercises” that look like preparations for invasion. This, too, however, is part of Russia’s “psychological warfare” game plan, whereby it has not technically invaded Ukraine, but the threat of doing so undermines Ukraine’s interim Parliament’s every thought and move.
While Russia is very unlikely to invade Ukraine, it is absolutely intent on seeing Ukraine rewrite the country’s constitution to create autonomous — Russian-aligned — regions. It also wants Ukraine to hold new elections, producing a parliament with an influential, dominant core of pro-Russian members, and an agreement to turn away from the European Union and embrace Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union.
In all of this, as with the US in some of its own ventures in Latin America, Russia sees Ukraine as clearly within its own sphere of influence. And there is no doubt that if events in Ukraine are handled badly, they could create a much bigger and more serious regional problem.
But the US, Europe and even Russia are all keen to avoid an uncontrolled escalation of the Ukraine crisis, especially in ways that could spill across borders. To that end, Russia is being a regional thug but, with no one prepared or, indeed, able to force a halt to its carefully calculated actions, it is likely to get the final outcome it wishes.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University