Why Donbass Matters More than Navalny

By: Willem Nesbitt

The recent events within Russia concerning Alexei Navalny have captured the world’s attention, and for good reason. From surviving a James Bond-esque assassination attempt to a heartbreaking goodbye to his wife as he was arrested on his return to Russia, Navalny has inspired some of the largest protests in the Putin era. However, these events, while important, ultimately only concern Russia, and the world’s attention being captured by Navalny has allowed a far more important, world-affecting event to fall by the wayside.

Nearly two-hundred years after the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Crimean peninsula and the eastern region of Ukraine are once again notable on the world stage thanks to warfare – only this time instead of cannons and cavalry charges, it is tanks, drones, and modern military tactics deciding the fate of the region. With the Ukrainian separatists rather translucently supported by Russia and debate surrounding the actual presence of Russian regulars, the ongoing events of the War in Donbass harkens back to the history of grey-area conflict utilized by an authoritarian state to further its influence and goals, the world turning a blind eye to it and instead focusing on the recent hubbub surrounding Putin critic Alexei Navalny.

Following the Second World War, a clear dynamic emerged between the capitalist west and communist east, giving birth to the Cold War, a term which reflects the realities of the modern state of warfare. With the proliferation of nuclear weapons in numerous states, the threat of the Cold War “going hot” was a very real threat, but historically led to tensions between competing nuclear-capable nations being fought through proxy wars.

Whether having direct involvement of the global superpowers of America (see: the Vietnam War) or the Soviet Union (see: the Soviet-Afghan War), or more subversive involvement via arms and training support (see: the ongoing Syrian Civil War), the consequences of nuclear weapons have led to a state in which powerful nations no longer wish to directly engage in war with one another. Opting instead for indirect proxy wars as seen with ongoing War in Donbas, modern authoritarian states such as Russia draw on the influence of past tactics by previous authoritarian states in order to expand their influence and control.

The Spanish Civil War was the prologue to the Second World War and saw the struggle of left-leaning Republicans fighting against a revolt of the right-wing Spanish Nationalists. What is important about this war in relation to the conflict in Ukraine was the involvement of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in supporting the Nationalist side, assisting them in their eventual victory and the establishment of Francoist Spain. With the triumph of Franco in Spain, 1930s Europe now held three relatively powerful fascist nations, Germany and Italy expanding their influence within Europe through direct involvement in an ongoing conflict.

Similarly, the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s also saw a comparable attempt by an authoritarian nation to sway a conflict in its favour. With the Soviet Union dissolving in 1991, the state of Russia found itself too weak to directly support Yugoslavia, and later Serbia, during the war, but stood up for them at the assembly of the United Nations in 1999.

With the war in Donbass soon to reach its seventh year, Russia’s direct and indirect involvement draws much influence from proxy wars and destabilizations of the past. With the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014 igniting the conflict, the instability within the region gave Russia a prime opportunity to intervene and expand its own influence. While simply destabilizing a NATO and UN-friendly country would have been one thing, Russia also made the bold move to annex the Crimean Peninsula, returning the warm-water port of Sevastopol to Russian control and strengthening Russia’s physical footing within Europe.

Under Putin, Russia is no doubt an authoritarian state. The persecution of opposition and activists, open murder of dissenters, and corruption within the government all are obvious signs internally, but the external undertakings of Russia in Ukraine should be given more weight on the world stage than Putin trying to kill off yet another political opponent in Alexei Navalny.

In its attempt to expand its influence and territorial control within eastern Europe as of the last decade, Russia is attempting to undermine the authority of nations and global organizations it perceives as hostile to its own motives and views. Whether it is the direct support of separatists in Ukraine, the supporting Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, the alleged interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum, or the many other attempts at destabilizing opponents, Russia is not only drawing from the playbook of past authoritarian nations, but also its own authoritarian past.

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