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Momentarily putting aside the Russian invasion of Ukraine until the last paragraphs of this posting, let’s first look at its demographic and geopolitical aspects. The two regions of Ukraine which have declared themselves to be independent, Donetsk and Luhansk, and which Russia promptly recognized, present an unusual demographic challenge to Russia.
A friend who was born in Russia pointed out to me that the two major cities in these two regions are populated by large numbers of Russian-speaking Ukrainians who would welcome inclusion in Russia. The remainder of these two provinces, the small towns, the farms and the villages, however, speak Ukrainian and would not readily accept inclusion in Russia. Thus, Russia’s recognizing these break-away regions presents problems for them, despite their acknowledged control of the two major cities.
The Donetsk region (they call them ‘Oblasts’) has about four and a half million people, of which about only a million live in the city of Donetsk. The Luhansk Oblast has a population of about two and a half million, with only about half a million in the city of Luhansk, the population of which is about evenly split between Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers. As a rule of thumb, the further east one goes in Ukraine, the more people speak Russian and would not object to being part of that country instead of Ukraine. This is the kind of problem which has plagued Europe for centuries and has led to numerous wars. Note from the map below that the area held by those desiring permanent separation from Ukraine are only small areas of these two provinces (Oblasts).
Putin wants the region known as ‘the Ukraine’ (as opposed to the nation known as Ukraine) back in what was the Russian ‘empire’ until the USSR broke up in 1990. He dreams of reconstructing what once was the USSR, with the Ukraine as one of its participating and subservient ‘republics,’ which it had become after the First World War a century ago.
Although Ukrainian has always been spoken in that region as well as Russian, and Ukraine has always been to some extent independent for periods of time throughout history, even Americans sometimes treat it as if it were part of Russia. The Yalta conference took place there as well as it being the setting of some of Chekhov’s plays. Most assume that setting was Russia, but really, it was Ukraine, or ‘the Ukraine,’ as part of Russia or of the USSR, where these events took place. Even Ukraine’s President’s first language is Russian, not Ukrainian!
This all serves, along with its large Russian-speaking population, to diminish Ukrainian identity, which is nevertheless very real and has been supported by its totally independent nationhood for over 30 years since 1991 after the USSR broke up. Through several treaties, including one giving up its nuclear weapons, Ukraine co-existed with Russia until 2014 when it withdrew from them after Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, a violation of these treaties.
In the background of Putin’s moves is the long-standing desire of Russia for a Black Sea outlet to the Mediterranean Sea. Seizing the Crimean peninsula in 2014 somewhat achieved this but control of the adjacent Sea of Azov is also important to achieving it. The Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts border on that sea providing ports, from which the Black Sea can be accessed through the Kerch Strait, an area of conflict for years between Russia and Ukraine. The Don River empties into the sea of Azov, flowing through Donetsk.
Ukraine was doing a fine job succeeding as a democracy after they, in 2014, threw out Putin’s puppets (the ones Paul Manafort, Trump's 2016 campaign advisor, worked to install there). Its successful economy exported many products including grains, petroleum and manufactured items throughout Europe and Asia, and included Russia as a customer. But throwing out his puppet regime was a refutation of everything Vladimir Putin stands for. The former regions of the USSR that have chosen to ally with the West, like the three Baltic states (Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia) as well as former satellites like Poland, are doing well and Vladimir Putin would not like to see Ukraine follow their path, fearing an ultimate spread of such democratic models to Russia itself.
On this map, the body of water south of Donetsk is the Sea of Azov. The Crimean peninsula, occupied by Russia since 2014 is to its left. The Sea of Azov ultimately provides entry into the Black Sea via the Kerch Strait, and ultimately is a route to the Mediterranean Sea via the Bosphorus and Dardanelles.
As for membership in NATO, which calls for all members to come to the aid of any which might be attacked, that is another matter entirely and raises the question of whether that aid must necessarily be military force with troops ‘on the ground’ or firing from jet planes or sending off missiles or possibly something significantly less, but still potent, such as imposing economic sanctions, along with arming member states whose military might become involved. Although the U.S.A. is a member of NATO, its degree of actual military participation (Article 5 of the NATO Agreement) is still a matter of debate in this country, particularly after its Afghan and Iraqi experiences.
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At this time, with the uneven military confrontation started by Putin in Ukraine still dangerously fluid, it is hard to see what the outcome will be. I will take a wild guess though and it is that Putin will ultimately decide that it is not worth the trouble ...
(1) once Western and world-wide economic sanctions begin to be felt, and,
(2) once the Ukrainians prove to be a harder nut to crack than he thought, and,
(3) once his deadly military action against neighbors whom many Russians consider as countrymen or even relatives arouses domestic opposition, and,
(4) once he realizes there is little support for his actions among the world's nations.
Putin’s calling the democratically-elected Ukraine government a bunch of Nazis manipulated by the United States, an effort to split off the Ukrainian people from their elected government, will not work. The Ukrainians are too smart to swallow that.
The question is how long it will take Putin to come to this realization and decide upon a comfortable exit strategy. There already are whispers about a meeting being scheduled in Belarus’ capital, Minsk, to negotiate an end to hostilities. Of course, both sides will start with extreme, supposedly non-negotiable positions and the result will depend upon how much compromise can be achieved.
Ukraine will probably agree not to join NATO, at least openly, and Putin will pull his troops out. The West’s sanctions will be removed. The Donetsk and Luhansk separatists in the Don River Basin (often called the Donbas) will be given a measure of autonomy, and Russia might even gain access via a treaty to their ports on the Sea of Azov. But the Ukrainians will retain their independence and will lick their wounds, bandaged with dollars from the West and that is the way it will end.
Each side will be able to claim victory. That’s my guess. How long it will take to happen? A week? A month? Three or four months? I don’t know.