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Three and a half reasons why Russia might be planning to withdraw from Ukraine (or some of it, anyway)

A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, by Ukrainian artist Dasha Marchenko. (Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press)
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On Aug. 9, 2015, a senior Russian general declared that if the Ukrainian military crosses Russia’s red line and attempts to recapture the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, Russia would respond with overwhelming force. This statement reaffirms the Kremlin’s official line that Russia needs to hold onto territory it has virtually annexed in Donbas to ensure the viability of its puppet republics, Donetsk and Luhansk.

But is it true?

Here’s another theory. It could be that President Vladimir Putin regards the takeover of Donbas territories as temporary, and is evaluating this occupation with a strict cost-benefit analysis. Right now, he has concluded that small military victories in the Donbas generate more than enough political capital in Russia to offset the Russian public’s disdain for the hardships of sanctions-induced austerity.

[Hey, Putin, have you seen how much China is investing in Ukraine?]

Should that assessment change, Putin is very likely to tactically withdraw from Donbas on his own terms. Putin will not regard this withdrawal as a defeat, as Russia will retain a military force in Crimea that could be used to destabilize Ukraine if it tries to join NATO.

Three factors suggest that Putin’s commitment to retaining control over the territories is weaker than his regime’s rhetoric indicates:

  1. Russia’s military presence in and occupation of Donbas territory is much less popular among Russian-speaking Ukrainians than Putin initially predicted in 2014.
  1. The Ukrainian government has more power than it has used in the conflict thus far, and it could use this influence to force Putin to back down sooner than expected in Donbas.
  1. There is compelling evidence that Putin’s long-term goal is to create a “frozen conflict” in Donbas, a scenario in which active fighting is suspended but ethnic tensions remain and can reignite at any time.

In addition, withdrawal from territories in Donbas would relieve Russia of the costs of occupation.

Let’s examine these factors in turn.

1. The Donbas Russian speakers don’t like the occupation

Russia would have a difficult time controlling the Donbas in the long-term because its imperialism is unpopular there. Putin did not expect mass resistance from Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, but that’s what he has gotten. Prominent Ukrainian analysts such as International Democracy Institute Director Sergiy Taran argue that Putin extended his military campaign from Crimea to Donbas because he thought Russian speakers would greet him as a liberator.

[Yes, Ukraine is still in crisis. Would becoming a ‘buffer state’ help?]

By contrast, Western analysts knew that Russian incursions into Donbas would be unpopular, given trends documented in public opinion polls. Oxford political scientists Paul Chaisty and Stephen Whitefield argued in 2014 that as few as 4 to 6 percent of people in Donetsk and Luhansk supported outright separatism. A May 2014 opinion poll showed that only 19 percent of Kharkiv’s citizens supported the Russian occupation.

The same poll showed that in Odessa, a Russian-majority city, Putin registered only 14 percent support. Former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, a staunch enemy of the Kremlin, is now a highly popular governor in Odessa. That opposition is why Putin’s military foray into eastern Ukraine shocked most observers.

2. Whether Russia’s military operations can keep the Donbas territories is beyond Putin’s control

Few analysts seem to recognize the Ukrainian government’s important role and latent power in shaping events. The leverage that the Ukrainian government has in abeyance could cause Putin to opt for withdrawal rather than risk a potentially disastrous military escalation.

[Why the U.S. does nothing in Ukraine]

Consider the fact that Russian forces swiftly occupied some regions of eastern Ukraine but did not emerge victorious in others. For example, Russian forces were able to easily take over parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, but failed to triumph in other cities with large ethnic Russian populations, like Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv. Russia’s early successes were attributable in part to poor coordination between the Ukrainian government and regional oligarchs who profoundly impact military operations on the ground.

Lucan Way, a University of Toronto professor and expert in post-Soviet regimes, agreed with this theory, in a recent interview with me. He believes that Russia’s initial successes were partially attributable to miscommunications between the Ukrainian government and eastern Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.

Way argued that if the Ukrainian government had been more willing to make a deal with Akhmetov, Russian aggression could have been thwarted earlier. If the Ukrainian government can learn from this experience and coordinate more closely with regional oligarchs, it will be able to confront Russian aggression from a position of greater strength.

There are other ways the Ukrainian government can still influence events. For instance, the Ukrainian state could strengthen itself economically through tighter relationships with the European Union and China. Should this work, Ukraine’s decreased dependency on trade with Russia, and increased capital for arms production, would greatly increase its military power relative to pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas.

Ukraine could also deter further Russian aggression by increasing the costs of Russian military involvement. If the Ukrainian government can coordinate with its oligarchs to escalate counterterrorism efforts against pro-Russian separatist militias, and procure lethal arms or technical support from its Western allies, more Russian soldiers would perish in Donbas. That would make a tactical withdrawal a more cost-effective, politically justifiable strategy for Putin.

3. Putin wants a frozen conflict. It costs less and threatens more.  

Since the Soviet Union dissolved, Russia has had one especially common pattern in its military interventions in the Commonwealth of Independent States, the region directly around its southern seas: frozen conflict, which would work well in Ukraine.

[Russians see Ukraine as an illegitimate state]

To see how this approach works, let’s look at what happened in Transnistria, a small strip of land on the Moldova-Ukraine border.

In accordance with the cease-fire agreement ending the 1992 war between Moldova and Transnistria, Russia stationed 2,000 troops in Transnistria. These troops prevented the autonomous region from rejoining either Moldova or Russia. Moldova denounced this Russian military presence as a violation of international law because it infringes on Moldovan sovereignty. Russia has resisted international pressure to withdraw its military force because its presence deters Moldova from applying for NATO membership.

Frozen conflicts are typically created as a result of settlements in countries beset with deep-seated ethnic tensions. Before 2014, Ukraine’s ethnic tensions were not high enough to threaten civil war. In fact, substantial evidence suggests that Russia manufactured ethnic tensions before its military intervention to prepare for a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Oxford University Professor Roy Allison in his 2013 book “Russia, the West and Military Intervention” describes how the Kremlin alarmed the Ukrainian government by distributing Russian passports to Crimean citizens during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. Then Putin was able to use the pretext of protecting Russian civilians to justify moving Russian forces into Crimea and Donbas. The passports prove that Russia had long planned to set up a frozen conflict here as well.

While the methods used in Russia’s interventions in Moldova and Ukraine differ, Russia will likely emulate the Moldovan frozen conflict strategy in Ukraine, due to deep ethnic tensions in both states and Russia’s common objective of keeping both countries in its sphere of influence. Russia will therefore keep troops on the Ukraine border should it tactically withdraw from the Donbas territories. The implicit threat would be the same as in Moldova: enter NATO and risk war. The threat would be backed by Russia’s permanent hold on the Black Sea naval base of Sevastopol.

[Putin wants to topple Ukraine’s government, not engineer a ‘frozen conflict’]

Meanwhile, if Russia were to end its occupation and create a frozen conflict, it could save some rubles. Consider that it will eventually need to subsidize pensions in eastern Ukraine, which by late 2014 were $2.6 billion in arrears. Indirect imperialism would be much more cost-effective.

Some analysts of Russian conduct are succumbing to new Cold War hysteria when they assume that Donbas is being incorporated into a new Russian empire. That view is contradicted by realities on the ground and by Russia’s past conduct after military interventions. Russia’s real objective is to influence Ukraine’s foreign policy. It can do that best without further territorial expansion.

Samuel Ramani is an MPhil Student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy.