Kyiv, Ukraine – A Russian lawmaker let slip Russia’s possible pretext for a full-scale war with Ukraine.
Just hours after Moscow recognized the “independence” of the breakaway Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, a top parliamentarian in charge of affairs with ex-Soviet republics said that the borders of Moscow-backed statelets should be “restored.”
Rebels supported by Russia hastily proclaimed the establishment of the “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014 after internationally unrecognized “referendums”.
But in reality, they control only about a third of their rust-belt regions, peppered with Soviet-era factories and coal mines, with an iron fist.
“Currently, [Donetsk and Luhansk] occupy areas that are smaller than [what was defined] during the referendums, but they also think that their statehood reaches those areas too, ”lawmaker Leonid Kalashnikov told the Interfax news agency Tuesday.
The pronouncement may have signified Moscow’s readiness to back the rebels militarily, but the Kremlin and its master, Vladimir Putin, have not made up their minds about whether they are going to war with Ukraine.
Within hours, Kalashnikov, a mid-level cog in Moscow’s propaganda machine, retracted his statement, telling the Podyem telegram channel that Moscow’s deal with the breakaway regions “does not specify the borders.”
So, in Moscow’s corridors of power, war is apparently not a done deal.
And in Ukraine, war veterans, observers and refugees from separatist-held areas agree with what Kalashnikov said about the casus belli.
Kalashnkolv’s words “mean that we will face a war for [the Azov Sea port of] Mariupol and other towns that are under Ukraine now, ”Vladislav Sobolevsky, who volunteered to fight the separatists between 2014 and 2017, told Al Jazeera.
“They will fight for Mariupol with aviation and missiles,” said the 32-year-old native of the eastern city of Kharkiv, which lies some 40km (25 miles) from the Russian border, added.
Even those who didn’t think a full-scale war was going to happen find the new alarming situation.
“I never believed in the big war, with Kyiv pillaged and all of that, and I still don’t. But there are reasons to be nervous, ”Mikhail Pogrebisnky, a Kyiv-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.
Much depends on President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government – and its pro-Western political tilt that ignores the needs and hopes of eastern Ukraine where Russian-speakers are a majority and where disruption of economic ties with Moscow badly hurt the economy, he said.
“If Kyiv keeps moving in the wake of America’s interests, not Ukraine’s, and if Kyiv identifies itself as the front line of deterring Russia, then it may lead to a more serious military operation” on the part of Moscow, Pogrebisnky said.
The recognition of Donetsk’s and Luhansk’s “administrative borders” may prompt Moscow to issue a political ultimatum that could change the very fabric of Ukraine as an independent nation.
Moscow may issue “an ultimatum on the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces” from Kyiv-controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
What may follow is an “escalation according to the Georgian scenario” of 2014, when Moscow unleashed its first war with an ex-Soviet republic, Georgia, and recognized two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, he said.
Both regions became Moscow’s obedient vassals, fully dependent on its financial and military support amid economic degradation and an exodus of its residents.
Moscow may now force Kyiv to sign a new set of accords to replace two peace deals known as Minsk I and II after the capital of neighboring Belarus, where they were signed.
Minsk I was inked by Russia and Ukraine in September 2014 and envisaged prisoner swaps, deliveries of humanitarian aid and withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front lines.
But violations by both sides broke the accord down, and the Minsk II deal was made in February 2015.
Its provisions included Kyiv’s “dialogue” with the separatists, an amnesty for their armed forces despite the war crimes they had committed, and constitutional reform to “decentralize” Ukraine and give its regions broader autonomy.
Kyiv agreed to Minsk II only because the government was cornered politically, and the demoralized and under-equipped military suffered heavy losses.
“Every Minsk is worse than the previous one,” Kushch said.
So, a potential Minsk III may “most likely include demands to openly federalize Ukraine”, something that may make its regions semi-independent in their domestic affairs on matters such as the use of Russian language or closer ties with Russia, he said.
Apart from Moscow, neighboring Hungary may be very happy about the possible federalization of Ukraine.
The government of Moscow-friendly Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a populist, has for years urged Kyiv to give broader autonomy to some 150,000 ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine’s southwestern region of Transcarpathia.
Tensions heightened after Kyiv banned the use of “regional languages,” including Russian and Hungarian, in public schools and documentation, while other ethnic minorities in Ukraine voiced concern about the use of their languages.
The “federalization” of Ukraine could also lead to centrifugal tendencies in Ukraine’s regions where powerful business tycoons known as “oligarchs” have held sway for years controlling the economy and funding politicians and television networks.
And yet, many Ukrainians hope war is not imminent.
“The probability of war is in general higher, but everything depends on what strength forces will start doing” in Donetsk and Luhansk, Svitlana Medviedeva, who fled Donetsk in 2014 for Kyiv, told Al Jazeera.
After getting in touch with her friends and relatives there, she said that so far, “nothing special is going on in terms of military operations.”
“They are being frightened with urgent text messages and statements on TV of the ‘stand up to defend your motherland’ kind, ‘” she said.