As the Russians menace Ukraine by amassing at least 100,000 troops at the border, it is time to ask what Russian President Vladimir Putin is really after.
Yes, he wants to ensure Ukraine doesn’t join NATO, keeping that country within his sphere of influence. Yes, he wants to expand the boundaries of Mother Russia, just as he did when his forces invaded Crimea in 2014 and annexed it. And yes, he wants to regain popularity at home, just as he did after the Crimean invasion, by being a strong leader.
Yet, the question is this — what’s really going on and what is Putin really after?
Since 2014, Russia has continually eroded the borders of an area of Ukraine, not with troops but with Russian operatives who have sowed public chaos and demanded sovereignty for the Russians living there. The region is called Donbas, in the southeastern part of the country, bordering Russia. Donbas has ethnic Russians, but not like Crimea. The majority of Donbas is Ukrainian, not Russian. So Putin cannot make the claim that he’s returning Russians to Russia.
I have just returned from a fact-finding mission to the Donbas region. For the past six years, Russian operatives have taken control of the region and created a living hell for Ukrainians there. More than 14,000 people have died as a result of the Russian occupation, and more are killed every day. The place is now described as “gray,” just like the old Soviet Union (the main city in the region is now called the People’s Republic of Donetsk), with everyone afraid that they will be purged next.
While traveling through this province, I met and talked to people who are in utter despair. One even said, “Everything is gray, except for the blood.” While the world worries about whether Russia will invade Ukraine, the real objective — Donbas — goes unnoticed.
Donbas is miserable. The freezing, starving, critically ill and war-torn wounded wander the streets, just trying to feed themselves. The money given by a few governments rarely gets to the shelters, hospitals or aid institutions. Maybe as much as $750 million has been stolen while the people suffer.
That said, the current standoff being played out with Russia might actually create an opportunity for Ukraine to act.
The solution is to demand that Russian forces leave Donbas and return the region to Ukraine. It is theirs, after all. Diplomats should use this standoff to create leverage for Donbas and the Ukrainian government. Ukraine should use its power to take control of Donbas.
With the world backing it diplomatically, Ukraine could see that through. Russia has not massed an army to invade, but to keep Ukraine from moving back into Donbas. So, call out Putin at his own game, and win back sovereignty for the citizens living there.
Now is the perfect time for Ukraine to turn the tables on the Russians. The president of Ukraine needs to reveal the real issue here: Donbas. The United States and the European Union need to demonstrate and clearly outline their support for Ukraine’s right to recover its own territory. And they, along with the rest of the world, must demand immediate and lasting diplomatic resolution.
Putin’s demands are misplaced. It’s time for Ukraine to demand the entirety of its country back, for the world to back it up and for the killing and misery to stop.
William J. Waggoner, an attorney, is writing “The Borders We Cross,” a book about international borders and the stories of their creation. He recently returned from a fact-finding mission about the border crisis in Ukraine.
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