Moscow’s Talk Of Recognizing Separatist-Claimed Parts Of Ukraine Seen As A ‘Pressure Tactic’

In a dramatic spectacle on February 15, the Russian State Duma adopted a nonbinding resolution urging President Vladimir Putin to recognize the separatist-claimed parts of eastern Ukraine as independent states. Coming amid international alarm bells about the major concentration of Russian military forces along the border with Ukraine and in the occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea, the specter of recognition threw another log onto the fire of tensions in the area.

Duma deputies called for the recognition of the Russia-backed separatist groups that control parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in Ukraine’s Donbas region and call themselves the DNR and LNR, asserting that this would help protect the hundreds of thousands of Russian passport holders living there.

The speeches reminded many observers of Russia’s recognition of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following a five-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008.

However, at a joint press conference in Moscow with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz the same day, Putin hinted that he would not heed their call right away, at least.

Scholz stressed Moscow’s demand that Western powers “exert appropriate influence over the current Kyiv authorities” to implement the 2014-15 Minsk accords aimed at resolving the conflict, which has left more than 13,200 people dead since it began in April 2014.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, reaffirmed the same day Moscow’s commitment to the Minsk process and called for “the implementation of the entire Minsk action plan as soon as possible.”

Tool Of Influence

“In short, Putin still has hope that he can force Kyiv to fulfill the Minsk accords,” said Serhiy Harmash, a Ukrainian negotiator with the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine. “So, I think it is unlikely he would throw them away by signing a decree on recognition…since doing so would mean the end of the Minsk accords and the Minsk process.

“They simply would not exist anymore, and Moscow would lose not only a tool with which to influence Ukraine, but a tool with which it hopes to run Ukraine after managing — as the Kremlin hopes — to insert the Donbas into our political organism with its so-called ‘special status,’” Harmash said.

In Moscow’s interpretation, the Minsk accords require Kyiv to enter into direct negotiations with the Russia-backed separatists, a step Kyiv has refused to take, and the two countries also disagree on the sequencing of moves set out in the accords. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told RFE/RL last month that Russia has reneged on its commitments “to a much greater extent than Ukraine has.”

The Duma resolution was part of an array of pressure tactics including the military buildup, ultimatums presented to NATO and Washington, attempts to destabilize Ukraine, cyberattacks, and more, Harmash said.

“All this is aimed at forcing Kyiv to implement the Minsk accords in the way that the Russian Federation sees them,” he said.

Clearly Choreographed

Konstantin Skorkin, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said Russian recognition of the separatist-claimed regions seems unlikely in the short term, but that the Duma resolution — clearly choreographed by the Kremlin, which has powerful control over the lower parliament house, where the loyal United Russia has a two-thirds majority — remains “a pressure tactic that can be activated at any moment.”

“The most likely scenario now will be further pushing of the Minsk accords, since they are written in a way that is to Moscow’s advantage,” he added. “[The Kremlin] doesn’t intend to renounce such a diplomatic tool that has been internationally recognized, and its main policy will be aimed at forcing Kyiv to implement them.”

Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin agreed that recognition of the separatist-claimed regions would “put an end” to the Minsk process, which would be a loss for the Kremlin. On the other hand, he said, talking about recognition — and even about possible annexation of the regions by Russia — could serve Putin’s purposes by increasing the pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and potentially splintering his electorate.

“That is,” he concluded, “you can trade on this topic for a pretty long time.”

Harmash told Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, that, as long as Putin has hope that he can maneuver the Minsk process in a direction of his choosing, recognition will remain an abstract discussion.

“But if Putin concludes there really are no levers of pressure — neither military, nor through Western partners, nor through [Ukrainian] domestic politics — that nothing is working, then he could decide it is impossible to force Kyiv to implement the Minsk accords as he interprets them and so he might renounce them,” Harmash said.

“I think it would be a last act of desperation if he really signed a decree on recognizing the LNR and the DNR,” he added. “I don’t think he’ll do it.”

Harmash described the Duma’s resolution as a “political tactic” designed to “show the West and Ukraine what the consequences might be of not carrying out Minsk.”

“For now, it will simply lie on Putin’s desk as a pressure tactic,” he concluded.

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