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

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 below. Unlike Russian nationalists, some out there even believe that Russia should have helped Yanukovych back to Bankova.

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“Today, many seek an answer to what happened in Ukraine in 2014, and was it possible to stop the banderovite nazis from coming to power?” AND ON THE MEME: “They could have stopped the banderovites in 2014, they were spooked by sanctions and forgot about honour before the historic motherland (USSR?). Even though, sanctions were inevitable, no matter what!”

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.

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.

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.

8 thoughts on “Why Taking Ukraine in 2014 Would Have Been a Bad Idea?

  1. Pretty weak arguments, IMO.

    Sad reality – Russia did criminally little to economically seriously prepare for a standoff with the West (when all the signs were pointing to one after 2008 at the latest).

    I agree that absorbing Ukraine whole would have been beyond Russia’s capacity. But Novorossiya was perfectly doable, and I disagree there’d have been sabotage problems. Crimea’s pre-accession support for unity with Russia of 40% went up to 90% (or in other words, the Russophilia Quotient moved up by more than a standard deviation); by extension, Donbass support of 30% should have risen to around 80% post factum, while even relatively unenthusiastic areas like Dnepropetrovsk would have risen to 50/50. Now Dnepropetrovsk is almost as anti-Russian as Kiev, which in turn is almost as anti-Russian as Galicia.

    PS. Back in the 1990s, it was semi-conventional wisdom that Russia would eventually take Belarus and East Ukraine back. Now the latter at least is far less imaginable than in 2010.

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    1. Russia would need to have an elite which would see the reality of the West, and if they were far seeing, they would have seen it already in 2003, or perhaps earlier. Instead the Russian elite are Papua-New Guineans, who can easily be bought and scared off.

      In 2014 we did not have another Russia, without Chubais and Nikolay Choles. We had Russia of crooks and thieves, who are more concerned about their Western real estate than some semi-Ukrainian dregs in Ukraine’s east. Besides, they are more interested in keeping the Russian populace content than taking on more human deadweight, or giving dregs in Russia ideas. They are also more interested in continuing deals with the Ukrainian oligarchs.

      This kind of Russia was only interested in doing enough to save face, and continuing business as usual.

      Imagine a situation in which this kind of Russia takes over Dniepropetrovsk. They put in power some Regionnaires, they make the Ukrainian language official, so they will have to contend with svidomites. Who needs this?

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  2. About regional economics:
    * Donetsk – richest region after Kiev (before the war), though with significant social problems; accounted for something like 25% of Ukraine’s exports
    * Kharkov – basically a second capital; second academic/research center after Kiev; strong machine building, including Ukraine’s premier tank production/repair yard
    * Zaporozhye – helicopter production
    * Odessa – Ukraine’s major port; could be developed into a major cultural node
    * Nikolaev – Ukraine’s shipbuilding center
    * Dnepropetrovsk – major industrial center and logistical hub
    So out of Novorossiya’s eight oblasts, some six of them are valuable and can be expected to be self-sustaining, while two of them aren’t (Kherson and Lugansk).
    Crimea is also in that latter category, though it could potentially move into the ranks of quality provinces with a lot of investment (which Russia is doing now); but stability would also help, including Ukraine not shutting down that canal. Which a land bridge could have accomplished.
    Comparable quality provinces in the rest of Ukraine: Kiev/Kiev oblast, Lvov, Poltava, … and I think that’s basically it.
    Taking Novorossiya would have crippled Ukraine, which significantly boosting Russia’s own capacities.

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    1. You forget the whole area would be blocked by international sanctions, and the economy would be utterly dependent on Russia for help. 20 million mouths to feed. Russia sucks economically to take on such a burden. It would probably lead to major crisis in RF proper.

      Russia doesn’t even have the balls to create a land bridge to Crimea, something I don’t understand. Why didn’t they do it? Maybe because they wanted to have influence over Akhmetov in Ukraine, and they let him have Mariupol. Either way Renat’s interests are clearly more dear than water for Crimean vineyards.

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    2. Come to think of it, did Russia even have a substantial food production in 2014 before counter sanctions were imposed?

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