The State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Federal Assembly, will take up an initiative tomorrow to vote on whether to recognize the independence of the two separatist regions of Eastern Ukraine around which much of the present conflict between Russia and Ukraine is centered.
These two regions, the Donetsk, and Luhansk People’s Republics, collectively known as Donbas, declared their independence from Ukraine on May 12, 2014, after holding an independence referendum the day before. The vote was held without support from Kyiv and without international elections observers. According to local authorities, the referendum passed overwhelmingly with a turnout of more than 70 percent, but the two self-proclaimed republics have yet to receive recognition from any other country on Earth.
The civil war in Eastern Ukraine continued even after the independence referendum, and in fact in some respects got worse. The fighting led to the Minsk Protocol, an agreement signed in September 2014 by the Tri-Lateral Contact Group on Ukraine, which consists of Ukraine, Russia, and the multi-national Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Additionally, France and Germany were involved as mediators. However, the Minsk Protocol failed to end the fighting and was followed five months later by a new agreement, known as Minsk II.
Although Minsk II has also failed to end all the fighting, parties involved continue to consider it the foundation for any future conflict resolution on the matter. Almost eight years later, most of its agreed upon measures have yet to be fully implemented. Among those that have been implemented include a ceasefire, although skirmishes and artillery shelling along the contact line continue to this day, and the withdrawal of heavy military equipment from the contact line under the supervision of the OSCE. However, the other measures of Minsk II have largely not been implemented, leaving the status of Donbas in question and the de facto civil war underway.
One of the key measures of contention regards constitutional reforms in Ukraine and Kyiv granting Donetsk and Luhansk a “special status” in Ukraine within a decentralized constitutional system, whereby the two republics would be granted a great deal of autonomy over its own affairs, including the right to maintain its own police forces. However, an attempt to approve this special status in 2015 failed when neither Donbas, nor Russia, were satisfied with the language of the law passed by the Ukrainian Parliament that year. No progress has been made since and the Ukrainian government refuses to hold talks directly with the separatist leaders, referring to them as terrorists. Meanwhile, Russia rejects one-on-one talks Ukraine, claiming it is just a mediator in the conflict, and insists Ukraine fully implement the Minsk II agreement.
In order to fully implement the Minsk II agreement, Kyiv would have to grant Donetsk and Luhansk a special status, among other things. However, creating the special status (as understood by Russia and demanded by the Russian-backed separatists) would not only include a great deal of local autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk, but it would also give these two provincial governments the power to veto decisions made by the national government that affect the whole country–a demand Kyiv insists will never be met.
This is where Russia’s interest in the matter is clear: if its main concern is preventing Ukraine from ever joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Russia wouldn’t need to invade, conquer, and occupy that country if the Russian-backed Donetsk and Luhansk held the power to veto any future attempts by the national government to join NATO. This, in fact, is the ideal scenario for Russia, as it would not only allow them to avoid the inevitable sanctions threatened by the United States and its allies, but it would also save Moscow from having to occupy a people who are sure to fiercely resist Russian occupation and not willingly allow their homeland to be absorbed into Russia by force.
Even though Russia like the rest of the world knows Ukraine will not be joining NATO anytime soon (Ukraine initiated this process back in 2005 and has yet to be invited to join), Kyiv has nonetheless left its goal on the table. In truth, the goal is unrealistic considering applications to join NATO have to be approved unanimously. Nevertheless, the idea that Ukraine, an Eastern Orthodox, partly Russian-speaking, former Soviet state with a sizable ethnic Russian population could potentially NATO strikes a nerve in Moscow for obvious reasons, but Moscow also feels threatened by what it sees as encirclement.
The NATO military alliance has expanded significantly from its original 12 members in 1949 and now comprises 30 countries across North America and Europe. Its further eastern expansion, potentially not only into countries like Ukraine but also into Georgia on Russia’s southern border in the Caucasus, has Russia seeing the walls closing in on their sphere of influence and feeling threatened by the prospect of NATO military deployments along its European border from Scandinavia to Caucasia. At the moment, three NATO countries already share a border with Russia: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all of which joined the alliance in 2004.
Therein lies the ongoing dispute between Russia and NATO about the future of Ukraine and Donbas. Russia under no circumstances will allow Ukraine to join NATO and Ukraine under no circumstances will allow Donbas to join Russia. Ukraine will also not directly engage with the separatists, while Russia will not directly engage with Ukraine. Russia is additionally demanding certain security guarantees that NATO will not provide, namely, that the alliance will not expand any closer to Russian borders. On top of that, Russia is demanding that the Minsk II agreement be fully implemented and their understanding of that includes a special status for Donbas that, in addition to greater autonomy, gives these two regions the immense power to veto decisions made by the national government, thereby giving Moscow the ability to control Kyiv.
Understandably, Ukrainians in other regions of the country are strongly opposed to this idea and its passage would inevitably cause unrest across the country. So without progress in sight for implementing the Minsk II agreement in a way that satisfies Russia, Vladimir Putin has been locked in a stalemate for the past eight years for which he increasingly doesn’t have the patience. Hence, the buildup of Russia’s military forces along the Ukrainian border. However, any invasion, if it is to occur, will take place under a ruse of legitimacy, at least from Russia’s point of view. That legitimacy will be in the form of defending Donetsk and Luhansk from foreign threats, namely, Ukraine. In order for Ukraine to be a “foreign threat,” Russia must first recognize Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states.
This is the question the Russian State Duma consider tomorrow, February 15, 2022. A full copy of the PDF is available online and goes into more details about the case being made for Russian recognition of Donbas independence from Ukraine. Actually, they will consider two versions of the initiative in a system of votes functioning like a runoff. There will be a series of consecutive votes after which the initiative receiving the most votes will be considered to be adopted. The first initiative to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states would, if adopted, go immediately to President Putin for his consideration. The second initiative, if adopted, would instead be forwarded to the Russian Foreign Ministry for its consideration and feedback before any further action is taken.
Some Russian politicians have said that if Donbas were to separate from Ukraine, the two new states would have the right to join the Russian version of NATO, a Central Asia military alliance known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). This Russia-led military alliance made headlines in earlier this year when its members quickly mobilized its forces to quell an insurrection, of sorts, in Kazakhstan during the first week of January. Since skirmishes and artillery shelling from the Ukrainian side are a common part of life in Donbass and have been for the past eight years, a single skirmish or artillery shell shot in the direction of Donbass, if recognized by Russia and admitted into the CSTO, would be grounds for Russian intervention to protect a CSTO member state, not an invasion, as that military alliance has collective security guarantees just like NATO’s Article 5.