As the sun rose over Eastern Europe just before the invasion two new countries began “life”. Sort of.
These little gangster republics, The People’s Republic of Donetsk and The People’s Republic of Luhansk as “countries” are only recognised by each other and Russia just before the invasion. “People’s Republic” is almost as hilarious as “Democratic People’s Republic” as signifying the furthest point from either republican governments or democracy.
They are the latest in a number of “fake states” in the former USSR. Putin has a rolodex full of them because he made them. Their production is one of several new-ish strategies employed by Russia, like multi-level harassment, internet hooliganism and now huge war which make the world more dangerous and life in the areas themselves horrible.
Nearly all countries are officially recognised by nearly all the other countries: along with ownership of actual land, international recognition is the cornerstone of a country’s legitimacy. This can be complicated: China doesn’t “recognize” the legitimacy of Taiwan and most Arab states don’t recognize Israel, but without broad recognition a “country” is just a plot of land with some yelling people and a flag. If that. More of a joke really.
It is the fake countries we turn our attention to today as they are interesting from both an international politics as well as legal perspective. They inhabit the legal land between a joke and a legitimate country. They are also relevant as their “defense” formed part of the original justification for the invasion. To rationalize violent international aggression one must have something, a friend even, to defend.
Donetsk and Luhansk are just the latest. In the last two decades, Russia has established, at first by controlling the land (via soft invasion or small war) then recognizing the following countries few can find on a map. Following the invasion/war in the Republic of Georgia, two statelets were carved out of it: the Republic of Abkhazia on the Black Sea and the Republic of South Ossetia, inland up in the mountains. Both are Russian controlled by proxy.
North of these and on Ukraine’s western flank lies a slither of Dniester river-hugging real estate known officially as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), or Transdneister, a Soviet era throwback where the hammer and sickle still fly and Stalin’s statue sits grinning downtown. It is located on Moldavian and/or Ukrainian land, depending on who is shouting.
Interestingly, nearby Crimea is not a statelet of this family but rather an integral part of the Russian Federation. Ordinary Russians take it seriously as theirs, felt its loss at the end of the USSR emotionally, and for a long time it was Soviet, Russian before that, until being Ukrainian for 22 years ending in 2014.
The above jurisdictions all have a lot in common. Firstly, mainly only Russia recognizes them. That said, occasionally (real) micro-states like Nauru or hard-times pariahs like Nicaragua, Syria or Venezuela can be bribed into accepting them, their diplomats and their passports as real. Sometimes only temporarily. They all recognise each other with embassies, visa free travel and diplomatic love letters all exchanged. Their borders are hard, barbed-wired, defined and defended. All are dependent on Russia for pretty much everything and their economies tend towards the dark side: corruption, bootlegging, gold toothed crooks with more tattoos than is seemly, busy smuggling networks and shady, gangster governments. Many young people of ambition or beauty have left leaving the dregs of society and old shuffling babushkas surviving in leaky concrete architectural nightmares on piddlingly small pensions. These are not happy lands.
Citizens usually hold passports for these confab countries as well as Russia and sometimes the successor state they’re carved out of, in this case of Donetsk and Lukansk, Ukraine.
Usually there is a sizable population of Russians as well as locals (Ukrainian, Georgian, Moldovan or Armenian citizens). And here’s a magic trick: when Russia soft invades – like with the deniable “Little Green Men” in Eastern Ukraine who established the Donetsk and Luhansk twins, they force the locals to acquire their phony state’s documents AND Russian passports. This is called “invasion by passport” and provides a casus belli – a reason for war – for Russia to protect these newly minted “Russian” citizens, no matter how Russian they actually are or want to be. On paper they are dual Russian/local statelet citizens. Diplomatically it is complicated but enviably creative if you’re in the sleazy, empire expanding business.
This dual nationality can be a good thing – try travelling anywhere except Russia, Donetsk or maybe Nauru with an Abkhazi etc. passport and it’s worth a little less than animal fertiliser as a travel document. But forcing a nationality on somebody is nearly as morally bankrupt as denying somebody their nationality. All were founded as a result of a small or medium sized war started by guess who.
Another important commonality with these fake states, given recent events, is that in every event Putin got away with the small wars leading to them and their continued existence. There were diplomatic noises, mainly grunts, made during the carve up of Georgia and some blowback after Crimea but who noticed or cared about South Ossetia? And Abkhazia sounds more like something out of a Harry Potter book. Readers confused it with Azerbaijan!
The real countries these statelets were carved out of had little chance of keeping them or getting them returned: what backs up a Georgian soldier, say? Another Georgian. What backs up a Russian soldier? A Kalashnikov, a tank, a nuclear bomb.
They are uniformly bleak, poor and tumble down. Most available photos for this article would have depressed the readers but they do have some lovely creative flags and coats of arms (see South Ossetia’s). So there’s that.
The larger area of the Eastern former USSR is replete with these legally weird jurisdictions: another is Nagorno-Karabakh or the “Republic of Artsakh” (again, NOT Azerbaijan) which is ethnically an embattled enclave of Armenia surrounded by Azerbaijan, with no Russian border at all. Armenians and Azerbaijani are neighbors who put great effort into despising each other but Artsakh has its ever more precarious existence underwritten by Moscow as well. Notice a theme here?
Further, all these jurisdictions are tiny. The largest is Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh (4,424 square miles, smaller as of recent fighting) followed by Donetsk (3,437 sq. m.), Abkhazia (3,346 sq. mi.), Luhansk (3,234) Transdniester (1,607) and tiny South Ossetia (1,506).
All have populations below one million, often only a few hundred thousand. For scale, Connecticut measures 5,543 square miles with a population of 3.56 million.
It is highly unlikely all the above fake states were a training ground or rehearsal for The Big One, Ukraine, when Putin established them or even until recently, but perhaps the fact all of them are still in existence proved to Putin that to do the same thing at scale would be doable. Obviously it is not – the rest of the world cares very deeply about Ukraine and cares even more about international dynamics being thrown 200 years into the past.
Although vassal states are as old as civilized mankind, the only modern equivalent to these weird geopolitical fictions would be the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). It comprises the northern third of the island of Cyprus which was established by a Turkish invasion in 1975, declared “independent” in 1983, and unrecognised by everybody except Turkey to this day. The TRNC also pretends to be a real, grown up country like Putin’s puppet lands.
They are the perfect springboards, a fig leaf of a justification for invasion though it seems (now) that Putin has bitten off more than he can chew with this latest madness. He is like a jealous ex-boyfriend whose girl, Ukraine, is leaving him for a richer, better bloke to her west with the initials E.U. and he can not handle it. So he beats her up.
Far from the genius he’s made out to be (he’s smart, but more cunning than smart), he may have overplayed his hand. Everybody has a plan until they’re punched in the face and Ukrainians are already taking big swings at their invader.