Raising the stakes Meduza uncovers why the Russian State Duma asked Putin to recognize the breakaway ‘republics’ in eastern Ukraine
The tensions surrounding the Russia-Ukraine crisis have continued to escalate with no end in sight. On Thursday, February 17, U.S. President Joe Biden said that there’s still a “very high” threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, warning that this could happen “in the next several days.” The Kremlin, meanwhile, underscored that it has no plans of backtracking on its demands for comprehensive security guarantees from Washington and NATO. Moscow raised the stakes again earlier this week when the State Duma adopted an official resolution urging President Vladimir Putin to recognize the self-proclaimed “republics” in eastern Ukraine. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev uncovers why this step was taken and how it was orchestrated.
On February 15, the Russian State Duma sent a resolution to President Vladimir Putin calling for diplomatic recognition of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. The resolution was submitted to parliament by lawmakers from the Communist Party (KPRF), however, members of other political parties backed it as well.
As it happens, lawmakers from the United Russia party had drawn up a similar resolution. This bill outlined a more cautious approach, which included consultations with the Russian Foreign Ministry before appealing to Putin. In the end, only 310 lawmakers voted for the ruling party’s bill; the Communist Party’s proposal won the day with the support of 350 lawmakers — including 255 from United Russia. Unlike their colleagues from the “party of power,” members of the KPRF faction didn’t vote for the alternative bill.
That same day, Putin met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had come to Moscow for talks because of the escalating tensions around Ukraine. During a joint press conference, Putin commented on the State Duma’s motion — the lawmakers, he said, were guided by their “intuitive” understanding of public opinion.
“It’s quite evident that in our country the vast majority of people sympathize with the residents of the Donbas, support them, and hope that the situation there will radically change for the better for them,” the Russian president said.
At the same time, Putin underscored that the “problems” in the Donbas ought to be resolved by implementing the “not yet fully realized opportunities” of the Minsk agreements. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later said that Putin had taken the State Duma’s resolution “under advisement.”
The speaker’s scheme
According to Meduza’s sources in the Russian State Duma, the initial assumption was that the lawmakers would vote for United Russia’s bill. “It was softer, long-playing. The Foreign Ministry could have politely rejected [the initiative] by referencing the Minsk agreements [and] declared that in the event of an escalation, the initiative will be kept in mind,” said a source close to the State Duma’s leadership.
However, shortly before the vote, the circumstances changed. Another Meduza source in the parliament’s leadership claims that rank-and-file deputies from United Russia received “unspoken instructions.” “They were informed that the speaker [Vyacheslav Volodin] had no objections if they [were to] support both documents,” the source explained.
Lawmakers from United Russia later clarified that many of them voted for both draft resolutions to “demonstrate consensus in the effort to protect people in the Donbas.”
That said, according to Meduza’s sources, these tacit instructions had no effect on United Russia’s high-ranking members, who only voted for their own party’s bill. Indeed, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin didn’t vote for the KPRF’s initiative, and neither did his deputies Alexander Zhukov, Alexey Gordeev, Sholban Kara-Ool, Anna Kuzentsova, Sergey Neverov, and Irina Yarovaya. United Russia faction leader Vladimir Vasilyev and lawmaker Pavel Krasheninnikov, who heads the Committee on State Building and Constitutional Legislation, didn’t vote for the KPRF’s bill either.
A source from Volodin’s entourage believes that the voting results were the “speaker’s scheme.” “He actively works not only with the United Russia faction, but also with the other factions, including the KPRF. Now the Communists owe him one — because their version was adopted,” the source surmised.
Speaking to Meduza, another source from Volodin’s entourage underscored that important issues are always discussed with the leadership of the various factions. But, he added, this doesn’t mean anyone’s hand is “being forced.” “It may involve bargaining. We’ll support [you], and you’ll give us something in exchange,” the source explained.
According to this source, the fact that the State Duma supported the KPRF resolution is beneficial to the country’s leadership. If this particular initiative on recognizing the DNR and LNR turns out to be of “no use,” the authorities can always claim that it was developed by an opposition party whose position doesn’t reflect the opinion of the majority of Russians.
“If recognition turns out to be relevant, Volodin will have done well. If not, he [will have done well] too. He organized the adoption of a controversial initiative from the opposition and shielded the Duma’s leadership from supporting it,” said Meduza’s source. (At the time of publication, the State Duma’s press office hadn’t responded to our questions about Volodin’s role in organizing the voting.)
In addition, two Meduza sources close to the domestic policy bloc of Putin’s administration said that “the AP [presidential administration] can’t tell Volodin how exactly to act.” “He only reports to the president, he has direct contact with him and is a member of the Security Council by virtue of his position. But it can’t be said that he acts on presidential orders. Volodin thinks that he knows what Putin will like, and that’s what he does,” claimed one of the sources.
“Right now, everyone is competing [to show] Putin who is the bigger patriot. Both Volodin and [Federation Council Deputy Speaker and United Russia General Council Secretary Andrey] Turchak are raising the stakes,” added another source close to Putin’s administration. (In late January, Turchak and United Russia urged the Russian leadership to openly supply military aid to the DNR and LNR.)
What’s more, both sources believe that Putin won’t sign the resolution on recognizing the “people’s republics” in the near future. However, the State Duma’s initiative “may prove useful” in the event that relations with Ukraine — or the United States — deteriorate even further.
According to Meduza’s sources, the Russian leadership is allegedly “at a loss” and doesn’t “understand what the Americans want.” “They’re already fed up with the constant announcements about new invasion dates,” said one source. Meduza’s sources maintain that there is no “Russian invasion” of Ukraine on the cards.
Publicly, the Russian authorities are sticking to this position as well. However, on February 17, the Foreign Ministry issued a response to security proposals from the United States, which stated: “In the absence of readiness of the U.S. side to negotiate solid, legally binding guarantees of our security by the U.S. and its allies, Russia will have to react, including via implementation of measures of military-technical nature.”
Western countries believe that the accumulation of Russian troops and equipment on the border with Ukraine signals that Moscow is preparing for an invasion. In recent days, the Russian Defense Ministry has reported that some troops are returning to their permanent bases after completing military drills. However, the U.S. State Department says that they haven't seen a withdrawal — on the contrary, American officials warn that Russia has increased its forces near the border with Ukraine.