It’s Time for Ukraine to Let the Donbass Go
Reintegration would be too costly; beyond an expensive reconstruction, it would entail reintegrating a deeply pro-Russian region at a time when Ukraine is finally moving West.
As the Dec. 9 meeting of the Normandy group tasked with resolving the war in Ukraine’s Donbass approaches, Ukrainians would do well to consider that Russia’s occupation of the territory has actually been a godsend for their country.
The Donbass has consistently supported Ukraine’s most retrograde, anti-reformist, anti-European, pro-Russian, and pro-Soviet political forces. It was the Donbass that made Viktor Yanukovych, whose political career was dedicated to bringing Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit, president in 2010. It was out of the Donbass that came his corrupt Party of Regions. And it was the Donbass that opposed popular pro-democracy uprisings in 2004 and 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s occupation of the eastern Donbass in the summer of 2014 effectively disenfranchised its voters. That was bad for the voters, but it enabled pro-democratic forces in unoccupied Ukraine to win the presidency and control of the country’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, in 2014. Most of the reforms that have been adopted in the past five years—along with Ukraine’s steady march toward Europe—would have been impossible had the Donbass remained a part of Ukraine.
If the eastern Donbass is brought back into Ukraine’s fold, many of these changes could be reversed or stalled, and whatever hopes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has for pursuing more reform would be dashed. By the same token, Putin would be emboldened by Ukraine’s appetite for self-destruction to make even greater encroachments on its sovereignty.
The Donbass and its residents have been the war’s greatest losers. Thousands have died in the fighting; houses and infrastructure have been destroyed. The region’s economy, once an integral part of Ukraine’s, went into a tailspin, unemployment went through the roof, inflation soared—and the new regime and its thugs took advantage to enrich themselves. The separatist government helped promote the decay by dismantling viable factories and selling them to Russia. Small wonder that, for many Donbass residents, the best source of employment is the separatist armed forces.
Thanks to its centrality to the Soviet Union’s industrialization strategy, the Donbass was always the “model” Soviet region, run with a heavy hand by self-confident, well-fed Communist Party bosses intent on demonstrating to the world that they had succeeded in creating the “new Soviet man”—a person who evinced complete loyalty to the party and Soviet state and rejected all Western blandishments.
With such a long-standing tradition, it is small wonder that the Donbass became the stronghold of some of independent Ukraine’s most pro-Russian oligarchs. By virtue of its proximity to Russia and strong ties with Russia’s energy sector, the Donbass has also functioned as a channel for Russia’s own corrupt business practices to seep into Ukraine. Putin’s seizure of the Donbass instantly made Ukraine more transparent, simply by disrupting the web of corruption and criminality that bound Ukraine, the Donbass, and Russia. Bringing the eastern Donbass back into Ukraine would reverse course.
Minus the Donbass, Ukraine has also been able to embark on a vigorous program of building a tolerant, inclusive, civic nation. That was much more difficult when Russian supremacist politicians and movements in the Donbass insisted that the only valid type of Ukrainian nation is one that upheld Putin-style authoritarianism and retrograde values. It was Yanukovych, with support from the region, who labeled Putin’s authoritarianism democratic and Ukraine’s democracy fascist. Bring back those politicians, and Ukraine’s still fragile liberal nation-building project could easily collapse.
Thanks to Putin’s occupation of the eastern Donbass, his leverage over Ukraine also decreased. As long as a pro-Russian, anti-Western region was part of Ukraine, he could—and did—insist on being able to intervene on its behalf—ostensibly to protect the rights of Russian speakers, but in reality to interfere in the internal affairs of democratic neighbors. If the eastern Donbass is brought back into Ukraine’s fold, Putin’s leverage will increase once more. He’d be given an inroad back into the country’s politics as a whole.
For all these reasons, reintegrating the Donbass will reverse much of the progress Ukraine has made in the last five years. But it could make things even worse for two further reasons.
First, the economy of the eastern Donbass is in free fall, and its GDP may have contracted by more than 75 percent since 2014. Unemployment is high, infrastructure has been neglected, and the industrial base, which was already in extreme disrepair in 2014, has only gotten more decrepit. That’s bad for the people there, and to fix the problems would cost Ukraine around $20 billion, according to economist Anders Aslund, and probably more. Ukraine doesn’t have that kind of money, and it is extremely unlikely that the European Union or the United States—not to mention Russia—would contribute significantly to reconstruction. Kyiv, though, would have no choice but to divert scarce resources from the rest of Ukraine to the eastern Donbass, particularly since Putin would cause trouble if it does not. Relatedly, the eastern Donbass has experienced untold environmental damage during the Russian occupation. Once again, Ukraine—and not Russia—would have to pick up the tab.
Second, there are some 35,000 separatist soldiers in the region. Some of them may be true believers in the separatist cause, some may be Russian nationalists, and some may have joined because of the employment the armed forces offered. Whatever the case, disarming them would fall upon Ukraine’s shoulders. Given the huge numbers of weapons already circulating in Ukraine, disarmament would at best be halting and incomplete—meaning that armed bands of separatists or Russian supremacists would take to the streets. The rest of the country could face periodic terrorist attacks by underground pro-Russian forces, and Putin would certainly take advantage of the instability to push his anti-Ukrainian agenda.
There are, of course, some benefits from reintegrating eastern Donbass.
Those residents of the occupied Donbass who are still loyal to Ukraine would obviously benefit from being reunited with their homeland, but that number is quite possibly very small. Some 1.5 million Ukrainians left or where displaced within the Donbass from 2014 to 2015, and, as a recent poll suggests, a large portion of the region’s current residents appear to be loyal to Russia and would greet reintegration into Ukraine with distaste.
Beyond that, at present, some 2 or 3 soldiers are killed by pro-Russian forces every week along the line of demarcation. Chances are that, if the territory is retaken, soldiers would stop dying in such high numbers. However, chances are also good that their place would be taken by police officers, National Guardsmen, and security service agents fighting armed thugs and supremacists. Some civilian would surely die in terrorist attacks.
Ukrainians would also feel good, at least for a while, experiencing the euphoria that comes with reunification with long-lost brothers and sisters. Alas, that patriotic uplift could also fade very quickly if citizens in western and central Ukraine see their country drifting back into Russia’s orbit.
Better, then, for Ukraine to pursue a very minimalist agenda at this month’s talks.
For starters, it should table reintegration for the foreseeable future. Kyiv need not officially hand the territory over to Russia or state that has no interest in the region’s eventual reintegration. Perhaps the time will be right in a decade or two, when Ukraine has the economic, political, social, and military wherewithal to cope with reconstruction and reintegration of this scale.
Slow-walking the talks would be hard for Zelensky. Having placed reintegration at the top of his election agenda, he faces being hoist with his own petard. However, if he values his country and his presidency, Zelensky could easily backtrack, place the blame on Putin’s recalcitrance, and paint himself the victim of French, Russian, and German machinations. Whether Zelensky is nimble enough to pull off this diplomatic trick is the question. This may be one area where his skills as a showman and comedian could pay off.
Ukraine’s highest priority has to be to stop the killing of its soldiers. In principle, they wouldn’t be in danger if Russia and its proxies stuck to the cease-fire agreed to in the Minsk accords. Put another way, they wouldn’t be dying if Putin didn’t want to continue the killing. This may mean that there is nothing Ukraine can do about those deaths, other than wait for Putin’s ouster. But it doesn’t mean that it can’t try to embarrass Putin into accepting the presence of international peacekeepers along the line of demarcation. If reintegrating the Donbass is tabled for a decade or two, that may become more possible.
At some point in the future, genuine reintegration could become a realistic option for Ukraine. Until that time comes, however, Ukrainians should remember that, sometimes, less is much, much more.