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When Status Quo Means Victory

Donbass and Crimea are political hot potatoes
By The News · 30 of June 2017 09:22:11
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP), photo: AP/Alexei Druzhinin

Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin first sent his troops into Crimea to annex that region for Russia in 2014, the former Soviet republic of Ukraine has been has been on the defensive trying to preserve its national territory.

And despite a series of formal reprimands from the United Nations and sanctions imposed by the West intended to force Moscow to retreat from Crimea and pull its troops out of eastern Ukraine, Moscow hasn’t flinched nor shown even the slightest hint that it will relinquish its claim to the disputed peninsula.

The on-again-off-again fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-armed separatists in the eastern Ukraine region of Donbass has, according to the nonpartisan U.S. think tank Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), already led to the deaths of nearly 10,000 people and forced 1.1 million Ukrainians into displacement status as migrants or refugees.

Well-intended cease-fire agreements in eastern Ukraine have repeatedly been violated, and the dogged conflict has evolved into a political stalemate that shows no signs of being resolved anytime in the foreseeable future.

But Olexiy Haran, professor of comparative politics at Ukraine’s Kyiv-Mohyla University and academic director of the Kiev’s Democratic Initiatives Foundation, sees the no-man’s-land standoff in Donbass as a positive sign that Western sanctions are working.

“Yes, it’s true that Putin has not withdrawn his troops from eastern Ukraine nor pulled out of Crimea, but he has not advanced any further into Donbass either, and I think that is a consequence of the sanctions,” Haran, who came to Mexico recently on a political tour, told The News in a one-on-one interview.

“Putin wanted to grab control of all of Donbass, but, in fact, he only controls a small part of the region, about 2 percent of the territory.”

Haran, who has witnessed Ukraine go through three revolutions (its 1991 succession from the Soviet Union, the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Euromaidan), said that the Western sanctions and international pressure essentially put a brake on Putin’s ambitions to devour the coal-rich former Ukrainian industrial heartland.

Indeed, the CFR estimates that Western sanctions alone have cost Moscow more than $1.2 billion, and that does not include the price of keeping the rebel forces armed.

“What we have now in Donbass is a status quo, and that is something good because it allows us to move forward on other issues rather than concentrating all our efforts on fighting Russian-armed troops in that region,” Haran said.

The Russian invasion of the region and annexation of Crimea have also helped to solidify Ukrainians politically and to instill a sense of national identity that was not very present in the country prior to the incursion.

But with status quo also comes a sense of resolution, inevitability, a slow-dawning acceptance of territorial loss as a fait accompli.

Asked if he thought there was much chance Russia relinquishing its stranglehold and for Ukraine to recover Crimea and the embattled sections of Donbass, Haran was ambiguous.
“At this point, it’s hard to predict,” he said.

“As Ukrainians, we don’t want to accept the reality of surrendering these regions. We can’t accept that Russia may never relinquish Crimea and give it back to Ukraine.”

However, Haran said, that, as it stands now, it is highly unlikely that Russia will willingly cede either region.

And, in the long run, regaining Donbass might not necessarily be in Kiev’s interest.

Even before Russia began its territorial advance into Donbass, it was an ungovernable region torn by incessant high-ranking corruption, political tug-of-wars and criminal gang wars.

As for Crimea, the peninsula has always been populated by pro-Russian sympathizers, which means that it was an unruly hotbed of dissent against Kiev.

Furthermore, both Donbass and Crimea are economic black holes, unable to sustain themselves financially and heavily dependent on outside funds.

In the improbable scenario that Ukraine were to manage to implement the 2015 Minsk Accord, it would be saddled with the high cost of having to maintain the economically depressed regions.

Donbass and Crimea are in fact political hot potatoes that neither side really wants but can’t seem to let go of.

If Putin pulls back, he essentially admits defeat and loses political face in front of his constituents.

If Kiev gives in and surrenders the regions, it also would be admitting defeat and accepting Russian military superiority, not to mention losing support among gung-ho jingoists who consider territorial sovereignty a crucial element of their national identity.

And so, both sides have opted to maintain the status quo, at least for now.

Still, in the world of politics, nothing is eternal.

“We need to keep in mind that the global geopolitical landscape is constantly changing,” Haran said.

“I think the situation in Donbass and even Crimea could change if there were a regime change in Russia. For now, Putin is very popular in Russia, but the Soviet Union was also popular, and, in the end, it collapsed. Yes, as long as Putin in in power, he’s not going to give back Crimea. But, sooner or later, something has to give. It’s just a matter of time.”

And until then, Ukraine seems content to accept the status quo.

Thérèse Margolis can be reached at therese.margolis@gmail.com.