Why Putin has Ukraine’s separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in his sights

The Kremlin has said Russia’s president Vladimir Putin plans to recognize the independence of two Moscow-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine – a step that could dramatically increase the risk of full-scale war with Kyiv.

The decision, announced after a televised meeting of Russia’s security council, came in response to pleas from the leaders of the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk for Putin to recognize them as independent states and protect them from what they said was a planned offensive by Ukraine to retake them. Ukraine has denied this and said Russia was trying to use the allegation – and renewed hostilities by its proxies – as a pretext for a renewed invasion.

More than 14,000 people have died in the conflict in eastern Ukraine since Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014. Ukraine and western countries have said there was evidence that Russia had been providing weapons and fighters to fuel the separatist war, which Moscow denies.

What are the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics?

Self-proclaimed but almost wholly reliant on the Kremlin for support, Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics declared independence from Kyiv in April 2014 after Russia-backed militias seized control of local government offices and other infrastructure following Moscow’s invasion of Crimea.

Bordering Russia on Ukraine’s eastern flank, the largely Russian-speaking regions are home to more than 3mn people and have received large amounts of financial, humanitarian and military assistance from the Kremlin. Moscow’s support for the regions came after the pro-western Maidan movement toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian president in February 2014.

Map showing Ukraine and territory held by Russia-backed separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk

Under the Minsk agreements – peace talks brokered by France and Germany – a ceasefire left the separatists in de facto control of roughly a third of the Ukrainian administrative districts of Donetsk and Luhansk, with a heavily fortified line of control separating them from Ukrainian troops.

Ukraine describes the regions as “temporarily occupied territories” and the Minsk agreements envisage their eventual return to Kyiv. But both Kyiv and Moscow have failed to implement the terms of the agreements, leaving the status of the territories in limbo.

At the same time, Russia has spent the past eight years increasing its leverage over the territories. It has given out passports and citizenship to around 800,000 of their citizens, Russian officials said on Monday, while stressing the need for the Kremlin to protect them.

People evacuated from Donetsk arrive by train in Voronezh, Russia

People evacuated from Donetsk arrive in Voronezh, Russia © Russian Emergency Situations Handout / AFP / Getty

Why would recognition by Moscow be important?

Moscow has in the past stepped back from recognition, preferring instead to exert indirect control and use the territories as leverage in its wider disputes with Ukraine and the west.

Recognition will probably bring two major initial outcomes. First, the collapse of the Minsk agreements and hopes for a diplomatic solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. On Monday, a stream of senior officials told Putin that they believed there was no prospect for the peace deal to be fully implemented, something they said gave Moscow no choice but to take other measures.

Second, it would give the Kremlin justification to send Russian troops and military equipment into the territories. That would be likely to increase the risk of full conflict between Moscow and Kyiv along an already active front line.

A bigger problem emerges in the medium-term: the two statelets each claim all of the Ukrainian districts of Luhansk and Donetsk. Russia has not made clear whether it is acknowledging their claims to territory under Kyiv’s control.

How will the west respond?

NATO and the EU have warned that recognition of the breakaway regions would be a big escalation in the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv, while some European officials have called for it to be a trigger for a threatened sanctions package against Russia.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that recognition would represent “a blatant violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty” and breach international law. Such a move would be “an open escalation”, said Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, adding it “should be met with swift and decisive sanctions” if approved by Putin.

However the EU, US, UK and other western countries have previously said that major sanctions threatened against Moscow would be deployed in the event of a military attack on Ukraine itself and there has been no public agreement on how to respond in the event of recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Ukraine's military forces in a shop in Avdiivka in the Donetsk region

Ukraine’s military forces in Avdiivka in the Donetsk region © Aleksey Filippov / AFP / Getty

Why is this happening now?

After a major Russian military build-up close to the borders of Ukraine, western governments have warned for weeks that Donetsk and Luhansk could be used to create a pretext for war, either by provoking a response from Kyiv or staging a “false flag” attack that Russia could blame on Ukraine.

Russia has denied it plans to invade but insisted that the west agree to a number of security guarantees, such as banning Ukraine from ever joining NATO and withdrawing NATO troops from alliance members close to Russia.

Moscow has previously seen the two statelets as an insurance policy in Ukraine. It has demanded that their return to Ukraine would come with their veto over major foreign policy decisions, notably Kyiv’s application to join NATO, which is a red line for Moscow.

Their recognition by Putin now – after Russia has chosen not to in the past – ratchets up the threat of conflict with Kyiv.

What does this mean for diplomatic efforts to avert war between Russia and Ukraine?

The move suggests Putin has lost faith in diplomatic efforts to avert further conflict in Ukraine, led in recent days by French President Emmanuel Macron. The future of the two statelets is seen as a critical area for compromise in any negotiated solution and recognition would appear to end that possibility.

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy secretary of Russia’s security council and a former president, made it clear on Monday that he thought Russia should proceed regardless of the risk of conflict and fallout.

“The scale of potential conflict can be compared with what we faced in 2008 [with Georgia]”He told Putin. “But now we know what is going to happen. . . all the sanction ideas that we can hear now broadcast [from the west]. ”

“But we know how to withstand this pressure,” he said.

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