What Should We do with the Donbas?


Taras Kuzio

Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (Donbas) are in the hands of terrorist separatists. Kyiv’s Anti-Terrorist Operation (a better name could have been given for this) is making progress in some cities but because Kyiv (unlike Russia in Chechnya) is unwilling to accept large numbers of civilian casualties progress will be limited. Historians and political experts will spend the next few years analysing how this region was so quickly taken over which can be reduced to five factors:

Firstly, undoubtedly Russian “green men” played an important role in giving professional expertise to hitherto marginal pan-Slavic and pro-Russian groups.

Secondly, these marginal groups supported by Moscow had been integrated into the Party of Regions (such as Vadym Kolesnichenko and Oleksandr Bazyliuk) while others were tied to the Communist Party that had become a Regions satellite.

Thirdly, as the Razumkov Centre has shown, the largest adherents of a national identity in the Donbas are Soviet followed by Russian and then Ukrainian. This makes the Donbas the only region in Russian speaking eastern and southern Ukraine similar to the Crimea where Soviet identity is also more dominant than Russian. In the Donbas support for separatism is higher than in other Russian-speaking regions – although it is not a majority.

Fourthly, local oligarchs such as Rinat Akhmetov adopted a passive position and are playing a double game with Kyiv and Moscow  This is the third time they have tried to blackmail Kyiv; the first was the coalminers strikes in 1993 that brought the first Donetski to power – Yufym Zvyahilsky and a referendum on local autonomy a year later and  the second the November  2004 Severdonetsk separatist congress.

Fifthly, weak Kyiv leadership a result of the bankrupt country and weakened security forces inherited from Viktor Yanukovych as well as poor choice of parliamentary speaker and acting president Aleksandr Turchynov. The new Ukraine after the Euro-Maydan needed a different face than that of Turchynov who is a reflection of Ukraine’s political past.

How will the next Ukrainian president – Petro Poroshenko or Yulia Tymoshenko – defeat the terrorists in the Donbas if he or she is unwilling to adopt very tough counter insurgency strategies?

There are only three options available to the next president:

Firstly,  adopt a more aggressive Anti-Terrorist Operation that will lead to higher casualties on both sides. This could be successful but  greater bloodshed would likely lead to a growth of support for the terrorists and provoke a Russian invasion.

Secondly,  offer autonomous status  to the Donbas which could be camouflaged as something else that does not use the term “autonomy” (free trade zone, self governing region, etc.,).

Thirdly, follow the prescription of some Ukrainians such as well-known Western Ukrainian writer Yuriy Andrukhovych who called four years ago for Ukraine to agree to the separation of the Donbas and the Crimea. He argued that if “orange” forces returned to power they should have the political will to agree to the demand of Donbas separatists.

Ukrainian writer and publicist Mykola Ryabchuk agreed in an interview he gave me three years ago for my Contemporary History of Ukraine book: ‘I believe it is fully in line with liberal-democratic principles that prioritise people’s interests rather than that of states. If there is a clear majority of the people on a certain territory that cannot and don’t want to accommodate themselves with the state they live in, they should have a right to secede – in an orderly way, of course – which would require some negotiations, international mediation, referendums, and post-separation settlements for national minority rights.’

Andrukhovych believes Donetsk and Crimea do not feel they belong to the Ukrainian nation because they are part of the “Russian people”. He explains this by drawing on examples of deep-seated antagonism found in Donetsk to anything and everything Ukrainian. Donetsk State University, for example, has refused to rename itself after dissident Vasyl Stus who was born in the region. ‘That is, they aggressively block any kind of Ukrainian movement there. This is blocked not in response to some kind of repression but because in truth the local population does not want it. They find Ukraine a foreign place. Ukraine is for them foreign and uninteresting, they are even apathetic towards it’ (UNIAN, 22 July 2010).

The irony is that the greatest hostility to Ukrainianisation comes from Donetsk and Crimea where it has barely penetrated.

In addition, Andrukhovych believes that without Donetsk and Crimea the Ukrainian parliament would have a permanent pro-European majority that would support national integration, promote the Ukrainian language and European integration. The Party of Regions and Communist Party, who have won the four out of six parliamentary elections (1998, 2006, 2007, 2012)  would become minority political forces in a Ukraine without the Crimea and the Donbas.

The next Ukrainian President will have to choose one of the above three options open to him. Of course, he cannot, as the constitutional defender of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, chose  the path supported by Andrukhovych and Ryabchuk (and many others who prefer to remain less vocal). In the case of Poroshenko the choice will be made both easier because he has long standing ties to the Party of Regions that he helped to establish fourteen years ago but at the same time he has poor personal relations with Akhmetov and Boris Kolesnikov.

If the next Ukrainian president, he or she, chooses neither options one or two  (more aggressive ATO or autonomous status) then the Donbas will become de facto Ukraine’s Transdniestr, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Like the Crimea, the Donbas will de jure in international law be part of Ukraine but de facto it will be inside Russia.

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