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‘A straw in the wind’ Meduza asks foreign policy experts to weigh in on the prospect of Russia recognizing the breakaway ‘republics’ in eastern Ukraine

Source: Meduza
Valentin Sprinchak / TASS

On February 15, the Russian State Duma sent a motion to President Vladimir Putin calling for diplomatic recognition of the pro-Russian “republics” in eastern Ukraine. In turn, Putin gave an evasive, informal response: the lawmakers, he said, were “guided by public opinion” and Russians’ widespread sympathy for the inhabitants of the Donbas — however, this issue should be resolved on the basis of the Minsk agreements. At the same time, Putin made sure to recall that Ukraine hasn’t fulfilled its obligations under the accords. To help make sense of this new gambit, Meduza turned to a number of foreign policy experts — they believe that (for now) the threat of “recognition” is nothing more than another means of upping the pressure on Ukraine and the West.

How could Russia justify diplomatic recognition of the ‘republics’?

The Kremlin may refer to the “will of the people” living in these regions — this was Moscow’s justification for recognizing Abkhazia’s independence from Georgia in 2008, for example. That said, this or any other reasoning will not change the fact that in recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” Russia would be violating its obligations under pre-existing international agreements. Namely, this would be a direct breach of the 1975 Helsinki Accords (which includes clauses on the “inviolability of frontiers” in Europe) and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum (whose signatories agreed to guarantee the security and sovereignty of Ukraine).

Back in 2014, after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, Moscow tried to argue that the provisions of the Budapest Memorandum didn’t apply to the situation in Ukraine by claiming that “Ukraine’s loss of its territorial integrity was a result of complicated internal processes.” “At the OSCE summit in Budapest in 1994 and during events on the side-lines, Russia did not undertake to force part of Ukraine to stay in it against the will of the local population,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. 

The international legal dispute over the violation of these agreements remains unresolved. Perhaps more importantly, however, Russia recognizing the DNR and LNR would completely destroy the Minsk agreements — one of the only formats for peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv. What’s more, Moscow would no longer be able to position itself as an intermediary in negotiations, which it claims are between “warring parties on the territory of Ukraine.” 

What will change for Russia if it goes through with diplomatic recognition?

This would untie Russia’s hands in terms of its own restrictions (based on its formal recognition of these regions as part of Ukraine) and make it possible for the Kremlin to openly station troops in the Donbas. The DNR’s leadership has already mentioned plans to appeal to Russia for official military aid. Moreover, the rest of the world (which, in all likelihood, will not follow Moscow’s example and recognize the republics) would consider an official troop deployment to the Donbas direct act of aggression against Ukraine.

It’s also important to recall that both the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” officially claim territory that is not under their de facto control. Indeed, in their respective “constitutions,” the republics define their boundaries as those of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions — and the majority of these regions’ territory is still controlled by Kyiv. 

Will Russia try to help the ‘republics’ take the entire Donbas?

This is just about the biggest problem that could emerge from Russia recognizing the DNR and LNR, says Ukrainian political scientist Georgy Chizhov. In 2019, both republics adopted legislation concerning their “state borders” that contain the same provisions:

  • The borders with Ukraine correspond to the boundaries of the “former” regions therein. At present, they are established by the republics unilaterally, but in the future they should be fixed by an agreement with Kyiv.
  • The “inviolability of borders” must be ensured, including through military force.

That said, the Donetsk and Luhansk republics aren’t taking active steps to “restore” their proclaimed frontiers. On the one hand, this means that unless the Kremlin decides to pursue a hot war with Ukraine, it’s likely that this ambiguity and virtual inaction could persist even if Russia recognizes the republics.

On the other hand, Moscow recognizing the entire Donetsk and Luhansk regions as the republics’ territory could pave the way for an expansion of the conflict in the Donbas. “A military operation opening onto the administrative boundaries of these regions is the very war that we’ve been afraid of for so long,” Chizhov warns. “[Russian forces] won’t be met with flowers there: people there are well aware that life is worse in the territories that aren’t controlled [by Kyiv].” 

Berlin Center for East European Studies director Dmitry Stratievsky agrees. Worst case scenario, he says, “this would mean a direct conflict with Ukraine. I think the Kremlin realizes what’s at stake.” 

Is the next step after recognition annexation (as seen in Crimea)?

There’s no talk of this right now. In fact, there’s little public support for this idea in Russia. According to independent polling data, the percentage of Russians who would like to see the Donbas become part of Russia has been roughly the same since 2016, hovering around 25 percent. In addition, the prospect of annexing the Donbas raises the issue of paying for its restoration. The minimum cost of reconstruction was estimated at $21.7 billion in 2020, and this is a price tag Russia just can’t afford.

Georgy Chizhov doubts that Russia really “needs” these regions. “They’ve completely deteriorated from an economic, humanitarian, and ecological point of view,” the political scientist explains. “Right now, Russia is at least not obligated to ensure any kind of social standards there — people there live significantly poorer lives than people in Russia and Ukraine. One shouldn’t expect an outburst of patriotic sentiments and Russians’ rallying around the government as was the case after Crimea. Public opinion polls show that the mood is a bit different.”

Russian International Affairs Council director-general Andrey Kortunov agrees with this assessment. “It’s clear that one can hardly count on wide international recognition,” he says. “In all likelihood, [the DNR and LNR] will end up in the same situation as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the difference being that there are much more people [in the DNR and LNR]. Accordingly, the amount of economic support that’s needed will be much larger than in the case of these South Caucasian territories.” 

How will Ukraine and Western countries respond if Russia recognizes the DNR and LNR?

Georgy Chizhov, European Dialogue Expert Group in Ukraine coordinator

“I think that [Russian lawmakers’ motion to recognize the DNR and LNR] is an intimidation tactic. And perhaps [an attempt] to provoke Kyiv to withdraw from the Minsk agreements first. But I don’t think this will happen. I think recognition is no threat to us in the near future. Because Russia has a completely different goal — to do the opposite and shoehorn [these regions] back into Ukraine on its own terms.

Russia wants the DNR and LNR, or certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, to receive some kind of subjectivity within Ukraine, in other words, for them not to be subordinate to Kyiv, but have veto power, primarily over domestic political decisions. Ukraine doesn’t want to go for this. Recognizing the DNR and LNR [would mean Russia] is basically abandoning this policy, there’s no need for this. We see that right now Russia is mainly calling on Ukraine to implement the Minsk agreements, and it understands the implementation of the Minsk agreements as the reintegration of the [DNR and LNR into] Ukraine.

The reaction of the West and Ukraine [to Russia recognizing the DNR and LNR] is predictable — they will call it another act of aggression. They will recall that Russia is present in these territories in one form or another. Sanctions from the West may follow, but they won’t be comparable to those that could be [imposed] in the event of an invasion.” 

Dmitry Stratievsky, Berlin Center for East European Studies director

“This recognition will certainly provoke a sharp response. This will automatically mean the Russian Federation’s withdrawal from the Minsk process. And, in this case, Russia will no longer be able to claim the role that it is constantly trying to reserve for itself — that of a mediator and peacemaker, rather than a direct participant in the conflict. This role will be completely off-limits for Moscow.

But, to be honest, I don’t see a 100 percent or even a 70 percent chance that Moscow will officially recognize the LNR and DNR. [What] I see here is a game on a wide chessboard. This must be taken in the context of the initiatives that Russia put forward for NATO to consider. Moscow knew very well that they wouldn’t be fulfilled. We’re seeing the Russian leadership undertake a wide range of different initiatives and methods of pressure — the concentration of troops on the border with Ukraine is [part of] this, too. 

This is far from the first initiative from State Duma lawmakers on recognizing the LNR and DNR; the Communists have put this forward repeatedly. Now this idea has been dusted off again. Putin is officially silent so far. The initiative comes from KPRF and United Russia deputies — this, in my opinion, is another indicator that this is an element of the game, and not yet an initiative that will be made a reality. 

We can evaluate the steps of the Russian leadership in different ways. But in my opinion, we cannot deny their pragmatism. The Kremlin calculates the price of every step. The question is, why would Putin, his inner-circle, the legendary ‘Kremlin towers,’ [and] Russian oligarchs recognize these regions or, moreover, integrate them into Russia? They are already de facto subsidized by the Russian budget — this is known to everyone and not actually hidden. Integration is a completely unnecessary further escalation. This [would] throw Russia out of any negotiations, out of the Normandy format, even more harshly. In this case, Russia would definitely be the party that didn’t fulfill the Minsk agreements. After all, this is one of the Russian administration’s main trump cards — to constantly point to Kyiv as the party that isn’t fulfilling the agreement and allegedly doesn’t want reconciliation in the Donbas. 

I see a lot of costs here, but I don’t see any practical benefits in recognition, let alone integration into Russia.”

Fyodor Lukyanov, Russia in Global Affairs editor-in-chief

“There will be no recognition of the LNR and DNR right now. This is just a straw in the wind. An indication that if the Minsk agreements aren’t fulfilled and the whole process gets stuck again, there’s this option as a last resort. 

Russia has absolutely no need for this right now, because it ruins the game. The Minsk agreements are an important element of this big maneuver that Russia is carrying out to change the security system in Europe. Taking the Minsk agreements and burying them is counterproductive.

Both sides — the Americans and the Russians — are undertaking all kinds of inducements that are supposed to show that if nothing happens, there will be the most radical solutions. [The talk of recognizing the DNR and LNR] is just in case circumstances arise that show that there are no longer any prospects for negotiations.” 

Andrey Kortunov, Russian International Affairs Council director-general 

“The likelihood of Russia recognizing the LNR and DNR can be debated. At present, this is a threat that may or may not be executed. The president may or may not sign the legislation. The legislation still has to get final approval in the parliament. In other words, this is a process that can be sped up or slowed down depending on evolving circumstances. Therefore, I wouldn’t say that this is predetermined as of yet.

Moreover, there are very big side effects that the Kremlin must take into account here. Firstly, the recognition of the LNR and DNR means the end of the Minsk agreements. If Moscow believes that Minsk is a great diplomatic victory, then recognition would immediately nullify this victory. The Russian side becomes not only a de facto but a de jure participant in the conflict with all of the ensuing consequences.

Secondly, there’s the consequences of recognition. If recognition is followed by signing agreements on cooperation and aid, and the signing of agreements is followed by the deployment of Russian troops on the territory of these unrecognized republics, it’s obvious that this will be seen in the West as a variation on an invasion. “Invasion light” one might say. And this, of course, will trigger the mechanism for the adoption of new sanctions. Perhaps these sanctions won’t be as terrible as they could have been if Russia had directly invaded territory outside of the Donbas. But nevertheless there will be sanctions and they will be quite significant. There will be great costs for Russia here, too — not just political ones, but also economic ones.” 

How much has Russia invested in the Donbas so far?

This is difficult to assess, but we’re talking about billions of dollars. Part of the financial and trade flows, for example, went through the Russian-controlled breakaway state of South Ossetia. And the cost of propping up the Donbas has risen as it has become more and more economically divorced from Ukraine. In 2017, Kyiv imposed a transport blockade on “people’s republics,” after which the de facto authorities in the region completely expropriated Ukrainian enterprises located on territories under their control.

Meanwhile, Russia increased the supply of anything and everything the Donbas needed, while simultaneously furthering the integration of the remnants of the local economy into the Russian economy. In the fall of 2021, Putin signed a decree easing access to Russian markets for goods from the DNR and LNR (formally, the document was on the provision of “humanitarian support” for the inhabitants of the Donbas). What’s more, up to a million Donbas residents have been granted Russian citizenship — and, accordingly, all of the social benefits that come with it.

Explainer by Dmitry Kuznets and Kristina Safonova

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart 

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