Does Putin really want to annex Eastern Ukraine? It’s not clear to Gary Brecher (The War Nerd) that he does:
It’s very clear that the Russian state wanted Crimea, and was willing to risk war for it. It’s not so clear that Moscow will risk war for Eastern Ukraine, which does have valuable resources and major industrial installations, but lacks Crimea’s easily-sealed entry points.
The alternatives here, for Moscow, are not either outright annexation or total disengagement. It’s naïve to think that Moscow has to say a simple yes or no to the militias fighting in Russia’s name in Donetsk and Sloviansk. The history of Great-Power politics shows that in many cases, it’s much more useful to leave a disputed, ethnically-mixed area festering, giving your proxies there just enough weaponry, money, and moral support to keep them bleeding the occupying enemy.
Kashmir is the classic example in the contemporary world. Does Pakistan really want to take Kashmir, with its hopelessly messy, complex, bloody feuds, into Pakistan proper? Officially, yes; and in the minds of the millions of Pakistani nationalists, of course it does. But for the ISI, the intelligence agents who run the country, it’s much more useful to have Kashmir as a goad, an irritant, a reliable source of nationalist rage and suicide volunteers, than it would be to march in and try to govern the place.
So, despite the valid grievances of the Eastern Ukrainian Russian community, despite all the nationalist rage Putin is stirring up among nationalists in Russia proper, the Russian government may let Eastern Ukraine’s Russian militias be ground down by troops, tanks, and aircraft from Kyiv.
Not wiped out — that would be a waste of potentially useful proxies. But decimated, occupied, and humiliated. A population in that condition is as useful to a Great Power as Kashmir’s Muslims are to Pakistan.