Saturday

24th Jul 2021

Donbass: a region nobody wants?

  • Donetsk railway station: Russia is pushing to 'reinsert' the war-damaged and occupied region into Ukraine (Photo: Irina Gorbasyova)

Peace in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region comes with high risks, as ongoing negotiations are greeted with scepticism by citizens, analysts, and authorities on both sides of the conflict.

Russian-backed separatists have been in control of large parts of the Donbass region of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts since March 2014.

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  • Donetsk governor Pavlo Zhebrivsky: 'A democratically successful Ukraine would mean the death of imperial Russia and Putin's political death' (Photo: Michael Bird)

Currently under negotiation is a settlement which returns the zone to the Ukrainian state in return for an amnesty for rebel leaders, local elections in February and semi-independence for the territories.

But critics argue this legitimises the Russian-backed rebels’ annexation of property and businesses in the conflict zone, further undermining the economically and politically fragile Ukrainian state.

“The Russians will give Ukraine a poisoned chalice,” says Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “The idea is to make sure that Ukraine fails. This suits Moscow.”

After 8,050 people died in the Donbass conflict, the separatists and Ukrainian army are slowly withdrawing heavy weapons from the conflict zone, although fighting continues.

Ongoing peace negotiations involve the Minsk Contact Group, including representatives from Ukraine, Russia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s republics (DPR and LPR).

This works in tandem with the Normandy Format of French, German, Russian, and Ukrainian leaders.

Russia pushing to return Donbass

Russia is pushing to “reinsert” occupied Donbass into Ukraine with huge costs for its redevelopment and a rebel leadership which has taken control of private property, Ukrainian state mines, hundreds of retail outlets and banks, while sanctioning the destruction of factories and other mines and the sale of their assets as scrap metal.

The rebels’ position could be empowered by a win in elections planned for the occupied LPR and DPR on 20 February 2016.

But this deal generates little enthusiasm among those in Ukraine on both sides.

The rebel leader of Luhansk, Igor Plotnitsky, has said in a video: “No one from us wants to return to Ukraine and as I understand it, Ukraine doesn’t want us either.”

But he indicated there is room for compromise. Kyiv would need to grant amnesty to rebels accused of war crimes and a “special status” for the LPR and DPR, which would require a change in the Ukrainian constitution.

Favoured by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, this could legitimise the rebels’ institutions, in exchange for maintaining Ukrainian sovereignty and ending the killing.

The head of the DPR security council, Alexandr Khodakovsky, also supports reintegration, but under terms favourable to the self-proclaimed republics. In September, he told Fontanka.ru he is “not satisfied” with what Kyiv has to offer.

But on the street of Donetsk, most residents are sceptical about the effectiveness of talks between Ukraine, the separatists, Russia, and the OSCE in Minsk.

“I consider all peace negotiations finished when world leaders appear and say: ‘Gentlemen, the war has ended, no one else will shoot!’,” says Oleg, a student. “Because when they start to talk about something in Minsk, the gunfire begins in Donetsk.”

Putin's political death

Despite the promise of an armistice, many still witness violence as part of daily life.

“It is likely that the withdrawal of arms after some agreements is happening, but there is still shooting every night,” says a manager, Marina, from the Kiev District of Donetsk city.

There is a demand for more practical solutions

“We are tired and want it to finish soon,” says Marina. “It is necessary to prepare for winter, not to engage in conversation. It is not clear whether we have gas, water, or electricity. This is what worries me - not the next negotiations.”

Donetsk governor Pavlo Zhebrivsky (who is pro-Kiev) also has a pessimistic attitude toward the Minsk process.

“A democratically successful Ukraine would mean the death of imperial Russia and Putin's political death,” he says.

“Putin is not ready to leave Ukraine alone. Without the tightening of sanctions against Russia and without the economic collapse of Russia, to say that peace will come to Ukraine and Donbass means to deceive oneself.”

The governor spoke in his office in Kramatorsk, 70 km from the makeshift border.

“The shelling became more frequent last night - 15 attacks, the night before - 18 attacks,” he said. “The rebels are accumulating forces near the town of Novoazovsk, near Mariupol [a port in Ukraine]. Therefore, peace is very far from here.”

With a deal in place, Russia gifts to Ukraine is to be a collapsed infrastructure, a gangster ruling class, a broken economy, and a traumatised population, almost half of which are scattered across the rest of the country.

Donbass may become the region nobody wants, but Ukraine needs to preserve its territorial integrity. The region is on the road to becoming de jure a Ukrainian province, but de facto a Russian-backed micro-state.

“Pragmatically, in three years Ukraine could easily live without that territory,” says a Donetsk businessman and politician in exile in Kiev, Vitaliy Kropachov.

“But it is ours and nobody can guarantee that once we let it go, other scenarios like this will not take place in other regions. Federalisation cannot even be considered. We are a united country.”

This article is part of a project, The Donbass Paradox, financed by Journalismfund.eu for EUobserver. An extended report can be found here

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