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Why Russia Taking Ukraine in 2014 Would Have Been a Bad Idea?

Rolling into Kiev is the easy part, but what then?

There are some people that accuse Putin of abandoning a unique chance in 2014 to stop the “Banderovites” that took over Kiev…

I heard similar stuff from Russian nationalists recently at Sputnik & Pogrom podcast with Aleksandr Zhuchkovsky, a militia man in Donbass, and then I saw this Sovok post. Unlike Russian nationalists, some out there even believe that Russia should have helped Yanukovych back to Bankova.

Criticism of Putin’s handling of the Ukrainian crisis finds a home both on the right and on the left of Russia’s political spectrum, among opponents of Putin. One can definitely find flaws in the handling of the Donbass crisis. Russia’s current position is that the republics are “self-declared”, this is what the Russian media refer to them as, that they are part of Ukraine, and that they should be reintegrated into Ukraine in some form of a federative arrangement. The kremlins’ view recognition of the Donbass republics as a step in the extreme, perhaps after Ukraine attempts to take the republics over by force.

On the other side in Kiev, Donbass republics are viewed as a part of Ukraine, forcibly torn away by Russian aggression. According to Ukrainian constitution, Ukraine is a unitary state, and without a change to the constitution, federalism is impossible. The Ukrainian parliament eagerly changed the constitution recently to include aims to join NATO and the EU. However, I do not see the same enthusiasm about federalism. This disparity in views between Kiev and Moscow, the resultant lack of recognition for the Donbass republics, high levels of criminality, and poor handling of the republics by Russian curators as Anatoly Karlin notes, don’t add to Russia’s good image.

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But was reinstating Yanukovych, or creating Novorossiya ever a good idea? I have recently read a compelling case against this that mentions reasons other than just the threat of sanctions. Sergey Belov on Alternativa imagines in five points what would happen if the Kremlin did not limit itself to Crimea:

First of his arguments is that Russia would be forced to support the odious persona of Viktor Yanukovych as the legitimate president. He says, other than the Regionnaires there aren’t any other pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. The latter I would disagree with but given that Regionnaires have now all become United Russia members in Crimea, this is probably what would have happened. The kremlins seem very comfortable with former Regionnaires but even they must realise that the relationship with them was counterproductive.

Belov’s second argument is that Russia would have to enter some serious military conflict. If not with the Ukrainian army, then with the Ukrainian nationalist battalions. He said the Ukrainian nationalists would likely resort to guerrilla tactics of terrorism and sabotage.  I am one of those that believes Russia intervened in some capacity to help the Donbass republics, which official Russia denies. But given kremlins’ efforts to freeze the conflict, Donbass conflict barely registers in Russian public opinion. Russian public would, according to Belov, not approve of casualties. The ideology of the post-soviet public is that of comfort and abundance, in the words of youtuber Denis Seleznev, and too many casualties would probably not sit well with the Russian public.

Thirdly, maintenance of the occupied territory would put a strain on the Russian budget, and the money would likely be stolen by the Regionnaires. Furthermore, it would be difficult to satisfy Ukrainians that had just been promised prosperity in the EU.

Fourth argument concerns gas exports. Under occupation of Ukraine, Gazprom would be in a precarious situation in which transit through Ukraine would remain in place. Pipelines could be easy targets for nationalist resistance. One can only remember how Ukrainian nationalists blew up electric lines going to Crimea. Northstream2 and the Turkstream are still not finished yet. Gas exports are a major source of revenue for the Russian budget, and something “Putin’s Western partners” will be reluctant to put sanctions on.

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And finally the fifth argument is that any occupation regime in Ukraine is always forced to buy loyalty of the “titular nation”, and would have to support local language and culture. Basically, Russia would need to engage in feeding Ukrainian separatism much like the Soviet Union did to her own detriment. While some Russian nationalists may entertain the notion of invading Ukraine with the aim of instituting a Russification programme. The reality is that not even the Russian Empire, which denied the validity of Ukrainism altogether, was able to do anything about it.

As we can see, sanctions may have been inevitable, but that clearly was not a reason to invade Ukraine and reinstate Yanukovych. Novorossiya from Transnistria to Donbass was likely not feasible either. I doubt Russia is economically strong enough to absorb 20 million people. We can only wonder why the liberation of Donbass was not completed but I think the kremlins were more interested in freezing the conflict than having to take care of the entire Donbass. Always remember the words of Yarowrath, the ideology of the Russian elite is “less people more oxygen”, so tough luck.

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