Updated on 15 March 2015 with newly revealed information on Crimea.
As I have written previously, based on the available evidence, I have concluded that most of the Donbas rebels are indeed locals. At the same time, I also believe that they are being encouraged by Russian nationalists from Russia, such as Igor Strelkov. These nationalists are acting in a private capacity to not only assist but also encourage the rebels. It is important to note that they are not supported in their endeavors by official Moscow.
However, the hardline faction of the Russian political elite, led by Dmitry Rogozin, wants Putin to intervene in Eastern Ukraine to support the rebels. They took a similar position on Crimea. Following ouster of Yanukovych from power in Kiev, a debate ensued in Moscow on the fate of Crimea. Concerns regarding NATO expansion in Ukraine, the influence of the far-right in the new Kiev government, and the potential effort by the new Kiev government to expel the Russian Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol prompted the debate over the peninsula’s status. Such fears were not unfounded as many in the Kiev government supported Ukrainian NATO membership, while others sought to cancel Russia’s lease on the base – and still others on the far-right (particularly Oleh Tyahnybok and Svoboda) wanted to abolish Crimea’s autonomy entirely.
The hardliners demanded immediate annexation, arguing that you either “take Crimea today” or “fight there tomorrow.” At the same time, the more liberal political wing in Moscow (represented by Dmitry Medvedev and others from Putin’s St. Petersburg Sobchak days) was opposed to annexing Crimea outright. They favored a referendum on the issue, but preferred to delay a final decision on the matter and use Crimea as a “bargaining chip” to ensure the presence of the Sevastopol base and to ensure that Ukraine does not join NATO. Additionally, they argued, if Russia were to “reunite” with Crimea right away, it would make relations with the West even worse.
Putin ordered an emergency opinion poll during this time that showed that the vast majority of Crimeans wanted to join Russia. Weighing all options, Putin ultimately decided to support the pro-Russian movement in Crimea through a special operation, using the troops from the Black Sea Fleet to gain control of the peninsula as a so-called “self-defense force,” starting on 27 February 2014.
Putin also took the position that he would favor the outcome of the referendum, whatever the final result. As he said in a new documentary on Crimea that was aired on Russian television on 15 March 2015, his “final goal was to allow the people express their wishes on how they want to live. I decided for myself: what the people want will happen. If they want greater autonomy with some extra rights within Ukraine, so be it. If they decide otherwise, we cannot fail them.” The referendum was then organized in which the majority of the voters cast their ballots in favor of reunification with Russia. The rest is history.
The hardliners seek to convince Putin to take a similar position in Eastern Ukraine. However, the potential of intervening there is far more dangerous. Primarily, the linguistic demarcation between Russian-speaking Southeastern Ukraine and Surzhyk-speaking Central Ukraine is very blurred. Thus a Russian intervention would only make the situation more dangerous. Given this and other factors, Putin has not did not yielded to the pressure of the hardliners to intervene, even after a referendum was organized in the Donbas. In this regard, the more liberal St. Petersburg faction in the Kremlin, led by Medvedev and others, has been successful in persuading Putin not to intervene. The most that Putin conceded to the hardliners with regard to Eastern Ukraine was his invoking of historic “Novorossiya.” However, even here, Putin has recently moved away from making such statements and has made attempts to clarify his use of that term to stress that Moscow is not seeking territorial claims on Ukraine.