“Can you rule out the possibility of a war in Europe?” It was a straightforward question, put to Vladimir Putin by the German journalist Michaela Kuefner at a press conference with Olaf Scholz in Moscow on 15 February. The Russian president replied: “We witnessed war in Europe, started by Nato against Yugoslavia… It happened. With no sanctions from the UN Security Council.” The German chancellor did not leave unchallenged this implicit comparison between Russia’s threatening military build- up around Ukraine today and Nato’s intervention in 1999 to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo: “It was different. There was a threat of genocide.” Putin, raising a finger, interjected: “What is happening in the Donbas today is genocide.”
In retrospect, this nonsense claim about the actions of Ukraine’s government looks like a significant turning point in the flurry of diplomacy over recent weeks. Its starkness left little room for de-escalation, seemingly confirming Western claims that Putin was by this point set on war. It indicated that it would be in the Donbas region, in eastern Ukraine, that Russia’s new military assault on the country would come. And it hinted at the way Putin would justify this attack, with a garbled pastiche of the language of human rights and liberal intervention. All of which culminated in his announcement on 21 February of, in effect, a new Russian invasion of the Donbas.
To understand the significance of the Donbas in the now-unfolding conflict, it helps to grasp its history. The region’s name is an abbreviation of “Donets Coal Basin”, a reference to the rich coal seams on which its industrial economy was founded. Today it is divided into the two oblasts (provinces) of Donetsk and Luhansk – both cities established by British businessmen during the Industrial Revolution. About three quarters of the region’s residents speak Russian, not Ukrainian, as their first language; it has close economic links to Rostov across the border in Russia, and in the past it has voted for politicians favouring close links to Moscow, such as the Donetsk-born former president Viktor Yanukovych.
Yanukovych fell from power in 2014 after his bid to stop Ukraine signing an association agreement with the EU sparked mass protests. Groups opposed to the country’s new, pro-Western government took to the streets in the Donbas. This then escalated into fighting between forces of the self- proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) – which had declared independence following a bogus referendum – and the government. Though backed by Russia, which also moved to annex Crimea in Ukraine’s south, the separatists were repelled by Ukraine’s armed forces until Russia invaded with conventional forces.
A weakened Ukrainian government signed up to a peace deal (“Minsk-2”) in early 2015 that envisaged restoring its control of the state border in return for substantial autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk. But the two sides interpret the agreement differently, and the ceasefire has been repeatedly violated along the 500km-long line separating the areas held by Russia-backed rebels (about a third of the Donbas) from those still in government hands. Meanwhile, the rest of Ukraine has continued its post-Yanukovych move westwards – economically, socially and culturally. It is this, not some hallucinated atrocity, that Putin wants to reverse by massing almost 200,000 troops on the country’s borders.
Putin’s method has been to mimic the West’s justifications for humanitarian interventions like the one to protect Kosovo in 1999 (a technique that the BBC’s Mark Urban has called “Kosplay”). His comment to Scholz was just one part of an unconvincing piece of theatre, casting Ukraine as a genocidal terrorist state and Russia as a liberal human rights defender. Other elements included a car bombing outside a government building and claims of mass graves and a planned chemical attack against civilians. On 17 February alone there were more ceasefire violations than in the whole of January, including the shelling of a kindergarten on Ukrainian-held territory. The following day the puppet governments of the DPR and LPR announced a mass evacuation of civilians to Russia.
Relatively few actually left. At the Uspenka border crossing between Russia and the self-proclaimed DPR on 20 February, uniformed members of the youth wing of the All-Russian People’s Front, a pro-Putin organisation, waited at the border gate, carrying the pensioners’ luggage, and handing out bars of Alyonka chocolate, an iconic Soviet brand, to the children. For the most of the day, they outnumbered the evacuees they had been sent to help.
Most of the evacuees who agreed to speak admitted only to confusion about what was going on in their home city. “I don’t know what’s happening in Donetsk,” said Tatiana Nikolaevna, a frail 67-year-old who had fled the separatist capital’s suburbs in the dead of night on her own, after explosions became more frequent. “They told us to leave, and I thought it was best to do so. I lived through 2014, and didn’t want to go through that again.”
The following day the Kosplay reached its height with one of the strangest spectacles that world politics has produced in years. Sitting at a desk in the Kremlin’s Hall of the Order of St Catherine, Putin watched as members of his security council filed up to a podium and – with some looking emphatically downcast – made the case for recognising the independence of the DPR and LPR. At one point a flustered Sergei Naryshkin, head of the foreign intelligence service, gave the game away by saying he backed the two statelets becoming part of Russia. Putin rebuked him: “That’s not what we’re discussing!”
If some of Putin’s minions seemed uncertain about this course of action, that might be because the Russian public has received little preparation for any upcoming war. The crescendo of propaganda about Kyiv’s supposedly genocidal designs came only recently and is hardly convincing (one video widely shared on social media depicts a man whose leg has supposedly just been blown off by a Ukrainian artillery strike, but inadvertently shows that he already has a prosthesis).
Rostov, 100km from the border and the destination for many of the Donbas “evacuees” to Russia, is a case in point. The city has close cultural links to Ukraine. Most people have family, friends, or at least someone they know in Donetsk and Luhansk, and sometimes in Kyiv and Lviv. The mood on 21 February was mixed. “If the Khokly [ethnic slur for Ukrainians] are shelling, then of course our army will stop them,” said Dmitry, a driver, echoing some of the bombast emanating from the Kremlin. “Seventy, 80 per cent of the people in Donetsk are Russians, with Russian passports. They’re our people. You have to understand that.” But Kirill, a barman, was concerned. “Just as long as we don’t have a war,” he said. “That’s the one thing we can all hope for.”
Later that evening the president delivered a rambling, paranoid address to the nation in which he brought together the fantasy version of reality in the Donbas that he, his cronies, the separatist leaders of the DPR and LPR, and the Russian state media had woven over recent days. Putin alleged torture and killings. He railed against “those who embarked on the path of violence, bloodshed, lawlessness” and “do not recognise any other solution to the Donbas issue except for the military one”. Then he announced what he called the “long overdue” decision to recognise the two self-proclaimed republics.
The following day Russia’s parliament approved a “peacekeeping” mission to the Donbas and Putin endorsed rebel claims to the entire region, not just the areas they currently hold – a move close to an outright declaration of war on Ukraine. As the New Statesman goes to press, Western governments are confirming that new Russian forces have already crossed the border.
The picture, then, is grim. The recognition kills diplomatic efforts to revive the Minsk-2 deal. It provides an opportunity for the separatist leaders to request military intervention from Russia to “defend” civilians. Moscow’s vitriolic rhetoric about Ukraine leaves little rhetorical space for a climbdown. On 22 February Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said Ukraine has no right to sovereignty: “No one can assert that the Ukrainian regime, starting with the state coup of 2014, represents all the people who live on the territory of the Ukrainian state.” Even Kyiv government sources – more sanguine than Western allies in recent weeks – expect some form of new conflict. “I think escalation in Donbas is nearly a certainty,” says one. “Putin wants Minsk-3 but thinks he has to have some military victory for that to be achieved.”
All of which will mean more suffering, most of all for the people of the Donbas. More shelling, more destruction of civilian infrastructure, more distressing and baseless Russian claims of ethnic cleansing and staged outrages to justify new acts of aggression. And for those who do not flee: confusion, destitution and violence. Such is the fate of those playing bit parts in a grotesque play being written and directed in Moscow by the delusional dramatist in the Kremlin. Even Putin may not yet know how it will end.
Reporting contributed by Felix Light
This article appears in the 23 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Darkness Falls