As eastern Ukraine spirals out of control, the interim government in Kiev is desperately seeking to renegotiate the Geneva agreement, aimed at restoring a semblance of unity in the now deeply divided state. Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, appears happy adjusting levers of strategic power to apply pressure, in turn in Donetsk, Sloviansk and now in Odessa.
It is not yet clear whether the eastern Russian-speaking region will actually separate from Ukraine, whether Russia will invade or if regional destabilisation is just being used to achieve other ends. At least as likely as invasion, this destablisation is just a bloody game to achieve Russia’s regional economic and strategic goals.
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There is no doubt that Russia is providing most of the impetus for separatism in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions. First Crimea separated from Ukraine, with the direct intervention of what Putin first denied and then later admitted were Russian troops without insignia. Now “paramilitaries” with identical unmarked uniforms and weapons are active in eastern Ukraine. These paramilitaries are providing both direction and reinforcement to separatist Ukrainian Russian-speakers.
There is fear within the Kiev government that pushing back against the pro-Russian occupation of key towns and installations in the east will provoke a direct Russian invasion. This will, many believe, be rationalised by the deaths of Russian speakers.
However, short of mass casualties among Russian speakers, which would spark an artificially constructed Russian variation of the “responsibility to protect” paradigm, such an overt intervention is unlikely. The intention of the Russian government appears to be to pressure the Kiev interim government into reversing its position on embracing the European Union and NATO to one of returning to mother Russia.
To achieve this outcome, Russia is balancing its role in eastern Ukraine. Should Russia overtly invade, it would be politically difficult to withdraw and leave Russian speakers living within a Ukrainian state. Such an intervention would almost certainly require absorption of Russian-speaking areas into Russia proper.
More usefully, Russia will exert maximum pressure on the government in Kiev without invading. Russia does not wish to lose the leverage that would come from leaving Ukraine nominally intact but internally divided. In this, Crimea was useful as an object of lesson to the Kiev government for what could happen in eastern Ukraine. It was not necessarily a precursor to what will happen.
In the meantime, what amounts to a deadly theatre is being played out in Odessa, Donetsk, Sloviansk, Konstantinovka, Slavyansk, Andreyevka and Kramatorsk. Dozens have now died, and Ukraine’s security forces are demoralised and, in part, divided.
Since invading Georgia in 2008, Russia has been much more prepared to directly intervene in the affairs of its neighbors. Regional control is much more important to Moscow than international rule of law.
But Moscow does not wish to reincorporate Ukraine entirely, as it did once within the former Soviet Union. Ukraine serves a more convenient purpose if it remains nominally independent but performs to a classically pessimistic script drafted by the Kremlin.
Such a script, by default, portrays Moscow as the powerful yet torn protagonist. In this, Russia’s dramas, vanities and intemperances are writ large. By way of contrast, the minor, peripheral characters are increasingly being rehearsed in their role to be one of subservience and supplication in this Slavic tragedy.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University