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How Do You Solve A Problem Like The Donbas?

  • Brian Whitmore

A pro-Russian separatist near the Ukrainian village of Frunze in Luhansk Oblast

A pro-Russian separatist near the Ukrainian village of Frunze in Luhansk Oblast

Just one sentence, inserted into a complex piece of legislation, caused some to wonder whether Kyiv has been sold out by its Western allies.

One sentence that was too much for many Ukrainians. One sentence that was not enough for the Kremlin. One sentence that the United States reportedly lobbied heavily for to assure that Kyiv was holding up its end of the Minsk cease-fire.

The sentence: "The particulars of local government in certain districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are to be determined by a special law."

This controversy over that one sentence in amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution aimed at devolving some power to the regions is the latest step in the delicate, duplicitous, and dangerous dance between Ukraine and Russia in the twilight of the Donbas war.

From the moment the ink dried on the Minsk cease-fire back in February, it was obvious that the thorniest problem to solve would be how the separatist-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts would ultimately be reintegrated into Ukraine.

War is politics by other means and the Kremlin's goals in Donbas are ultimately political.

Vladimir Putin may have once dreamed of seizing all of what his propagandists call Novorossia -- the strip of land from Kharkiv to Odesa -- and establishing a land bridge to Crimea.

But that's off the table now and he is clearly not interested in annexing the war-ravaged and economically devastated enclaves his separatists currently hold.

"The Kremlin, for its part, is losing interest in the armed conflict it helped create: It wants to move on from military interference in Ukraine to quieter political destabilization," political commentator Leonid Bershidsky wrote in Bloomberg View.

The Autonomy Dance

Russia is seeking to have the rebel-held areas enjoy broad autonomy inside Ukraine -- a status similar to that enjoyed by Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina. And Moscow wants this status enshrined in Ukraine's constitution. A Ukraine decentralized to the point of dysfunction, after all, would make it all the easier for Moscow to meddle in Kyiv's affairs.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is no fool. He knows this is Russia's game. And when he presented his proposals for constitutional reform last month -- a decentralization plan for all of Ukraine -- it made no specific mention of any special status for Donetsk and Luhansk.

But the fact that the version of the law now before parliament does -- and the fact that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland traveled to Kyiv and met with lawmakers on the day they voted for its first reading -- has made many in the Ukrainian capital nervous.

"Has the United States sold out Ukraine in exchange for Iran and Syria?" asked a headline in

Likewise, in an interview with that same publication, Taras Stetskiv, a former member of the Ukrainian parliament, asked: "What exactly has Russia bought with its signature under the deal to close down Iran's nuclear program? At least a special status for the Donbas in the constitution, and that's why Nuland came to control the vote."

But while Ukrainians like Stetskiv may be suspicious that they have been sold out to Moscow, the Kremlin and its surrogates were unsatisfied.

"Poroshenko's amendments to the draft constitution are a far cry from the Minsk agreements and close only to the political whims of Poroshenko himself," Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, tweeted.

Kicking The Can

Political analyst Vladimir Socor wrote that "many Western officials are fearful that failure to wrap up a political settlement" on the status of Donetsk and Luhansk by the end of 2015, as stipulated by the Minsk agreement, "could free Russia to 'escalate' again the military hostilities."

As a result, Socor wrote, Ukraine's Western allies are pressuring it into fulfilling these political provisions of the ceasefire despite Moscow's failure to fulfil its end on the military side by ceasing military operations and pulling back heavy weapons.

What Poroshenko effectively did is kick the can down the road a bit.

The legislation that will ultimately determine how much autonomy the rebel held areas will be granted -- the one referenced in the constitutional amendments -- won't be drafted and debated until the autumn, when lawmakers return from their summer recess.

So Kyiv hasn't given Moscow what it wants, enshrining a special status for Donetsk and Luhansk in the constitution -- at least not yet. But it did just enough to satisfy Western powers who are eager to demonstrate that Ukraine is adhering to the Minsk agreement.

It's a clever tactic. But one has to wonder if there is a strategy.

Because what eventually happens with the rebel-held areas of Donbas is crucial to Ukraine's future.

If they are reintegrated the way Moscow wants them to be -- with broad autonomy and the separatist forces legitimized as their political elite and police force -- then Ukraine's sovereignty will be severely curtailed. Integration with the West will be off the table.

If you want to see Ukraine's future under this scenario, just look at Bosnia.

Some observers, most notably Alexander Motyl of Rutgers University, have argued strenuously that it is in Kyiv's best interests to just let the territories go.

"If Kyiv were bold, it would countenance giving the occupied territories the independence that its separatist leaders say they want or have," Motyl wrote recently.

"Think about it. If Kyiv took the initiative, it could, in one fell swoop, establish clarity in its east. If the enclave were independent, all talk of 'civil war,' autonomy, and 'economic blockades' would cease, and the only issue would be the Russian war against Ukraine proper."

Motyl acknowledges that such a move "would outrage Ukraine’s hyper-patriots and the pro-Kyiv eastern Ukrainians who’ve been fighting for their homeland in the Donbas" and is therefore unlikely.

Instead, the best worst option for Kyiv would be to "freeze the conflict and let the enclave drift away."

Which, by kicking the can down the road a bit, might be exactly what Poroshenko is doing.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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