Nato and the EU are fearing a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine. They have reason to be concerned, given that Russia would not blink to escalate while the West is still fumbling around on how best to respond. Brussels and Washington are in firefighting mode, while Russia chooses the when and the where. Annexation in the east, meanwhile, is already happening — not by force but through civil and economic ties. Military mobilisation looks like a sideshow, a distraction from what is really happening already: a slow annexation of the eastern quasi-independent republics. The pro-Russian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence from Kiev in 2014 but have never been recognised by Ukraine.
Already there are hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians with Russian citizenship. Many of them voted in the Duma elections last year, online or in organised bus tours to the nearest Russian region. Some prominent Ukrainians even got a mandate in the Duma.
This week, Vladimir Putin signed a decree that allows products produced in those former republics to be traded in Russia with no restrictions, even allowing their purchase by the state sector. The decree is officially deemed an exemption — humanitarian support — until the situation has been clarified politically. This is only the latest of a sequence of measures. It started with allowing the use of the rubble as a currency in 2015, the acknowledgement of passports from former republics in 2017, and the process of naturalisation kicked off in 2019.
The EU, meanwhile, risks falling apart over how to resolve the crisis at the Belarus border. Angela Merkel’s call to Alexander Lukashenko did not go down well with those who see this as a legitimisation of his regime, even if Merkel addressed him only as Mr Lukashenko. Omid Nouripour, the foreign policy speaker for the German Greens, said Merkel acted against the EU’s clear consensus not to recognise Lukashenko as the legitimate president of Belarus. Nouripour also calls on Germany and the EU to take the stranded migrants in, a move strongly opposed by his party’s likely coalition partners, the FDP, currently in a three-way negotiation with the Greens and SDP. Foreign policy is where these two parties in the traffic light coalition talks are far apart. If this might lead to the Greens leaving the negotiation table, that would suit Moscow well. Poland and Lithuania are two other critical voices. They wonder what will happen next.
Emmanuel Macron also went way beyond any possible EU mandate. In his phone call with Vladimir Putin on Monday that lasted nearly two hours, Macron explicitly reminded Putin that France was ready to defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, even by military means. Jean-Luc Melenchon, the socialist leader, insisted that Macron would need a mandate from parliament for this.
In this tense phone call where Macron raised a wide range of conflicts, Putin performed his usual trick when fingers are pointed at him: he just turns it around. Putin complained to Macron about the aggression of the Polish border control officers against migrants, provocative manoeuvres in Kiev, and the military presence of the US in the Black Sea. Putin has time on his side and knows how to divide the EU. Divide et impera at its most effective.
This article was first published in the EuroIntelligence morning briefing. For a trial subscription click here.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.