Even if Vladimir Putin decides not to invade Ukraine, as he has signaled the past few days, that might not mean he’ll end the crisis peacefully or diplomatically. The Russian president has another card he might play—a brusque, brutal move that would end the standoff to his advantage.
On Tuesday, the Duma, Russia’s parliament, passed a resolution authorizing Putin to recognize the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic—the two provinces of Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region, which are occupied by armed pro-Russia separatists—as independent states. He could next move thousands of troops, tanks, and other weapons into the territories, at the “request” of their leaders, to defend their people from Ukrainian assault.
In this way, Putin could keep up the military pressure on the Ukrainian government without facing the many risks of a full-scale invasion. He could also further obstruct Ukraine’s already-forlorn prospects for membership in NATO—Putin’s main goal—since, in order to join the U.S.-led military alliance, a state must have stable borders, among other qualities.
The resolution doesn’t force Putin to recognize the breakaway republics, and, all things equal, he would rather not. In recent months, he has blocked ultranationalist factions in the Duma from bringing up a similar resolution, because he preferred maintaining Donbas as a part of Ukraine, so that the separatists could continue destabilizing the national government in Kyiv. More than 14,000 people have been killed in the war that has raged between the separatists and the Ukraine army since 2014. Also, the Minsk Agreements, a cease-fire accord signed in 2015, would give the separatist provinces a political voice and—under Moscow’s interpretation—give them veto power over foreign policy matters, including decisions on whether to enter NATO. (Kyiv disagrees with this reading of the accords, which is one reason they have never been put in effect.)
Still, if Putin can’t sway Ukrainian policy from within, he might settle for breaking off a chunk of the country and thus expand Russia’s sphere of influence a little farther westward, with the implied possibility of coming back later for more.
In some ways, Kyiv’s leaders might heave a sigh of relief at this development, as Donbas has been a troubling region for some time. But there are two reasons it would be a cause of anguish, even beyond its complications for NATO membership. First, Donbas—the most populous of Ukraine’s 26 regions, with 4.3 million people—provides much of Ukraine’s heavy industry and energy, mainly in the form of coal. Second, a break-off would mean another blow to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, in some ways more traumatic than Russia’s outright annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Back in 1994, the United States, Russia, and Britain signed the Budapest Memorandum, assuring Ukraine of its territorial integrity in exchange for giving up the several thousand nuclear weapons that it inherited after the breakup of the Soviet Union. (Ukraine had no way to launch the long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, but its officers did control the many shorter-range “tactical” nukes.) Losing Donbas, and noting that its Western allies could do nothing to stop the rip from happening, would compound Ukrainians’ sense of isolation in the world.
In January, President Joe Biden committed an act of impolitic truth when he said that NATO would impose “severe costs” on Russia if Putin unleashed a “major invasion” against Ukraine—but that there were “differences within NATO about what countries are willing to do” if Putin mounted a “minor incursion.” Biden officials quickly dialed this back, as the president himself did eventually, saying that Russia would suffer severe costs even if Putin crossed into Ukraine a little bit. The point here is that chopping off Donbas and leaving the rest of Ukraine untouched, for now, is one scenario that some might see as a “minor incursion,” not warranting the full raft of economic sanctions that, besides hurting Russia, would also pose political risks and economic hardships on several European countries, above all Germany.
In other words, Putin might think he could get away with this.
Meanwhile, the crisis is still winding in several directions. Putin talks of pursuing a diplomatic way out and pulling troops back from the Ukrainian border to their home bases elsewhere in Russia—but U.S. and NATO officials still report seeing no signs of any such retreat. In fact, satellite images show more military trains arriving on the border since Putin’s announcements that some forces were withdrawing.
Someone, probably a Russian entity, launched a distributed denial-of-service attack on the websites of Ukraine’s army, ministry of defense, and several large banks—not a big deal, but a possible signal of more, and much more damaging, cyberstrikes to come.
Which phase of a classic war scare are we in—the phony peace, the mobilization in plain view, or the piling-on of chips for negotiations to come? Any one of these possibilities could be prelude to war, peace, or something in between. If Putin goes for a partial win by recognizing the separatists in Donbas, it will put off a war, but it won’t bring a long-lasting settlement of mutual security.