In the days since Vladimir Putin denied Ukraine’s sovereignty in a blistering speech, the prospect of a diplomatic solution to the crisis has all but collapsed.
On Tuesday, Putin said that Russia would recognize the boundaries of two Russia-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine — and not just the territory they currently control, but rather their full territorial claim. That includes significant territory held by the Ukrainian government and defended by its army.
The two statelets then set the stage for Putin to act: On Wednesday evening, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that the two regions had asked Russia to provide military help in order to “repel” the “aggression” of Ukraine.
The moves come as Russia and its proxies make increasingly hysterical demands of Ukraine and the West, in what many see as a move away from the managed tension of recent weeks and towards a choreographed war footing.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave an address on Wednesday night, with a Russian-language portion directed at the Russian people, saying that he called Putin but that the Kremlin leader did not pick up.
“If soldiers attack us, if they try to take our country, our freedom, our lives, the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves,” Zelensky said. “Not attack, but defend ourselves.”
“Attacking us, you will see not our backs but our faces,” he added.
Denis Pushilin, a leader of one of the Russia-backed republics, demanded on Wednesday that Ukraine abandon the full territory of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, saying that the country’s army should retreat with its weapons. Oleg Tsaryov, a former Ukrainian MP who fled to Russia in 2014 and who now directs a resort in Yalta, tweeted on Wednesday that “peace in Ukraine is not possible without denazification” — Russia regularly describes Ukrainian nationalists as Nazis — and that war is “becoming inevitable.” Western intelligence reports named Tsaryov as a potential Kremlin puppet leader to be installed in Ukraine.
“Ukraine will never agree to Russia’s demands, just like the U.S. cannot agree to Russian ultimatums,” Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kyiv-based political analyst, told TPM. Putin had demanded on Tuesday that Ukraine give up its NATO ambitions, demilitarize, and accept Crimea as Russian.
“It’s becoming a question not of diplomatic compromise but rather of rational behavior, which really only concerns Putin,” Fesenko added.
The current situation — with Russia having recognized the two republics while supporting a land claim on Ukrainian territory — has left many expecting a further assault on Ukraine. Others have suggested that the Kremlin may take the recognition of its proxy republics as a victory, and move on.
In an interview with TPM last week, Ukrainian negotiator Sergiy Garmash doubted that recognizing the two statelets would spell an end to the tensions, saying that it would invalidate peace agreements that had bound Kyiv since 2015, and that many European diplomats engaged on the crisis had hoped to revive.
The Minsk peace agreement had given the two breakaway regions — and, as a result, Russia — greater say in Ukraine’s internal affairs. Russia’s recognition of the two regions as “independent” statelets had upset that arrangement.
“They would lose a measure of control and Ukraine would gain,” Garmash said, describing Russia’s perspective. “Then, we’ll have to expect that the military conflict will dramatically intensify.”
On Monday, Putin gave a nearly hour-long speech blaming Ukraine’s statehood on a mistake by Vladimir Lenin.
Ukraine has spent the days since that speech preparing for an attack.
The country’s parliament passed a 30-day national state of emergency on Wednesday evening, which bans demonstrations and, among other things, allows the government to impose local curfews.
Zelensky said on Wednesday that Ukraine needs “security guarantees” from both NATO and Russia.
“We all clearly understand that Ukraine today is in no security alliance,” Zelensky said at a meeting in Kyiv with Polish and Lithuanian leaders. “We are defending ourselves with the support of our partners.”
“It is very important that there be support from other partners,” he added, while noting that Putin does not return his messages.
Others, like Fesenko and Kremlin-linked Russian political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, have suggested that the situation is analogous to that of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia similarly orchestrated independence movements in — and then recognized — those two proxy statelets as part of an effort to prevent Georgia from embarking on a path toward NATO membership after the country’s 2008 war with Russia.
Natia Seskuria, an associate fellow at the British think tank Royal United Services Institute, told TPM in a phone call from Tbilisi that the creation of the Russian-backed republics helped block Georgia from moving further towards the West.
“The entire 2008 war was about reversing Georgia’s foreign policy agenda, and it was the result of the political orientation of Georgia that had been developing since 2003,” Seskuria said.
She added that the war and creation of the republics managed to freeze the country’s aspirations politically, while driving public opinion further in favor of the West.
“Now, we see that years after the war, Georgia’s population is in favor of joining NATO, and the population has developed a consolidated stance in favor of a pro-Western foreign policy agenda,” she said. “A similar tendency has been developing in Ukraine as well. Ukraine’s support for joining these institutions is much higher than it used to be in 2014, when the Crimean annexation happened.”
The question of whether Ukraine will join NATO — when that prospect has not seriously been on the table — has been central to Putin’s demands in the crisis.
Though the U.S. and NATO refuse publicly to say that Ukraine is not under consideration for membership, the prospect is not seriously on the table.
Zelensky and other senior Ukrainian officials have asked for clarity from the West in recent weeks on whether or not they will join NATO.
“An open door is good, but we need open answers, not questions that have not been closed for years,” Zelensky said last week. “Isn’t the right to the truth included in our enhanced opportunities?”
The U.S. and NATO have so far stuck to the alliance’s open-door principle, refusing to say that Ukraine will not be considered for entry.
As of this writing, Ukrainian officials are warning that a chemical plant in Crimea could be used as a false flag attack to provide the pretext for an invasion. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, cited the “possibility of interception for offenders” in a notice closing the airport as Russian troops continued to mass on the nearby border.
Fesenko, the Kyiv-based political analyst, told TPM that he had begun stocking up on batteries and other essentials in case of power outages.
“Nobody can say what will happen next,” he said.