As eastern Ukraine spirals out of control, the interim government in Kiev is desperately seeking to renegotiate the Geneva agreement, aimed at restoring a semblance of unity in the now deeply divided state. Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, appears happy adjusting levers of strategic power to apply pressure, in turn in Donetsk, Sloviansk and now in Odessa.
It is not yet clear whether the eastern Russian-speaking region will actually separate from Ukraine, whether Russia will invade or if regional destabilisation is just being used to achieve other ends. At least as likely as invasion, this destablisation is just a bloody game to achieve Russia’s regional economic and strategic goals.
There is no doubt that Russia is providing most of the impetus for separatism in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions. First Crimea separated from Ukraine, with the direct intervention of what Putin first denied and then later admitted were Russian troops without insignia. Now "paramilitaries" with identical unmarked uniforms and weapons are active in eastern Ukraine. These paramilitaries are providing both direction and reinforcement to separatist Ukrainian Russian-speakers.
There is fear within the Kiev government that pushing back against the pro-Russian occupation of key towns and installations in the east will provoke a direct Russian invasion. This will, many believe, be rationalised by the deaths of Russian speakers.
However, short of mass casualties among Russian speakers, which would spark an artificially constructed Russian variation of the "responsibility to protect" paradigm, such an overt intervention is unlikely. The intention of the Russian government appears to be to pressure the Kiev interim government into reversing its position on embracing the European Union and NATO to one of returning to mother Russia.
To achieve this outcome, Russia is balancing its role in eastern Ukraine. Should Russia overtly invade, it would be politically difficult to withdraw and leave Russian speakers living within a Ukrainian state. Such an intervention would almost certainly require absorption of Russian-speaking areas into Russia proper.
More usefully, Russia will exert maximum pressure on the government in Kiev without invading. Russia does not wish to lose the leverage that would come from leaving Ukraine nominally intact but internally divided. In this, Crimea was useful as an object of lesson to the Kiev government for what could happen in eastern Ukraine. It was not necessarily a precursor to what will happen.
In the meantime, what amounts to a deadly theatre is being played out in Odessa, Donetsk, Sloviansk, Konstantinovka, Slavyansk, Andreyevka and Kramatorsk. Dozens have now died, and Ukraine’s security forces are demoralised and, in part, divided.
Since invading Georgia in 2008, Russia has been much more prepared to directly intervene in the affairs of its neighbors. Regional control is much more important to Moscow than international rule of law.
But Moscow does not wish to reincorporate Ukraine entirely, as it did once within the former Soviet Union. Ukraine serves a more convenient purpose if it remains nominally independent but performs to a classically pessimistic script drafted by the Kremlin.
Such a script, by default, portrays Moscow as the powerful yet torn protagonist. In this, Russia’s dramas, vanities and intemperances are writ large. By way of contrast, the minor, peripheral characters are increasingly being rehearsed in their role to be one of subservience and supplication in this Slavic tragedy.
Russia's political leaders appear to be taking a particular pleasure in the planned and co-ordinated dismemberment of Ukraine. As with any unprincipled thug, Russia’s only constraint is ensuring it remains internationally unaccountable while continuing to dismantle its vulnerable neighbour.
Russia is now breaking off pieces of the country at will and ignoring international protestations while feigning innocence. The eastern Ukraine town of Slaviansk is now firmly under the control of thinly disguised Russian troops and their local compatriots, with Ukraine reluctant to act for fear of provoking even greater Russian intervention.
That pro-Russian militia took military observers from Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe hostage only further highlights Russia’s intransigence towards a genuinely negotiated resolution of the crisis. The arrest of the observers, on the pretext they were spying, was a simple demonstration of Russia’s rejection of any external involvement in events in eastern Ukraine; the release of one on health grounds was an all-but-inconsequential gesture.
European and United States protestations at the events in eastern Ukraine are having no effect on Russia’s actions, nor are proposed economic sanctions by the G7 expected to be strong or co-ordinated enough to be meaningful. In any case, Russia has already factored sanctions into its game plan.
As with threats of US intervention following the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria last year, Russia has fobbed off US concerns by agreeing to terms it had no intention of keeping. Russia was to urge moderation on pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, retaining the fiction that they are not actual Russian soldiers.
While some of the heavily armed and uniformed militia in eastern Ukraine are, no doubt, locals who have volunteered or been recruited to the service of the militant separatist movement, others are clearly uniformed Russian soldiers without identifying insignia. These Russian soldiers are identical to those Russian troops without insignia who, with support of Russian-speaking locals, overthrew Ukraine control of Crimea in February.
Meanwhile, despite Russia’s earlier agreement to draw down troop numbers massed on Ukraine’s border, there are some 40,000 soldiers still in place, along with military "exercises" that look like preparations for invasion. This, too, however, is part of Russia’s "psychological warfare" game plan, whereby it has not technically invaded Ukraine, but the threat of doing so undermines Ukraine’s interim Parliament’s every thought and move.
While Russia is very unlikely to invade Ukraine, it is absolutely intent on seeing Ukraine rewrite the country’s constitution to create autonomous -- Russian-aligned -- regions. It also wants Ukraine to hold new elections, producing a parliament with a dominant core of pro-Russian members, and an agreement to turn away from the European Union and embrace Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union.
In all of this, as with the US in some of its own ventures in Latin America, Russia sees Ukraine as clearly within its own sphere of influence. And there is no doubt that if events in Ukraine are handled badly, they could create a much bigger and more serious regional problem.
But the US, Europe and even Russia are all keen to avoid an uncontrolled escalation of the Ukraine crisis, especially in ways that could spill across borders. To that end, Russia is being a regional thug but, with no one prepared or, indeed, able to force a halt to its carefully calculated actions, it is likely to get the final outcome it wishes.