Reuters news agency reported on 28 May that Russia is once again building up huge numbers of troops, tanks and other heavy weapons close to Ukraine’s border, even though the two “people’s republics” in Donbas are already armed to the teeth, exceeding by far the capabilities of Ukraine’s armed forces. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied, of course, any preparations to send these deadly instruments to Donbas for a new offensive against Ukraine. The very same day, President Putin announced that casualties of Russian armed forces involved in “special operations” conducted in peacetime were a state secret. Against this background, does it make sense even to ask the question that I formulated in the title of this blog?
I believe that such a course of events, involving Putin “coming out of the closet”, is not only theoretically possible, but may even become a practical necessity for the Kremlin. The Minsk peace accords are clearly not working, and Putin may decide that recognising the “independence” of those “people’s republics” would serve Russia’s interests better by completely destabilising Ukraine. Two more ridiculous entities would appear on world maps printed in Russia, and they would open “embassies” in Moscow. Why should the fate of Russian-occupied Donbas be ultimately any different from Transnistria, Abkhazia or South Ossetia? Rational arguments do not permit such developments, but President Putin has occasionally been quite unpredictable. Russia has to supply occupied Donbas not only with arms and munitions, but also with military commanders and fighters, money, food and other necessities. On the other hand, Moscow has so far received nothing in return, except for Western sanctions and zinc coffins (“special cargoes”).
Russia’s persistent denial of having provoked and actively maintained the conflict in Donbas – which is in fact a war of aggression – is not only cynical (dead Russian soldiers have to be incinerated in mobile crematories rather than be buried in a civilised manner), but also comical (Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov provoked a general burst of laughter at the latest Wehrkunde security conference in Munich). This may come to an end when Putin simply announces that Ukraine “doesn’t really want” the Donbas and that the “people’s republics” will hold “referendums” on secession (which, in fact, they already did, last year). The Kremlin would certainly only admit Russia’s active involvement, including the presence of Russian military, from that point in time.
What would change due to such a course of events? Not very much would happen in Russia, because the Russian people are used to official lies. Perhaps a few good jokes would appear; Russians are very good at that. However, was Boris Nemtsov therefore killed in vain for trying to disclose Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine?
On the other hand, the repercussions in the international arena would be drastic. In a way, the present situation is – paradoxically – favourable also for the West, because no one yet needs to officially accept that there is a military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and that Russia occupies half of Donbas, threatening to enlarge that area considerably. In addition, no one in the West has yet to act accordingly – i.e. by toughening sanctions to the extreme and being prepared for a new full-scale cold war. The Minsk peace process would immediately become obsolete, because it does not reflect Russia’s real role in eastern Ukraine. The Crimea issue would be inseparably linked to that of Donbas. The basic principles and rules that made up the European security architecture would be dead not only de facto, but also de jure.
Nevertheless, life would go on, even in such dramatic circumstances. There would be no more questions about whether or not to deploy significant allied forces to the Baltic States and Poland to protect them – and the rest of the Alliance – from Russian aggression. Last but not least, things would be much clearer than they are now.