The rebellion in the Donbas was a complex phenomenon and cannot be explained as either a simple historical trend or as manifestation of Russia’s alleged inherent expansionist urge.

Denis Bespalko, 9, puts his hand through a hole in the burned-out Ukrainian armored personnel carrier in the village of Hrabske, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, August 31, 2014. Photo: AP

On August 26 officials from the Russia-backed Eurasian Customs Union met with representatives from Ukraine and the EU in Minsk to discuss issues associated with the overlapping free trade areas. If this meeting had been held a year earlier, it might just have averted the Ukrainian revolution and the resulting civil war.

A trilateral working group of Russia, Ukraine and EU representatives was to hammer out a strategy for managing mutual trade in the new conditions. Most important, in the evening after the multilateral talks Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, met for two hours to discuss the crisis. This was the first encounter they’d had since meeting in Normandy in early June.

Putin insisted that stopping the fighting was a matter for Ukraine itself, while Poroshenko announced that a roadmap would be prepared to stop the fighting as soon as possible. But Poroshenko insisted on a “ceasefire regime, which absolutely must be bilateral in character,” recalling the earlier ceasefire in June which the Ukrainian side believed had allowed the insurgent forces to regroup.

By that time it looked as if the Ukrainian military offensive was close to achieving victory, with the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk effectively encircled. There was no major breakthrough in the talks, although Poroshenko promised a “roadmap” that would allow for a bilateral ceasefire. Putin insisted that Russia was ready to help build the trust necessary for negotiations, but repeated that it was not for Russia to discuss the specific ceasefire terms between Kiev and the eastern regions.

There was little evidence that sanctions have in any way tempered Putin’s approach, even with Russia’s economic woes exacerbated by the fall in the price of oil to below $100 a barrel. Every $1 fall in the oil price wipes about $1.4 billion off Russia’s federal tax receipts while reducing the resources available for energy companies to invest.

By now Russia’s demand for the federalization of Ukraine had fallen into the background. Once again, with peace talks in prospect, America stepped up accusations that Russian forces were directly involved in combat operations. The insurgents broke out of the encirclement around Donetsk to seize the port of Novoazovsk, threatening to retake Mariupol. A spate of reports claimed that Russian forces were involved in the fighting, although Putin and the Russian authorities continued with their denials.   

This was an extraordinary game of brinkmanship. On the one side, the Atlantic powers consistently underestimated the autonomous character of the Donbas rebellion. Undoubtedly it was assisted by Russia, although the extent of direct military support as we have seen is contested. The intelligence at NATO’s disposal appeared to be astonishingly primitive, too often relying on "social media and common-sense," as the State Department spokesperson Marie Harf famously put it.

The rebellion was deeply contradictory, since its ultimate goals were probably unclear even to the participants – veering between demands for greater autonomy, federalization, independence, all the way up to unification with Russia. The depth of popular support is also unclear.

Undoubtedly, peace for many was the greatest good, yet the rebellion did have deep local roots. The fundamental inability of Kiev to understand that this was not simply an “invasion” but a genuine revolt against a particular type of statehood that had long been unpopular in the southeast, and which the Ukrainian revolution only intensified thus provoking the revolt, meant that it simply failed to recognize the political subjectivity of the rebellion as a force with whom there should be dialogue.

Instead, labeling them “terrorists” meant not only that their political identity was negated but also that their very humanity was dismissed, allowing untold cruelties to be inflicted upon them. Many of the rebel leaders were indeed unsavory characters, and even Putin sought to distance himself from them on occasion. But that does not mean that the fundamental political question was negated. And the political question was fundamentally about some sort of constitutional status for Donbas autonomy.

On the other side were the dilemmas facing Russia’s leaders. Putin in March had talked about “Novorossiya,” and this was the name used by the rebels to describe their entity. In an interview on August 31 Putin argued that the talks between the Kiev authorities and the rebel leaders should be about “not just technical issues but on the political organization of society and statehood in south-eastern Ukraine.”

This was at the time when the chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, Robert Menendez, called on America to arm the Ukrainian military. Speaking in Kiev, he insisted that “Thousands of Russian troops are here and are directly engaged in what is clearly an invasion.”

This was accompanied by threats by the EU to impose a new round of sanctions, fearing that the Donbas would become another “frozen conflict” that Moscow could use to exert leverage against Kiev. Quite apart from misunderstanding the complex and individual circumstances of the existing frozen conflicts in the South Caucasus and Moldova, this simply bought into the Kiev narrative about the undiluted criminal nature of the Donbas events, when in fact it was a complex rebellion.

The corollary is clear, and is well put by Angus Roxburgh, a British journalist, broadcaster, former PR adviser to the Russian government. He stresses that “Those who see Putin as the cause of the problem refuse to concede that he might also be part of the solution. Those who regard resistance as the only option dismiss negotiations with Putin as ‘appeasement.’”

He dismisses the consensus in favor of sanctions, stressing this was the West’s biggest mistake.

“Sanctions against Russia are worthless,” he argues. “They hurt western companies and are of no avail in changing Putin’s policies.”

Sanctions could certainly damage the Russian economy, but as all studies of Putin have demonstrated, when he believes that he is right – as he certainly does in the Ukraine case – external pressure only makes him dig in his heels.

One does not need to justify Russian policy to note that the rebellion in the Donbas was a complex phenomenon and cannot be simply reduced to simplistic historical explanation or a manifestation of Russia’s alleged inherent expansionist urge. The Ukrainian revolution of February 2014 and the Donbas rebellion fed off each other, and were then exacerbated by the geopolitical tensions.