Feb. 16 has come and gone, and Russia has not invaded Ukraine, despite warnings from U.S. intelligence sources and officials that a Russian military action could take place on this day. Russia has also reportedly begun to move back some of its troops from Ukraine’s borders following military drills—although Western intelligence has raised doubts about Russian claims of withdrawal and said an attack remains likely.
And yet even in the absence of an attack, Moscow’s standoff with the West over Ukraine remains at an impasse. Shuttle diplomacy among Western, Russian, and Ukrainian officials has as of yet failed to produce any breakthrough agreements. Cyberattacks likely linked to Russia hit Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense and banks on Feb. 15. Russian President Vladimir Putin said during talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on the same day that Moscow was ready to discuss “confidence-building measures,” but he also warned the West and Ukraine of significant consequences if a diplomatic solution cannot be reached. On Feb. 17, Russia’s foreign ministry repeated its warning that Moscow “will be forced to respond, including with military-technical measures,” if its security guarantees are not met by the United States.
Until there’s a deal, some kind of Russian military action cannot be excluded entirely, though the form and nature of what such an action would look like is probably different from what many in the West expect.
One place to look for understanding is inside the Russian government. On Feb. 15, the Russian Duma voted to formally request Putin to recognize the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic—the two Moscow-backed separatist statelets in eastern Ukraine—as independent. Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin justified this vote by stating that “Kyiv is not observing the Minsk agreements. Our citizens and compatriots who live in Donbass need our help and support.”
The Minsk agreements to which Volodin is referring have been in a state of dispute between Moscow and Kyiv ever since they were agreed to in 2014 and 2015, primarily over the sequencing of the political and security components of the agreement and over which side offers concessions first. The vote by the Duma is nonbinding, meaning that Putin is in no way obligated to sign it into law.
And yet even if Putin turns down the law, the move acts as a warning shot for Moscow’s actions if it thinks diplomacy has failed. If Putin were to decide to recognize the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic as independent states, this would on one hand have little practical impact in and of itself, as it would be a de jure recognition (at least by Russian law) of a de facto reality that has existed for the past eight years. Yet on the other hand, this would essentially amount to the end of the Minsk process, which is an institutionalized international mediation format designed to clarify the status of these territories within Ukraine’s political system and the primary format for negotiating the Ukrainian conflict since it began in 2014.
Until now, Russia has treated Donetsk and Luhansk as if they are still part of the Ukrainian political system, even as Moscow has covertly provided these territories with security and financial support. This is why Russia has kept its military activities in these territories limited to the unofficial and hybrid realm, as it allows Moscow to at least publicly paint the Ukrainian conflict as a civil war and to treat the eastern separatists as internal Ukrainian actors. This, ironically, has served as a complicating factor to the entire negotiation process over the Ukraine conflict, but it has allowed such a process to exist in its current form and produce tactical concessions.
Were the Kremlin to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, this could theoretically open the door for a more formal Russian military presence in these territories. All it would take is a formal request by the leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic for Russia to intervene to protect Russian citizens—many residents of these territories already are Russian passport holders. A specific justification would likely be sought by Moscow, but given that cease-fire violations still take place on a regular basis along the line of contact between Ukrainian and separatist security forces—including allegations of shelling by both sides on Feb. 17—such a trigger would not be difficult for the Kremlin to find.
In the event of such a Russian military intervention, it would probably be limited to the existing territories of the separatist-controlled regions, and it would probably not involve further ground incursions or occupation of Ukrainian-controlled territory. This would give Russia the ability to say that it is not technically invading Ukraine but rather intervening in the newly recognized independent states on the request of their own people and leadership.
Russia’s intervention into the separatist territories would also fit more within the framework for Russian military action that I previously laid out in Foreign Policy: It would face little to no resistance from the local population, and the military and economic costs would likely be far lower than a further invasion of Ukrainian territory. It is the latter prospect that has raised NATO security and weapons support for Ukraine, and that has caused Ukrainian forces to be in a state of preparation.
This outcome is not inevitable. The diplomatic phase of the Ukrainian crisis is still ongoing to resolve issues within the Minsk format, and both Russian and European officials have hinted that some kind of a negotiated solution can still be reached to cool tensions and avert war. What’s more, the United States and other Western countries have signaled that any kind of Russian military action in Ukraine could prompt severe sanctions and economic restrictions, so even a move limited to the current separatist territories could prove highly—albeit perhaps not prohibitively—costly for Moscow.
What is clear, however, is that Putin is unlikely to simply walk away from this entire process empty-handed. While many have interpreted Russian military buildups and large-scale exercises as a sign that Putin was planning a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, an alternative hypothesis is that such moves are intended as a part of the broader negotiation process that Moscow is trying to drive with the West. Similarly, the Duma voting to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states does not obligate Putin to do so—the Kremlin leader so far simply “took note” of the vote—but it does now give him the option as a negotiating tool. What Putin may be doing here is signaling with the potential recognition of these separatist republics that he is not satisfied with Ukraine’s implementation of Minsk, and so he wants that process to be shored up by the West. Additionally, and more importantly, Putin wants to negotiate a new and more comprehensive security framework for Ukraine and Europe.
The ultimate question is: What action will Putin take if he doesn’t get any concessions from the West after all these talks? Recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states is one alternative option to a broader military invasion and occupation of Ukraine, albeit one that still entails the potential for military action and could shift the paradigm in the standoff between Moscow and the West. While a diplomatic process is still underway to avoid further escalation, it could soon take a turn if no progress is made.
Eugene Chausovsky is a nonresident fellow at the Newlines Institute. Chausovsky previously served as senior Eurasia analyst at the geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor for more than 10 years. His work focuses on political, economic, and security issues pertaining to Russia, Eurasia, and the Middle East.