As international leaders and the world’s media continue to speculate on Moscow’s latest military build-up on the Ukrainian border, Russian President Vladimir Putin quietly pursues the slow-motion annexation of eastern Ukraine.
Alarms about Russia’s intentions have been mounting since early November, when CIA Director Bill Burns was sent to Moscow to warn the Kremlin against another invasion of Ukraine. Amid a flurry of press articles raising fears about a possible upcoming Russian offensive, UK Defense Minister Ben Wallace visited Kiev in recent days and his Ukrainian counterpart Oleksii Reznikov spoke out. traveled to Washington for talks with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Even the normally non-confrontational French and German foreign ministries have felt pressured to issue a strongly worded joint statement advising Russia of the “grave consequences” if Moscow chooses to step up its military intervention in Ukraine.
This focus on threatening military maneuvers from Moscow is quite understandable, but it risks obscuring the fact that Russia has already invaded Ukraine and is gradually consolidating its hold over entire regions of the country since 2014. Over the past seven years years, the Russian invasion of Ukraine plunged the world into a new cold war. This will remain the most serious challenge for a rules-based international order, even if Russia may be dissuaded from launching a new offensive in the months to come.
On November 15, Putin signaled his intention to continue the informal annexation of eastern Ukraine by posting a new decree removing barriers to trade between the regions occupied by Russia and Russia itself. This decision was welcomed by the occupation authorities in eastern Ukraine, who called it “a serious step towards integration with Russia”. This development has received none of the fanfare or media attention reserved for the deployment of elite Kremlin troops and Russian tank divisions, but it poses just as much a threat to Ukraine’s future territorial integrity. .
Ukraine condemned Putin’s decree as “flagrant interference” in the country’s internal affairs. In a statement, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry affirmed that this measure “clearly demonstrates Russia’s proactive policy aimed at attracting the temporarily occupied territories of our state into its economic, political, electoral and information space”. Unfortunately for Kiev, the outside public seems unable or unwilling to recognize the worrying implications of Russia’s efforts to integrate eastern Ukraine.
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The recent lifting of trade barriers is the latest in a series of measures taken by the Kremlin to promote economic integration between occupied eastern Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Ukrainian regions currently under the control of the Kremlin switched from the Ukrainian hryvnia to the Russian ruble a few years ago, while Moscow is also providing large financial subsidies to support the struggling economy and finance social payments in the occupied zone.
Economic integration is only one aspect of Putin’s plans for an informal empire in eastern Ukraine. While Moscow decided to annex Crimea almost immediately after taking control of the Ukrainian peninsula in early 2014, the Kremlin has taken a much more gradual approach to the areas it occupies in eastern Russia. ‘Ukraine. Officially, Russia supports the possible return of these regions under Ukrainian control. Unofficially, Moscow is doing everything in its power to ensure that this never happens.
For the past seven and a half years, the people of Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine have been exposed to relentless Kremlin propaganda demonizing Ukraine and questioning their right to exist as an independent state. . Schoolchildren have learned to view Ukraine with hostility and to see themselves as Russians, while human rights groups say Ukrainian language studies have largely disappeared from the region’s education system.
The most cheeky aspect of this slow-motion annexation was the massive distribution of Russian passports to Ukrainians living in the occupied east. Initiated in April 2019, a few days after the electoral victory of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the decision to grant Russian citizenship to the local population transformed the geopolitical balance in eastern Ukraine and made the region a protectorate passport.
Moscow has made no secret of the fact that it views this artificially created Russian population as an unlimited excuse to intervene in the region, even in the unlikely event of its future return to Ukrainian control. During a wave of Russian saber strikes on the Ukrainian border in spring 2021, Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Dmitry Kozak, warned that the Russian army “would be obliged to stand up for” the citizens Russian authorities in eastern Ukraine if the security situation deteriorates. deteriorate. With over half a million Russian passports reportedly issued over the past two years, this passport imperialism poses a clear and immediate threat to Ukrainian sovereignty.
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The militarization of Russian citizenship in eastern Ukraine is also helping to facilitate the region’s political integration into the Russian Federation. The campaign for the Russian parliamentary elections in September 2021 took place in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine, while Ukrainian parliament human rights commissioner Liudmyla Denisova said around 230,000 Ukrainians took part in the campaign. votes itself.
The recent elections also saw figures from the war in eastern Ukraine elevated to the ranks of the Russian political establishment. The most prominent of these was Alexander Borodai, who first gained notoriety in 2014 as Prime Minister of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), one of the breakaway republics created by the Kremlin in eastern Ukraine.
Now a member of Putin’s United Russia party parliament, Borodai has long called for the annexation of eastern Ukraine and vowed to use his new high position to push for deeper integration. The Kremlin’s decision to openly embrace toxic figures like Borodai represents a stark change from previous policies of plausible deniability and makes it clear that Moscow has no intention of seeking a negotiated settlement with Ukraine for the foreseeable future.
Putin’s slow-motion annexation strategy has so far proved remarkably successful. While the international community was stunned by the seizure of Crimea in 2014 and more recently sounded the alarm over troop concentrations near the Ukrainian border, there has been virtually no response to the Kremlin’s many small steps which threaten to make the current Russian occupation of eastern Ukraine permanent.
Instead, Western leaders have largely confined themselves to empty expressions of grave concern that have long been interpreted by Russia as a tacit green light to go further. This reluctance to confront the Kremlin only perpetuates the problem. Until the West imposes sufficient additional costs on Moscow, the gradual absorption of Ukrainian territory will continue and the country will remain a source of endless international instability.
In the current security climate, preventing another major Russian offensive is obviously the priority in the short term. However, the international community must recognize that it will eventually have to extinguish Putin’s imperial ambitions in Ukraine if it is to move beyond the current Cold War conditions. As Russia increasingly establishes itself in eastern Ukraine, the cost of this operation will only increase.
Peter Dickinson is editor-in-chief of the UkraineAlert service at the Atlantic Council.
The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
The Eurasia Center mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation by promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East .