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Russia-Ukraine Crisis: Has Putin Gone Too Far With the Donetsk-Luhansk Move?

With the Donetsk and Luhansk decisions and the despatch of troops, Putin’s credibility will inevitably take a hit.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to recognise the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, which are internationally considered as parts of Ukraine, has taken the Russia-NATO crisis steeply higher. The situation has been further exacerbated by Putin’s announcement that Russian forces will enter the two ‘republics’ for peacekeeping purposes.

No country in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has supported the Russian move. This became abundantly clear at its emergency meeting a few hours ago. The UN Secretary-General has considered the Russian step as “a violation of territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine” and “inconsistent with the principles of the UN Charter”. This is as strong a criticism of a permanent member of the UNSC by the Secretary-General as can be.

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Bad News For All Countries

The US has imposed sanctions against the two entities, and, along with Britain, it is likely to impose sanctions against Russia. It is also probable that European Union (EU) members will also go on the sanctions path, though perhaps not as purposefully as the US and Britain.

The world markets have, not surprisingly, reacted nervously at the crisis becoming more severe. The danger of the global economy already battered by COVID-19 being thrown into turmoil is now becoming real. Certainly, this is bad news for all countries, particularly the poor and vulnerable.

In the light of all these factors, the question is, has Putin overplayed his hand? It was bad enough that he was keeping the world on tenterhooks. While that was harming the global economy and leading to a rise in energy prices, damaging the interests of almost all countries, some thought that Russian security interests had to be addressed.

But precipitate action to violate the territorial integrity of a state, even one facing separatism, is on a different footing altogether. Almost all countries would find it impossible to accept – leave alone support – it even if they do not comment on the action.

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Putin's Credibility Will Take a Hit

With the Donetsk and Luhansk decisions and the despatch of Russian troops to these regions, Putin’s credibility will inevitably take a hit because he had emphasised that Russia had no intention to invade Ukraine. The Russian argument that Donetsk and Luhansk had already declared their independence and that their territory was not part of Ukraine would have few takers. This is particularly after the UNSG’s clear statement.

After the Donetsk and Luhansk decisions, Putin addressed the Russian people. The speech showed Putin’s approach towards Ukraine itself. Putin asserted that Ukraine was “not just a neighbouring country” for Russia. “It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.” He said that historically, it was Russian land. He indirectly blamed the Bolsheviks, including Lenin, for basing the Soviet Union on republics that appeased the nationalists. He went on to say that independent Ukraine had never been able to form a stable state and was under “foreign management” and was no better than a colony. He went so far as to say that “Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood”.

A Peek Into Putin's Mind

Putin vehemently said that the foreign powers had used Ukraine against Russian interests and that Ukrainian leaders had become their puppets. He further said that NATO continued to treat Russia as an enemy. He recounted its eastward expansion since 1999 and viewed it as an attempt to encircle Russia. In this context, he spoke at length about how Russia’s security would be threatened if Ukraine became a NATO member. He said, “If Ukraine was to join NATO it would serve as a direct threat to the security of Russia.”

The speech offers a fascinating insight into Putin’s mind. He was 39-years-old and had spent sixteen years in the KGB when the Soviet Union collapsed. He experienced the humiliation of defeat in the Cold War, and the Yeltsin years only compounded Russia’s humiliation.

Putin became Russia’s President in 1999, and since then, even when he was Prime Minister between 2008-2012, he has been the country’s top leader. He has sought to restore his nation’s dignity, and the means to do so for him is to leverage Russia’s formidable military machine and the inherent patriotism of the Russian people.

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Nobody Wants the Clock To Be Turned Back

While much of what Putin said may resonate with the Russian people, the global community will not want the clock to be turned backwards. It will expect that nostalgia for greater Russia cannot be a guide for Moscow’s policies. At the same time, though sections of the global community may have sympathy for Russia’s desire for security, they would not be willing that in order to gain such a sense it should violate the territorial integrity of a neighbouring country.

The way out, therefore, is for NATO to give Russia assurances on Ukraine’s membership. This would be in keeping with the current nature of world order, which seeks to reconcile the principle of the sovereign equality of states with the security needs of the great powers.

The history of the decades since the formation of the United Nations in 1945 is full of great powers flouting sovereignty of states in the quest of their security. On its part, Russia will have to find a way to go back on its Donetsk and Luhansk decisions.

That said, both Russia and NATO, and with the Organisation, especially the US, are taking maximalist positions. These are not conducive to flexible and pragmatic diplomacy, which would be necessary to manage, if not resolve, the situation. Hence, the future is likely to be full of turmoil.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Russia   Ukraine   Vladimir Putin 

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