“Russia is seeking to present the Western powers with its own version of Kosovo. Just as Russia’s ally Serbia claims sovereignty over Kosovo with some validity in terms of international law, but has no effective control over most of its territory, the Russians are planning to make Eastern Ukraine a de facto Russian satellite before its legal status is resolved.”
Two recent developments in Russian policy towards the rebel-held areas of Eastern Ukraine have flown under the radar; despite being widely reported it seems that their significance has not been fully recognised. Russia is now recognizing passports issued by the governing bodies that have been established in rebel-held areas, and is preparing to introduce the rouble as the primary currency in these areas.
The importance of these two moves cannot be understated. Russia is pushing to de facto annex the rebel areas while the rebels are still in control. This will present the international community with an almost intractable dilemma in the coming years. Ukraine will further lose control of the territories. As time passes re-imposing the authority of the Ukrainian government will require more and more extreme actions, actions which the USA and EU may be reluctant to support.
It may seem odd to suggest that these two measures will diminish Ukraine’s control of the region any more than the current armed resistance, but history shows that establishing alternative institutions is an extremely effective way of ensuring practical independence, often leading to formal independence. Two recent relevant examples come from the same Balkan dispute – Kosovo’s current inability to close down Serbian state institutions in the north of the province echoes the formation of a parallel Kosovo Albanians in 1990s, largely funded by a tax on the Albanian diaspora.
The combination of an armed resistance employing guerrilla tactics and an established government in waiting ultimately worked well for the Kosovo Albanians as a strategy for gaining independence, just as it had done for the Irish in the 1920s. Indeed, the strategy can be traced even further back to the first incarnation of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (IMRO) which from 1897 to 1903 collected taxes and held courts in preparation for a rebellion against the Ottoman Turks. In contrast to the other examples given, IMRO were militarily defeated by Ottoman forces in 1903, though it should be noted thousands of Ottoman troops fought against the rebels; it remains to be seen whether a comparable effort will be exerted to regain Eastern Ukraine.
Russia is seeking to present the Western powers with its own version of Kosovo. Just as Russia’s ally Serbia claims sovereignty over Kosovo with some validity in terms of international law, but has no effective control over most of its territory, the Russians are planning to make Eastern Ukraine a de facto Russian satellite before its legal status is resolved, leaving Ukraine with little to back up its legal claim to the territory. Russia will thereby present the EU and USA with a fait accompli and force them to either support serious military action to regain the area, or begrudgingly accept effective Russian/rebel control.
This could lead to a stand-off that will last for years, just as Kosovo has done. Nevertheless, one cannot deny that the momentum is with Kosovo regarding independence. It’s slow but steady accumulation of memberships of international bodies is gradually making Serbia’s claim of sovereignty redundant. Perhaps the most significant are the recent recognitions by FIFA, UEFA, and the IOC: once a country can conceivably play against you in a sporting event claims of ownership seem particularly hollow. There is little reason why Eastern Ukraine cannot follow the same path. Russian support may not be as useful as American backing is for Kosovo, but Putin has shown that he will play the waiting game in order to achieve his long-term goals.
The two latest decisions by Russia offer a great deal of legitimacy to the alternative rebel state that is developing. History tells us that once Russian-backed institutions in Eastern Ukraine take hold, they will be extremely difficult to shift, and may well provide a firm basis for eventual independence and/or unification with Russia. Russia’s intentions are clear; the ball is now firmly in the court of those who still seek to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Cover photo credit: OSCE_SMM/flickr/some rights reserved