Escalation in the Donbas Risks a Disastrous War

Gerard Toal

Russian president Vladimir Putin has sent tanks into the Donbas on dubious pretexts. But a far bigger danger awaits if the West seeks an escalation that will only pour fuel on the fire.

Belarusian and Russian troops training with a T-72B tank during joint military drills. (Peter Kovalev / TASS via Getty Images)

Interview by
David Broder

In his speech announcing plans to recognize the self-styled People’s Republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, Vladimir Putin seemed concerned to emphasize his “humanitarian” intentions. Asserting that Ukraine is a “Bolshevik” construct without a “tradition of statehood,” the Russian president moreover accused what he called the “regime” in Kiev of “taking a path of violence, bloodshed, and lawlessness,” recognizing “only military solutions to the Donbas issue.” Even as Putin sent Russian tanks into the Donbas, he insisted that these were really “peacekeepers.”

This raises the question of how far Russians believe that Putin is coming to the aid of oppressed minorities — and how far these latter themselves want such “humanitarian protection.” If Western audiences take for granted that the Kremlin is the sole aggressor, popular attitudes in Russia seem more contradictory — also because of Western governments’ actions and their use, by Putin, in building up a narrative of external threat. Yet today, it remains unclear whether his government has really rallied popular support for an out-and-out war with Ukraine.

Gerard Toal is author of Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest for Ukraine and the Caucasus. He and his colleagues have polled the populations of south-eastern Ukraine, Donbas, and Crimea about their views of the dispute and their conditions thirty years since the fall of the USSR. He spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about the roots of the conflict, public opinion in the border regions, and the Putin government’s agenda.

David Broder

In Near Abroad, you discuss a difference in how we in the West talk about our own actions in a moral or legal register, as against Russian actions being cast as a hyper-centralized, determined strategy for recreating empire. It seems that you instead emphasize the more contingent aspects of the Russian leadership’s actions, including even its psychological responses to events.

Gerard Toal

Yes, this is crucial. Putin’s psychological disposition clearly is very important to this crisis. His speech justifying the recognition of the two Donbas proxy states was an epic rant, and dark in its implications. But, of course, there’s a longer structural background. At the moment, we can see a clash between two major theories of the crisis.

One holds that this crisis is a result of the unfolding of an imperial essence, which was always there on the Russian side: so, Putin is doing what he was always likely to do, because that’s what Russian leaders do. You see things on social media saying it must be Putin creating a distracting spectacle, just as he did with the 1999 apartment bombings, the 2008 Georgian War, the 2014 Crimean intervention, the Syrian intervention, etc. — creating through “active measures” a crisis situation that justifies the leadership’s imperial actions.

The alternative is a contingent theory of the crisis and is much more about what we as the West do and what the Russians — and Putin in particular — do in response. What’s crucial to understand is the interaction and the emerging security dilemmas. This involves recognition of our agency because in the first theory, we’re sort of invisible innocents: we’re not a part of the picture because everything is just the unfolding of who Putin is, and of Russia’s particular nature.

I think it’s important to have an account of the crisis that talks about eventful processes: the path dependency which means that we’ve reached this point because a series of critical junctures went one way rather than another. That’s important so that when we have an account of this moment — looking at it as a future historian might — we don’t forget that this is, in some important ways, a cocreated crisis. This isn’t a matter of symmetrical both-sidesism, but of doing the empirical work to find out what’s happening and having a more analytical conversation about this crisis.

David Broder

You have criticized widespread recent analogies with the 2008 Georgia War, and indeed in your book you relate how Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president at the time, used a strongly “humanitarian” language of standing up for a people under threat. So, why isn’t that analogy a good one?

Gerard Toal

Today, we’re seeing all these “truthy” versions of 2008, by which I mean something that feels true and should be true but isn’t. The “truthy” version is that Russia invaded Georgia as it had always wanted to do, and then the innocent, plucky Georgians fought back, and the West should have drawn a stronger red line and been much more decisive in its response. This version of 2008 is a part of this larger theory of a Russian imperial essence unfolding. It glosses over the actual empirical record of what happened.

This was a cocreated crisis and could have been avoided. The Georgian leadership had choices, and unfortunately it made some very bad choices at critical junctures. In South Ossetia in August 2008 there was a low-intensity conflict between the different parties. There were murders and bombings and then shelling and sniper attacks on Tskhinvali, which were really ugly and frightening for both communities living in that region.

The Ossetians decided to evacuate some of the population, because they feared an invasion of their space, their de facto but illegal separatist state. They were right, because Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili had been somewhat recklessly advertising that he was going to try to take these territories back, though most analysts thought the crisis was going to happen in Abkhazia.

Saakashvili had been building up his army. Clearly, the Russian state made a decision which Saakashvili should have grasped but didn’t: that is, they weren’t going to allow him to roll back these de facto states in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. That’s in contrast to what the Russians did in Adjara in 2004, when they cooperated with Saakashvili in allowing Georgia to establish control over an area that had long been controlled by an extremely corrupt potentate, Aslan Abashidze. The Russians essentially facilitated his exit, but Putin told Saakashvili, “You’ll get no more favors from us.”

There was a good deal of hubris and overconfident war-optimism from Saakashvili. To cut a long story short, a low-intensity conflict became a war when he chose to escalate and carry out a plan he’d developed along with international military advisers — Croatia’s Operation Storm in 1995 was a key inspiration — to loop around Tskhinvali and create “facts on the ground” before the Russian army could respond. That was a mistake.

Initially, the Ossetians were on their own in that war. The escalation began with a war crime, the launching of grad missiles against a town in which dozens of civilian residents were killed (not everyone had evacuated). The truthy story of the war is the Russians made ridiculous charges of “genocide” against the Georgians to fabricate a reason for themselves to invade Georgia. The truth is that the charge of “genocide” came first from the Ossetians under attack — that frame was a standard Ossetian charge against the Georgians from the early twentieth century, and one the South Ossetian leadership had used before 2008 — and was adopted by the Russians in anger. It has been a stock part of international discourse on interventions in the post–Cold War period, tied to the doctrine of “responsibility to protect.”

So, effectively, the so-called playbook that the Russians used in 2008 was really a mash up of Kosovo and the 2003 Iraq War, using a charge of a genocide in order to legitimate the use of military power. Remember how suddenly there was talk about Halabja and the gassing of the Kurds by the Bush administration to justify the 2003 invasion. That horrific event happened fifteen years previously, in 1988. Responsibility to protect, sadly, became a flexible doctrine used to justify great power warmongering through performative displays of victimhood. To me, the Kosovo War was justified but not Iraq in 2003. August 2008 was further abuse of “responsibility to protect.” Today we’re seeing a dark, cynical extension of it to justify Russia creating a “legal state sovereignty” farce to allow it to wage war against Ukraine.

David Broder

This brings us back to the first point about how the West sees its actions, in humanitarian terms, in contrast to Russia and its imperialism. But how important is it for the Russian leadership to rally public support for war on such grounds in advance, rather than just come up with post facto rationalizations?

Gerard Toal

I think it’s central and needed to justify intervention, even in an autocracy. Even where you have the media controlled, you need to have the spectacle of right and wrong, the justification of war as a fantasy of rescuing people under threat from an evil Other, an empire, fascist nationalists, etc. That was the story that was used in 2008.

Let’s be frank. The mistake that Saakashvili made was in giving the Putin administration the ability to make that argument. In the book, I describe how the figure of two thousand people who had supposedly been killed came from a public affairs official within the Republic of South Ossetia, under fire during that initial bombardment. He’s going round the city, seeing the dead people in cars and the like. He, as a propagandist, inflates the whole thing, in order to get Russia in. Because it wasn’t clear that the Russians were necessarily going to come to their rescue.

There were Russian peacekeepers there, but we should remember that the initial attack, with Georgian troops moving into Tskhinvali, was met by South Ossetian militias, young guys who, as they saw it, had to take up positions and fight like hell against the Georgians, otherwise they were going to be wiped out. In that initial twenty-four to forty-eight hours, the South Ossetians felt they were on their own. This later became an issue in Russian politics.

All this to say that there is a humanitarian framing for both the United States and for Russia in terms of any intervention — it has to be justified. It is insufficient to justify it by talking about strategic interests and raison d’état. It’s just not persuasive enough.

Now, the Russian government has a real problem. The war they want in Ukraine isn’t one that the Russian population wants, it’s very risky and could go extremely badly for the Kremlin. It’s not seen as having any kind of popular support. That’s in contrast to Crimea. I have a chapter in Near Abroad, about how Crimea is seen as “close to our heart.” There is a whole affective history, of emotional connections to Crimea that the regime could draw upon to mobilize popular support for its intervention. The Donbas doesn’t have that in the same way. There is no appetite for this war in Russia.

David Broder

There has been some spectacle of, for instance, a small minority of Donbas residents being evacuated. But does the fact that the Russian media isn’t already doing more to prepare the population for a wider war, suggest that no such war is being set in motion?

Gerard Toal

I don’t know that we can say that right now — they worked up the August 2008 war pretty quickly, without having expected it in advance. We might remember that Putin was in Beijing when it broke out and had to come back somewhat hastily to Vladikavkaz to meet with commanders and help coordinate the Russian response.

So, I think that we’re in a very dangerous moment. If some incident was to occur, that could easily blow up and become a wall-to-wall spectacle. I commend the Ukrainians for not allowing that to happen. But, there’s only so much they can do, insofar as they face a foe with a formidable ability to generate spectacle and agitate and mobilize people. But how far they can do something quite difficult, and get people behind war against Ukraine, is an open question. It could be a dark Russian Wag the Dog movie.

The driving rationale for this war in the Kremlin inner circle is a geopolitical one. It’s a military one. It’s a geostrategic one, and it’s also a punitive one. There’s a psychological and emotional history of Putin and Ukraine that’s involved. I don’t think that has sufficient legs to be persuasive for the Russian population in general. Maybe I will be proven wrong. It depends on how this unfolds, but that’s why I think it’s a risky war for the Putin government.

David Broder

Is there a radicalization, here? Does Russia’s economic weakness, plus the 2014 war and the sanctions, mean that the Putin government’s stability has become more dependent on its assertions of military power and geopolitical strength?

Gerard Toal

Over a long arc of time, yes. It’s quite clear that in about 2012–13, Putin’s opinion ratings were declining, and then you had the spectacle of 2014. But from what I can observe, this isn’t something that the Putin administration needs for domestic purposes. Many people argue that domestic reasons are driving the regime to this. But Putin is pretty safe: they have a lock on power. They have brutally clamped down on Alexei Navalny and they have further marginalized media dissent. The population has essentially been demobilized.

So, I don’t see them needing this. I think this is a choice, even a luxury war, I think this is a legacy issue with Putin: part of who he is and who the group around him are. They are more classic geopolitical strategic thinkers who see themselves in a geopolitical, even civilizational contest with the West. They see that Ukraine is vulnerable, that they will always have escalation dominance in that space. They’re seizing this moment to demonstrate that, pushing back against what they see as an unfair security structure which was created when Russia was weak.

David Broder

Since 2014, you and colleagues have been conducting polls in south-east Ukraine. How far do you get a sense that the populations in the border areas identify with the local self-proclaimed leaders — the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR/LNR) — or with Putin, and how far do they accept his framing of the conflict, of supposed Ukrainian threat?

Gerard Toal

First, there’s a lot to be said about the difficulties of polling in conflict zones. We’re polling people who remain in the Donbas, but many others have been displaced to Russia or other parts of Ukraine. So, this regards the 2.5 or 3 million people who are still there, in a total area (prewar Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts together) which did have 5 or 6 million; though we also don’t know, as Ukraine hasn’t had an accurate census for over twenty years.

One of the findings we discussed in our February 12 piece in the Washington Post is simply to underscore the massive material conditioning of attitudes in the area concerned. The Donbas is a depressed industrial area that suffered tremendous decline even before the 2014 war, which in turn cratered the local economy.

The people in the still-Ukrainian-controlled parts of the Donbas are somewhat more critical of their local authorities and of the Kiev government than the people in the LNR and DNR are of the essentially Moscow-supported authorities controlling their areas. That doesn’t mean that these latter are popular. There are very mixed feelings. We have one question about whether these authorities are a good team or if they are corrupt and running things for themselves — or one can refuse to answer or select that they don’t know — and a sizable amount of people say these authorities are corrupt. This is also shown when we ask about the area’s future political status. There is next to no support for independence for the DNR or LNR: the majority of people we have been able to poll there want to join Russia, though not everyone, of course. But this geopolitical question is being imposed on people whose overriding concerns are economic.

If you leave aside questions of autonomy, joining Russia is the highest preference, and — this is important to grasp — it’s on economic grounds. Russia is much more prosperous than Ukraine, and these people have been living in a post-Soviet Ukraine that has not served them well. It is only at 80 percent of the gross national income it had at the time of the Soviet collapse, and even that’s an aggregate, countrywide figure. The Donbas was an industrial powerhouse in the Soviet Union and still doing fairly well when it collapsed; the Donetsk miners were quite instrumental in forcing [Mikhail] Gorbachev to initiate reforms. Now, the economy has cratered.

David Broder

While the populations may not want these states to become independent, how far do DNR and LNR have an agenda of their own? We can think of other examples where paramilitary groups claiming allegiance to some bigger state in fact acts in ways damaging to its interests. Could they risk escalating the situation in a way their Russian patrons might not want, as even happened to some extent in the Ossetian case?

Gerard Toal

Abkhazia is perhaps the best example, because the population rooted there has interests divergent from those of the Kremlin and Moscow. Similarly, while the South Ossetians are interested in joining Russia, really they’re interested in joining their kin people in North Ossetia.

The Donbas, I think, is different. Unlike those areas where you had smaller ethnic populations that grew into a particular identity in the Soviet Union, the Donbas’s identity is more economic. There is a distinctive identity: a Soviet-era pride in this as a powerhouse, as a place that provided riches to the rest of Ukraine. But that’s a different type of identity from an ethno-nationalist one.

How does that translate into the relative autonomy of groups there? There is now a war economy there. There are people invested in the war and who have an interest in the supplies for fighting it. There’s a power structure associated with that, which is institutionalized and has a certain heft. But I’m reasonably confident that if the Kremlin wanted to turn off the war, they could do so fairly quickly. Since 2014 there have been a number of independent actors who were essentially mafia thugs and psychopaths of various kinds, and several were taken out with mysterious assassinations. So, I think there’s very limited capacity for agency on the part of the DNR and LNR. They’re servants of the Kremlin.

David Broder

Some Anglophone media have criticized Ukrainian president [Volodymyr] Zelensky’s lack of firmness and his remarks critical of hype around the prospect of war. He is accused of being unprepared and unable to deal with this crisis. But, if the Georgia analogy is often misused, could we say there is a positive lesson: in 2008 Saakashvili ineptly escalated the situation, but Zelensky can avoid serving Russia a casus belli on a plate, by avoiding anything that could be called a provocation?

Gerard Toal

I think that’s true and that’s what they’re doing, and I think the Biden administration is doing a good job of, so to speak, making a pre-buttal of the theater surrounding the attempt to create a casus belli.

On what you said about Zelenksy, I’d make an empathetic stretch toward his position. Most of his time in office was the last years of the Trump administration, in which Ukraine was used in an absolutely atrocious way, essentially as a location to retrieve dirt on Biden. Now some of the people who joined the administration, like Kurt Volker, who was a central player in all this, were supporters of Ukraine as an anti-Russian bastion. They’re hard liners, Atlanticist-to-the-max neoconservative figures. They had their own way of using Ukraine: essentially, as a proxy to fight what they consider a civilizational war against Russia, democracy against autocracy.

So, I have considerable sympathy for Zelensky because he is caught between the great powers. This is an attitude which is quite common in Ukraine. We have this question in our polling: Do you think your country is a pawn? And a lot of folks think that they don’t have sufficient agency over their lives and the decisions are made in faraway capitals. They don’t feel the agency that you would want a citizen to feel in an ideal democracy. Zelensky is part of a power structure supported by particular oligarchs in Ukraine, but himself feels somewhat powerless, given the clash that is going on above his head, between the West and Russia.

David Broder

When Zelensky was elected in spring 2019 he was widely portrayed as a “peace candidate,” talking about pushing ahead with Minsk II, but it seems that the pressure his government has faced from nationalist street movements has left him unable to maintain this even as a rhetorical position.

Gerard Toal

Yes, he faces the threats of violence and a third Maidan to overthrow him. That element in Ukraine is very mobilized in civil society, as Volodymyr Ishchenko and others have documented. This made it impossible for him to move on Minsk II. So, you end up retreating to the patriotic camp, the position of his opponent Petro Poroshenko in the last election. He was thoroughly defeated by Zelensky, who promised to seek peace and have a more relaxed policy toward language and the memory wars. Russian is his first language, and he’s from Kryvyi Rih in the southeast, so he’s quite different from Poroshenko.

But while we can and should have our critiques of all sides, ultimately, I think if this does go to war, the right and moral thing to do is to be supportive of the ordinary people of Ukraine fighting an invading army. The path that Putin has chosen is a dark one, and we have to be concerned about where this ends up. We’ve been in this condition since 1945, where one of the great powers has the capacity to destroy other countries in really horrific ways. We’re at the mercy of old men. So, we have to be aware of that, and drop any kind of civilizational talk. We need de-escalation, arms control, and active work for peace.

That’s also because this isn’t the biggest threat that faces us: climate change is. All this is attention taken away from a crisis which — presuming the present situation doesn’t turn into nuclear war — is going to affect and kill a lot more people in the long run. The need for concerted, cooperative action on that itself demands that we defeat geopolitics, this competitive territorial behavior among great powers. That’s a tall order: but that’s what I’m trying to write about in my current book, laying out the problem that geopolitics poses as a mode of human behavior.

David Broder

Some Western governments have already announced sanctions on Russia, and Berlin has announced the suspension of NordStream2. But opinion seems divided on whether this yet counts as an “invasion” and how to respond. What likely effects will these moves have in Russia itself?

Gerard Toal

Judging by Putin’s speech yesterday this will have no effect. It may make things worse in that Putin and the Russian military may have calculated that the recognition and troop actions were first escalation steps below the threshold of a classic “kinetic” invasion (remember, it was widely recognized that Russia has forces there already). If the EU and others go with big sanctions now then why not escalate further? Big sanctions now confirms Putin’s sense of siege and victimhood. It seems to me we are now on a very dangerous escalatory ladder.

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Gerard Toal is a professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. He is author of Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest for Ukraine and the Caucasus.

David Broder is Jacobin’s Europe editor and a historian of French and Italian communism.

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