How Putin creates an informal empire. Slow annexation continues in eastern Ukraine

As international leaders and the international media continue to speculate on Moscow’s latest military consolidation on the border with Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is calmly continuing the slow annexation of eastern Ukraine, writes Peter Dickinson on the Atlantic Council blog. de

The author notes that anxiety about Russia’s intentions has increased since early November, when CIA Director Bill Burns traveled to Moscow to warn the Kremlin against a new invasion of Ukraine. Amid a wave of press reports containing concerns about a possible future Russian offensive, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace visited Kiev and his Ukrainian counterpart Aleksei Reznikov traveled to Washington for talks with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Even the usually “peaceful” foreign ministries of France and Germany considered it necessary to issue a joint statement in harsh terms informing Russia of the “serious consequences” if Moscow decides to intensify its military intervention in Ukraine.

This focus on Moscow’s threatening military maneuvers is understandable, Dickinson writes, but risks overshadowing the fact that Russia has already invaded Ukraine and has steadily strengthened its control over entire regions of the country since 2014. In the last seven years, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has plunged the world into a new Cold War. It will remain the most serious challenge for a rules-based international order, even discouraging a new offensive in the coming months.

Removing barriers to trade

On November 15, Putin signaled his intention to continue the informal annexation of eastern Ukraine by issuing a new decree to remove barriers to trade between the Russian-occupied regions and the Russian Federation. The move was widely praised by separatist authorities in Donbas, who called it “a serious step towards integration with Russia.” The event did not receive as much media attention and noise as the deployment of Russian troops and tank divisions, but it does not pose a lesser threat to Ukraine’s future territorial integrity.

Ukraine has condemned Putin’s decree as “serious interference” in the country’s internal affairs. In its statement, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry claims that this step “clearly demonstrates Russia’s intentional policy to attract Ukraine’s temporarily occupied territories into its economic, political, electoral and information space.” Unfortunately for Kiev, the international community cannot or does not want to acknowledge the dire consequences of Russia’s efforts to integrate eastern Ukraine.

The recent lifting of trade barriers is the latest in a series of measures taken by the Kremlin to promote economic integration between the occupied eastern Ukraine and the Russian Federation. The Kremlin-controlled Ukrainian regions shifted from the Ukrainian hryvnia to the Russian ruble a few years ago, and Moscow also offers significant financial subsidies to support the troubled economy and provide social benefits in the occupied area.

Economic integration is just one aspect of Putin’s plans to create an informal empire in eastern Ukraine. While Moscow annexed Crimea almost immediately after taking over the Ukrainian peninsula in early 2014, the Kremlin is taking a more gradual approach to the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine. Officially, Russia is in favor of the final return of these regions under Ukrainian control. Unofficially, Moscow is doing everything possible to prevent this.

The Russian-occupied population of eastern Ukraine was subjected to Kremlin propaganda

For the past seven and a half years, the Russian-occupied population of eastern Ukraine has been subjected to Kremlin propaganda, demonizing Ukraine and questioning its right to exist as an independent state. Students are being taught to be hostile to Ukraine and consider themselves Russians, while human rights groups say learning the Ukrainian language has virtually disappeared from the region’s education system.

The most egregious aspect of this slow annexation was the massive distribution of Russian passports to Ukrainians in the occupied east. Launched in April 2019 a few days after Volodymyr Zelensky’s victory in Ukraine’s presidential election, the decision to grant Russian citizenship to the local population changed the geopolitical balance in eastern Ukraine and effectively turned the region into a passport protectorate.

Moscow does not intend to seek a negotiated agreement with Ukraine in the near future

Moscow does not hide the fact that it considers this artificially created Russian population as an indefinite pretext for intervening in the affairs of the region, even in the unlikely event of its future return under Ukrainian control. In the spring of 2021, during the exchange of gunfire, Dmitry Kozak, deputy head of Putin’s administration, warned that the Russian army would be “forced to defend” Russian citizens in eastern Ukraine if the security situation deteriorates. With more than half a million Russian passports issued in the last two years, this passport imperialism poses an obvious and immediate threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty.

The use of Russian citizenship in eastern Ukraine also contributes to the political integration of the region into the Russian Federation. The campaign for Russia’s September 2021 parliamentary elections took place in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine, and about 230,000 Ukrainians took part in the vote itself, according to Ombudsman Liudmila Denisova.

In the last elections, key figures from the war in eastern Ukraine also entered the Russian political institution. The most famous of these was Aleksander Borodai, who first won prominence in 2014 as prime minister of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic “DPR”.

Borodai, now a member of parliament for Putin’s United Russia party, has long called for the annexation of eastern Ukraine and vowed to use his new position to promote deeper integration. The Kremlin’s decision to openly support toxic figures such as Borodai is a staggering departure from previous plausible denials and is strong evidence that Moscow does not intend to seek a negotiated deal with Ukraine in the near future.

Putin’s strategy of slow annexation has been surprisingly successful. While the international community was stunned by the confiscation of Crimea in 2014 and recently sounded the alarm about a concentration of troops near the border with Ukraine, there is little or no reaction to the Kremlin’s many “small steps” that threatens to lead him to a permanent occupation of eastern Ukraine.

Instead, Western leaders have largely limited themselves to empty expressions of grave concern that have long been interpreted by Russia as a silent green light for further action. This reluctance to confront the Kremlin only perpetuates the problem. Until the West imposes sufficient additional sanctions on Moscow, the gradual absorption of Ukrainian territory will continue and the country will remain a source of endless international instability.

In today’s security environment, the prevention of another major Russian offensive is clearly a short-term priority. However, the international community must recognize that it will eventually have to extinguish Putin’s imperial ambitions in Ukraine if it wants to go beyond the current conditions of the Cold War. As Russia becomes stronger in eastern Ukraine, the cost will only increase, Dickinson concludes in the Atlantic Council.

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