Why Russia recognised separatist-held regions in east Ukraine

Saint Petersburg, Russia – The tense standoff between Russia, and Ukraine and Western governments sharply escalated on Monday night as Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised two breakaway regions held in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian rebels as independent states and ordered troops into the territories.

“I deem it necessary to make a decision that should have been made a long time ago – to immediately recognise the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR),” he said in a televised speech.

The move was condemned by Western countries at a marathon meeting of the United Nations Security Council, during which many speakers raised an alarm of a Russian invasion into Ukraine. The United States also responded by barring citizens from doing business with the rebel territories and warned of further sanctions, as did other allies.

Putin’s announcement came as more than 100,000 Russian soldiers remain stationed on the Ukrainian border, with tens of thousands more taking part in training exercises in neighbouring Belarus, amid accusations of attacks by the Ukrainian military on rebel positions, sparking fears that Russia will intervene on the rebels’ behalf and launch a campaign beyond areas already ruled by the separatists.

Ukraine has denied it is behind the attacks.

Although a law officially recognising the DPR and LPR has yet to pass the Federation Council, Russia’s upper chambers of parliament, the matter could be settled as early as Tuesday.

Putin also instructed the Russian army to act as peacekeepers to the newly recognised “republics”, where he had earlier described the situation as a “genocide”.

Further complicating things, the two self-proclaimed “people’s republics” also claim the rest of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as their territory, beyond where they already control. Whether this means Russian forces will attempt to push further into Ukraine, past the pre-existing front lines, is not yet known.

“Essentially, this represents a much less apocalyptic option than the kind of full-scale invasion the West has been predicting,” security expert Mark Galeotti told Al Jazeera.

“However, the key question would be whether this means recognising the pseudo-states, which would be politically aggressive but not necessarily lead to wider war, or whether Moscow would assert that they have a right to all of the Donbas region, including government-held areas,” Galeotti added.

“That would mean war.”

Up until now, Russia has denied it is a party to the east Ukrainian conflict, despite serving Russian soldiers having fought on the separatists’ side. Openly deploying the army on their behalf would breach the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which includes clauses on the “inviolability of frontiers” in Europe, and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Russia agreed to uphold the sovereignty of Ukraine.

The DPR and LNR now find themselves, to a certain extent, in a similar position to the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. During the civil wars which rumbled across Georgia in the early 1990s, the two breakaway areas on the border with Russia declared their independence.

In 2008, the Georgian army tried taking them back by force, launching an assault on the rebel stronghold of Tskhinvali, only to find the Russian military pushing them all the way back to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.

Russia said its forces were acting as peacekeepers against Georgian aggression, and recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s statehood shortly after the war.

Aside from Russia, only a small handful of countries – mainly Russian allies such as Syria and Venezuela, as well as the tiny Pacific island of Nauru – recognised their independence, while Georgia denounces what it calls an illegal Russian occupation of its territory, where Russian forces are still stationed.

In 2009, a European Union report accused Georgia of opening hostilities, and the Georgian leadership had made reclaiming its territory a priority. Nevertheless, many see parallels between Moscow’s support for rebels in Georgia, and Ukraine.

“This is all happening according to the playbook and the scenario we saw here,” Georgian security expert Mariam Tokhadze told Al Jazeera from Tbilisi. “It’s eerily familiar – the bombing of a sleeping town, the talk of genocide, we have heard this all already. The idea is to destabilise a country to the point that it is embroiled in a permanent internal chaos.”

This view – that the aim is chaos, rather than conquest – is shared by Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko.

Ishchenko told Al Jazeera the recognition of the separatists is born of the Kremlin’s frustration with the Ukrainian leadership and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s failure to carry out the terms of the Minsk agreements, which ended the heaviest fighting in eastern Ukraine in 2015 and would have entailed compromise with the rebels; as well as the shutdowns of Russian-language TV stations and the arrest of Viktor Medvedchuk, an oligarch and politician widely seen as friendly to Russia.

“Putin hoped for the Minsk accords’ implementation,” Ishchenko said. “He lost his hope starting with Zelenskyy’s repression against Medvedchuk a year ago, and ending with the dissatisfying reactions of the West and Ukraine to Russian coercive diplomacy recently. It’s a part of the strategy of gradual destabilisation of Ukraine, a much smarter strategy for Putin than the all-out ‘imminent invasion’.”

According to Ishchenko, while Russia says it is ready to return to the Minsk accords’ framework, Ukraine “is shortsightedly relieved to proclaim it’s dead”.

“Russia will continue to raise the stakes in its strategy of coercive diplomacy in order to destabilise Ukraine and force it to a more enforceable ‘Minsk-3’ or gradually dismantling the Ukrainian state or revising its borders,” Ishchenko said.

Aside from Russia, the DPR and LNR have also been recognised by Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while on Tuesday the Syrian government said it supported Putin’s move to recognise them and would cooperate with them.

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