Let It Go

Ukraine’s occupied Donbass region is a pointless burden. It’s time for Kiev to accept that it’s better off without it.

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Although the Russo-Ukrainian war appears to have been largely forgotten in the West, it’s still claiming lives every day. Indeed, the last two months have seen a major escalation by Russia and its proxies, leading some analysts to expect a full-blown war.

That being the case, it’s all the more unfortunate that Ukraine’s policy toward its occupied eastern Donbass region, which has been held by pro-Russian separatists since early 2014, is stuck in a dead end. Kiev lacks the power to defeat Russia and its Donbass proxies and cannot accept reintegrating the region on Vladimir Putin’s terms. But Kiev insists it must continue to fight for the region in the name of preserving national sovereignty and checking Putin’s aggression. Never mind that the Russian president’s willingness to invade, attack, or escalate appears to have little to do with what Ukraine does (or, indeed, with any rational strategy).

What, then, should Kiev do? The answer won’t be easy, particularly since, unsurprisingly, Ukrainians are extremely sensitive about any potential dismemberment of their country. Ukrainians, however, must ask themselves whether they want to expend their very scarce resources on themselves or on the occupied territories. In an ideal world, there would be no need to choose. But in the real world of economic crisis and Russia’s existential threat, Ukraine must let go of the Donbass psychologically, economically, and, perhaps even politically. 

This choice is informed by three basic considerations.

First, Ukraine cannot roll back Russia militarily, and any attempt to do so would only increase its vulnerability. Although Ukraine has effectively won the limited conflict by fighting Russia to a draw, Kiev cannot defeat Moscow in a full-scale war. If it were to invade the rest of Ukraine, Russia would probably be unable to prevail against widespread partisan resistance. But even in the best of circumstances, any large-scale conflict would have deadly consequences for Ukraine and its people.

Second, possession of the occupied Donbass is an economic drain on whoever controls it. The occupied enclave’s economy is in free-fall. Using nighttime electricity usage as a surrogate for GDP, three Western economists have calculated that “the economic activity in the Donbas region has … dropped in economic terms to 30 to 50% of the pre-war level for the big cities and to only a tenth of the pre-war level for some smaller cities.” The region’s educated professionals have fled and are unlikely to return. Health conditions may be on the verge of catastrophe; investment is nonexistent. And without Russian aid, which amounts to some $39 million per month, the economy and society would, in all likelihood, collapse. Russia is already feeling the pain of maintaining the occupation, even though its economy and resources are far larger than Ukraine’s. Were Ukraine suddenly to come into possession of the occupied territories, it would be unable to sustain them or itself economically.

Third, reintegrating the occupied Donbass on Russia’s terms — with Russia controlling the national border and the Russian proxies who currently misrule the enclave still in place — would mean suicide for Ukraine. The proxies would demand scarce resources, obstruct reform, halt Ukraine’s political movement toward Europe, and provide a base of support for the return to power of the parties, oligarchs, and criminal elements that have governed the region since Ukraine’s independence in 1991.

From these three points it follows that Ukraine is more secure and more capable of reform without the occupied Donbass than with it, and that Russia is weaker and more overextended with the occupied Donbass than without it.

What, then, should Ukraine do? How can letting go of the occupied Donbass become a realistic and politically palatable policy choice?

Above all, Ukrainians must psychologically dissociate themselves from the Russian-occupied territory. They must become as indifferent to the Donbass enclave as they are to the Ukrainian-inhabited territories in the Russian Far East or in Canada. This will take time, but the longer the Russian occupation of the Donbass continues, the easier it will be for Ukrainians to stop identifying with lands that are effectively Russian or anti-Ukrainian. Naturally, the growing number of deaths in the conflict — a total of 623 Ukrainian soldiers died or were wounded in the first half of 2016, a remarkably high number that may not be sustainable in the long run — could just as easily convince some Ukrainians that they must be avenged, and the territories never abandoned.

At the moment, public opinion is divided. According to a February 2016 poll, “ending all ties between Ukraine and the uncontrolled Donbas territories” found support among 64 percent in Ukraine’s west, 51.5 percent in the center, 24.2 percent in the south, and 32.9 percent in the east. At the same time, “separating these territories from Ukraine” was supported by 27.6 in the west, 24 percent in the center, 12.1 percent in the south, and 22.9 percent in the east. These figures suggest that Ukrainians are willing to loosen ties with the enclave, but that there is still some way to go before a majority would support outright disengagement. Anecdotally, Ukraine’s overflowing cafes and restaurants suggest that many Ukrainians have succeeded in compartmentalizing the war and leading their lives as if the Donbass didn’t matter. That few Ukrainians from outside the region have ever visited it and most know little about it will, over time, only deepen their estrangement.

Central to psychological disengagement is abandoning the ideological notion that the Donbass is essential to the vitality of the Ukrainian nation and state. It has become clear in the last two years — during which Ukraine has survived, stabilized its economy, and embarked on serious reform — that Ukraine can do just fine without the enclave. Ukrainians must also develop an alternative national “narrative” that does not identify the occupied Donbass as sacred, eternally Ukrainian territory. That will be harder, but, ironically, Russia’s Donbass proxies are helping by developing their own historical narrative and anti-Ukrainian identity, establishing their own political institutions, and integrating economically, culturally, and militarily with Russia.

Like Ukrainian public opinion, Ukraine’s political elites are divided over the occupied enclave. The notion of disengaging from the Donbass has already become a legitimate topic of public discussion, no longer provoking immediate cries of treason as it did two years ago. But no political force has yet been willing to make a forceful case for disengagement. The politically disreputable Opposition Bloc, a pro-Russian entity consisting of former Viktor Yanukovych supporters, argues for reintegration, albeit on Russia’s terms. Nationalist parties such as Svoboda and the Right Sector and populists within Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party and Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party continue to emphasize the indispensability of the occupied region to the integrity of the nation and state.

Implicitly, however, the current government of President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman has adopted a strategy of disengagement, confining its calls for reintegration to rhetoric and taking no practical steps towards this end. Disengagement will become a respectable political option for mainstream, pro-Western parties only if the political forces that favor it become identified with reform and good governance. Once Ukrainians see that their country can thrive without the Donbass, the ideology of re-annexation should lose its appeal.

In the meantime, Ukraine should make the best of the status quo. The Minsk agreement, which governs the effectively nonexistent cease-fire between Ukraine and Russia, represents everyone’s second-best option: As long as Minsk continues, Ukraine retains its sovereignty, Russia gets to meddle, and the separatists can play at independence. This equilibrium could last a while.

As a result, Minsk gives Ukraine the time it so desperately needs to enhance its military capacity, continue reforms, and contemplate the precise mechanisms of disengaging. Since Ukraine is effectively cut off from an increasingly foreign and hostile Donbass enclave anyway, the psychological, ideological, and political burdens of disengagement should gradually become lighter.

Meanwhile, Ukraine would be wise to reduce or eliminate its economic dependence on resources, such as coal, that are mined in the east. Kiev should encourage the remaining pro-Ukrainian population in the Donbass to resettle in Ukraine, establish a defensive perimeter that will reduce contraband and attacks by Russian diversionary groups, clearly state that it has no intention of reconquering the enclave militarily, and officially declare the territory as being under Russian occupation. In isolating itself from the Donbass region, Ukraine would be shifting all the costs of and formal responsibility for the occupied territories and their population onto Russia and freeing itself to pursue reform.

These measures won’t end the war, which will continue until Putin decides he wants to end it. But his decision to disengage can come only after Ukraine realizes it has no stake in the region and has become economically, politically, and militarily strong. And for Ukraine to become stable and strong, it must isolate itself from the occupied Donbass, perhaps not forever, but certainly for the foreseeable future.

Kiev must choose between its strategic interests and its psychological and ideological attachment to a region it has already lost. Given its precarious position, the choice is clear.

Photo credit: ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.