The Western states and the Russian Federation are currently at odds over the territorial realities of the Ukrainian and Russian states, with Russian absorption of five distinct territories incorporated within the 1991 lines recognized upon Ukrainian independence. The territories are: Crimea, Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporozhe, and Kherson; with other territories such as Kharkov, Odessa, etc. as potential future pickups should the war turn distinctly in Russia’s advantage. A question regarding governance, therefore, needs addressed, particularly within the context of counterinsurgency and the reality that foreign occupation can ignite an insurgency among disaffected members that view their occupiers with sufficient hostility.
There are some interesting sides to this question. A first is that the current iteration of the war in Ukraine that sparked on February 24, 2022, is in reality an extension of a broader civil conflict that has been ongoing since the Maiden events of 2014. At that time, Ukraine both lost Crimea, which is a distinctly Russian region at present times and was fully incorporated into the Russian Federation; and control over the Donbass to rebellions in both Donetsk and Lugansk: insurgencies which Ukraine failed to bring to heel at any point since people revolted in 2014. Russian assistance, of course, proved highly beneficial to the two breakaway republics, which ultimately developed a concurrent civil society outside the bounds of Ukrainian governance and in association as sort of adjunct members of the Russian Federation, similar to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Ukraine’s current goal is the absorption of all three territories that departed in 2014: Crimea, Donetsk, and Lugansk; plus, reabsorption of Russia’s pickups since the war began. On the first question, the people of Donbass have fought and resisted for eight years. It must therefore be asked as to the viability of Ukraine’s war aims.
Put simply, were Ukraine able to evict Russia from any or all of these regions, would the Ukrainians be able to assert definitive control over areas that do not view themselves as belonging to the Ukrainian state. Recent history suggests the answer to be no, certainly not without Western assistance. A broader topic then, is would the West be willing to assist in subjugating, broadly speaking, ethnic Russians who want no part in a Ukrainian project that weakened the use of Russian in certain public settings or teaching of Russian in schools and that bans opposition parties, newspapers, etc. Further, would it even be in Ukraine’s interest to reabsorb large groups of hostile voters who may very well tip the electoral scales against the Galician consensus of a Western alignment that is inimically hostile to Russia and Russians? Would such elections be maintained as “free and fair” in a state which ranks in the lower middle of Freedom House’s democracy index? There again is another indicator for a potential insurgency, to say nothing of corruption and other associated problems pertinent to the Ukrainian context. Ultimately, the question seems likely to result in significant societal dysfunction should Ukraine achieve, even partially, its stated war aim to reconstitute itself to its 1991 borders.
Russia, on the other hand, has shown a remarkable capability to absorb territories that do not really belong to it, at least not as of the 21st century. I have seen few if any reports of significant insurgent or partisan efforts within either of the two new territories: Zaporozhe or Kherson (the parts that are currently under Russian control). Ditto for Crimea, Donetsk, and Lugansk. The situation appears stable and moving towards successful integration with the Russian Federation. Bear in mind, too, that Russia is no stranger to the successful prosecution of counterinsurgency campaigns, as seen in the Caucus, with the subjugation of Chechnya. The Chechens and their associated forces, in fact, have at times been something of a social media celebrity, particularly during the operation to take Mariupol early in the war. Converting former militants to loyal fighters is no mean feat. And while it is not clear that should Russia incorporate any more territory that they would integrate their new turf peacefully or even successfully, the track record shows one of stability for such operations when conducted by Russia, and of conflict by those conducted by Ukraine. If the question is one of stability, then territorial integrity may become the ultimate loser.