This is a republication of a post authored by Andrew Korybko, which was first published in OneWorld. It has been adapted with full permissions obtained from the author.
A recent analysis titled “Strategic Contours of the Duma’s Request for Putin to Recognize the Donbass Republics”, which was originally published on February 18, 2022, predicted that he might end up making such a dramatic decision in the event that Kiev initiates a third round of civil war hostilities in that region, which is exactly what transpired in the three days since it was published. The humanitarian crisis that this triggered was severe enough for Russia to swiftly resort to a tacit application of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) concept in order to ensure the security of those newly recognized republics’ people, especially the over 700,000 who received Russian citizenship upon applying for it. Furthermore, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned over the weekend that his country might begin developing nuclear weapons while speaking at the Munich Security Conference, which poses a pressing threat to Russia.
The largest context in which these fast-moving events are unfolding is the undeclared US–provoked missile crisis in Europe brought about by America’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and Open Skies Treaty (OST). These developments occurred in parallel with the continual eastward expansion of NATO, an explicitly anti-Russian military alliance that Moscow regards as an existential threat, and the deployment of “anti-missile systems” and strike weapons closer towards Russia’s borders. The cumulative effect is that Russia’s nuclear second-strike capabilities were at risk of being eroded, which would eventually place the country in a perpetual position of nuclear blackmail vis-à-vis the US. In response, Russia urgently made its security guarantee requests in an attempt to reach a diplomatic resolution to this unprecedented New Cold War crisis.
These requests were published in late December and aimed to revise the European security architecture that had hitherto been tilting against Russia’s favor in contravention of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) principles of indivisible security and not enhancing one’s security at the expense of anyone else. The US’ unsatisfactory response to these very sensitive requests revealed to Moscow that Washington wasn’t taking its national security red lines seriously. President Putin even extensively elaborated in his televised speech – to the Russian people on Monday evening – how the US succeeded in capturing control of the entire Ukrainian state apparatus in order to turn it into an anti-Russian proxy weapon of full-spectrum Hybrid Warfare against his country. He also claimed that US-led NATO already made the decision to exploit Ukraine as a national platform for “containing” Russia.
The Donbass Republics figure prominently into these grand strategic calculations since Kiev’s US-backed initiation of a third round of civil war hostilities – delayed as they inexplicably were by a few days from their initially planned starting point of 16 February – was earlier suspected by Russian intelligence to serve as the pretext for scaling up America’s deployment of strike weapons to the region. These could even eventually include hypersonic missiles and could potentially be sent to Ukraine one day too. Even worse, President Putin warned that Ukraine’s newfound flirtation with obtaining a nuclear weapon represents a very credible threat that could materialize much sooner than later in the event that it obtains foreign support for this project that would presumably come from the US-led West. Under these extremely tense security circumstances, President Putin decided to recognize the Donbass Republics.
Doing so might be considered a so-called “escalation” among some foreign observers who don’t have a proper understanding of the grand strategic dynamics at play like were earlier explained but it’s actually a clever attempt to change the local military-political calculations. This is meant to encourage the US-led West and especially the increasingly independent French to enter into a series of deals for resolving these two interconnected security crises. The most well-known of these in the West is the Ukrainian Civil War, whose eight-year-long lack of a resolution President Putin blamed solely on Kiev’s US-supported refusal to implement the UNSC-backed Minsk Accords. Although they’re practically irrelevant after his decision, it’s hoped that a replacement will be urgently devised by all relevant stakeholders, though such an outcome certainly can’t be assured if the US decides to further escalate that crisis.
The second and much more important aspect of this European crisis is the undeclared US-provoked missile crisis in Europe that President Putin said in his speech can only be resolved through a package deal that includes legally binding guarantees to halt NATO’s further eastward expansion, an agreement not to deploy strike weapons near Russia’s borders, and the return to the continental military status quo from the 1997 Russian-NATO Founding Act. Failure to respect Russia’s three most pressing national security red lines will only worsen the current crisis to potentially catastrophic proportions. Recognizing the Donbass Republics shows that President Putin wants all stakeholders in these interconnected crises to urgently cooperate on a new format for ending the Ukrainian Civil War and resolving the US-provoked missile threat that risks undermining Russia’s nuclear second-strike capabilities if left unchecked.
It should also be seen for what it obviously is too, which is a humanitarian gesture motivated by the desire to ensure the safety of those civilians – and especially the over 700,000 Russian citizens among them – in those two newly recognized republics who President Putin declared last week are suffering genocide by Kyiv’s US-backed forces. If Washington doesn’t order its Ukrainian proxies to stand down, they might very well end up entering into direct clashes with the Russian military, which could, in turn, lead to Moscow neutralizing all imminent and hot threats coming from the western direction of that country. Should that scenario transpire, it’s unclear whether Russia would resort to the on-the-ground action that the West fearmongered about (an “invasion”, even if it’s only a “minor incursion” in reality) or if it’ll rely on air, artillery, and/or missile assets to carry out such tasks instead.
Seeing as how President Putin very clearly articulated the nature of the creeping existential threat that US-led NATO’s anti-Russian project in Ukraine poses to his civilization-state, there’s also the possibility of supporting so-called “regime change” there even if only by extending political support to opposition members who might potentially seize power through a genuinely grassroots Color Revolution organized to force their renegade foreign-backed fascist government to peace with its fraternal neighbor. Regardless of whether or not that particular scenario unfolds, it still can’t be dismissed that Russia might have decided to sustainably protect its national security red lines through a variety of means far beyond simply recognizing the Donbass Republics after its head of state passionately explained to the world the multidimensional threats – including nuclear and terrorist ones – emanating from Ukraine.
The onus is now on the US alone whether to escalate these interconnected crises or to sincerely explore their urgent de-escalation, even if the latter includes “face-saving” sequences such as first imposing the so-called “unprecedented sanctions” that it earlier threatened despite possibly ordering its Ukrainian proxies to stand down for the time being right afterwards out of simple self-preservation to retain some element of control over that country when all is said and done. It’s unclear at the time of writing what the US will do and which factors might figure into its calculations, but all that’s known for sure is that everything changed after President Putin’s recognition of the Donbass Republics. The situation will soon either get much worse or hopefully slightly better depending on America’s choices in the immediate future, but the fact remains that it’ll once again be its decision alone whether to escalate or not.