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Has Russia Initiated the Split of Ukraine?

¿Ha iniciado Rusia la partición de Ucrania?, EFE

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Everything seems to indicate that the referendums in the Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia territories are the beginning of Russia’s attempt to partition Ukraine. In the first two there are self-declared “autonomous republics” since 2014 and not recognized by anyone else. In Zaporizhzhia, there is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and Kherson is an important city, and port on the Black Sea. And just as the annexation of Crimea has not been recognized, it does not seem that it will not happen in this annexation either. 

It would be the third stage of the invasion that began in February. The first was the failure of the offensive on Kyiv and the change of Zelensky’s government, which on the contrary, was strengthened. The second is reflected in the current military stalemate in the Donbas, where after a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive, there seems to be a war of positions.

In this third stage, the division of Ukraine seems to be sought. The call for these referendums, whose outcome favorable to Russia is known in advance, has coincided with several other decisions, with which it is intimately linked. In the first place, Putin has resorted, after several months, to a national chain to announce a mobilization of reservists, three hundred thousand to start with, a number that could increase as necessary.

This measure recognizing a war situation —although still without mentioning it— and insisting on the narrative of a “special operation” has been met with protests in the streets, while nothing seems to indicate that Putin’s power has been significantly shaken. As it does not seem to be something that will change the military situation on the ground, it has to be linked to the project of division of Ukraine, as it seems to be a necessary quantity to be installed in the new borders, which in this scenario would be with NATO, in Moscow’s official discourse.

It also overlaps with the analysis of former Admiral, James G. Stavridis, of the United States, in the sense that the arrival of winter could find a situation that reminded him of what happened last century in Korea.

Secondly, the Russian Parliament toughened the punishment for those who criticize the invasion, as well as new offenses that include servicemen abandoning their unit, surrendering to the enemy, and refusing to obey a superior, which reflects what was experienced in the recent Ukrainian counteroffensive, and that by continuing with the fiction that war is not war, they were not receiving sufficient punishment.

Thirdly, the international actions where two are particularly noteworthy, on the one hand, the official Chinese announcement that an early solution to the war issue was desired, which was undoubtedly discussed between Putin and Xi Jinping at their recent meeting at a Security Summit in Uzbekistan, and which plays in favor of the Chinese leader, for the next Communist Party Congress, which could transform him into a dictator for life. And, on the other, the world was informed by Erdogan of Turkey, that Putin wanted to end the war, acting again as Russian’s spokesman.

Fourthly, a forthcoming prisoner exchange was made public that satisfies both sides, since on the Ukrainian side the Russians would return leaders of the Azov Regiment who resisted for several weeks the siege on an emblematic steel plant; and on the Russian side, the pro-Russian politician, Viktor Medvechuck, former vice-president of the Rada (Ukrainian Parliament), a person very close to the Kremlin.

Thus, everything seems to be part of a new stage of the war: the referendums; the partial mobilization, but close to a war of reservists; the changes to the legislation; the Turkish and Chinese announcements, evidently with the Russian approval, everything seems to fit. It also fits what is not said, that Russia does not seem to be in a position to obtain any other type of territorial control than the one it already had on the ground even before starting the invasion.

Now it seeks to create a de facto situation, contenting itself with the disengagement of Ukrainian territory, the consolidation of a land corridor from Russia to Crimea, the domination of the Sea of Azov, but along with recognizing that, for now, it is not in a position to conquer more Ukrainian territory. It renounces to transform that country into a Mediterranean one, since it maintains Odessa and its exit to the Black Sea.

Will Putin succeed?

It depends on several things.

First, whether or not the scenario Moscow seems to be thinking of occurs, which is the arrival of winter, which makes it difficult to think of a change in the war situation, different from the current stagnation.

Second, whether or not the scenario in the West is modified, considering the political changes that could take place in Europe and also in the United States, after the next elections in November. To this, we must add the very difficult energy situation in Europe, in addition to an economic crisis and the lack of immediate alternatives to Russian gas, and whose first reaction can be seen in the economic adjustment announced in the United Kingdom. Let us remember that these are democracies where the voice of the ballot box precedes the political and economic decisions of governments.

Third, whether or not Russia takes the opportunity to implement a series of laws and decrees that coincide with the ideology which ensures that the Kremlin represents a Russian area that goes far beyond the current republic with that name, and that would encompass any place where significant numbers of Russian speakers are present. This would be the case today, at least for Ossetia, which has been detached from Georgia since the 2008 war; Transnistria; Moldova; and the oblast or administrative territory of Kaliningrad, neighboring the Baltic countries.

Will Russia take advantage of this to transform a de facto situation into something similar to what it is trying to do today with Ukraine? We do not know. What is known is that the desire to confront Russia has been mostly limited to Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, what is known as the West, since the truth is that in Latin America, Africa or Asia it does not seem to matter much, and with the doubts if a harsh winter would affect the will of part of Europe.

Fourth, there is a big issue behind all this, where after the end of the Soviet Union, the idea of a Russian civilization, from the Czars until today, is still in force. Perhaps similar elements occurred in the border wars between the new countries that emerged from the Spanish empire in the 19th century, also in the Middle East, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, with territorial issues unresolved to this day.

Does this mean that the judgment of history is less severe on the Russians? No, by no means, violating international law with the invasion is a crime and should be punished as such. Not unlike what Saddam did when he invaded Kuwait, no matter how much he considered it “the 27th province” of Iraq.

It does mean two things in the three cases mentioned: In many situations the new countries followed the geographical and legal boundaries of the empires that crumbled, with the respective inheritance. And, secondly, they are processes that could have had different results, for example, in the case of Ukraine, which renounced its nuclear weapons, with an unfulfilled promise by the USA and the United Kingdom to guarantee the territorial integrity of the new country.

What about the Russian threat to use tactical nuclear weapons today? I think it is an unacceptable threat that must be rejected, but it is not new, as it has been used since the time of the Soviet Union, only that we had just forgotten it. It was strongly present in the Soviet doctrine, especially after the failures in Afghanistan and Reagan’s triumph in the USA.

Personally, I trust in the predominance of common sense, that its objective is only to undermine the European will, and that, in Russia, as in the USA, it does not depend only on the decision of one person, but on the participation of several, as exemplified in the coup d’état against Gorbachev, where the military closed the way to the coup plotters.

The current situation is demonstrating several things: the strengthening of China, as was anticipated by the head of Ml5, the Intelligence of the United Kingdom. Also that militarily Russia was weaker than it was supposed to be, although the sanctions have not achieved the objective of dissuading or stopping it, and that Europe still does not have a military presence or at least a security presence similar to its economic strength, now even more notorious, without the United Kingdom.

Hopefully Russia will not succeed and fail in this initiative as well, but clearly a new will is needed to impose peace in the world, as the line for the sum is that against China everything would be much more difficult.

This article is part of an agreement between El American and the Interamerican Institute for Democracy.

Ricardo Israel es un reconocido escritor, bogado, analista político y académico chileno. Fue candidato presidencial de su país en 2013. Actualmente hace parte del directorio del Interamerican Institute for Democracy // Ricardo Israel is a renowned Chilean writer, lawyer, political analyst and academic. He was a presidential candidate in his country in 2013. He is currently a member of the board of directors of the Interamerican Institute for Democracy

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