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Territorial claims Putin has recognized the breakaway ‘republics’ in eastern Ukraine. But what does Moscow consider their ‘borders’?

Source: Meduza
Alexander Ermochenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Vladimir Putin has officially recognized the independence of the self-proclaimed “republics” in eastern Ukraine. The Russian president signed the corresponding decree on Monday, February 21, following a lengthy address to the nation. The issue of recognizing the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) and “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) was also discussed at length during an extraordinary meeting of the Russian Security Council earlier in the day. Speaking at the meeting, Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev suggested that Moscow recognize the “historical” boundaries of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions as the breakaway territories’ frontiers. However, this elides the fact that a significant portion of the territories the DNR and LNR claim remain under the control of the Ukrainian government.

Vladimir Putin’s decision to recognize the independence of the DNR and LNR seemingly means that Russia acknowledges their claim to the entire territory of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions within their early 2014 boundaries. Indeed, the “constitutions” of both “republics” state that their borders “remain unchanged” from the moment of their formation — that is, as of the time of the 2014 status “referendums” which resulted in the separatists declaring independence from Ukraine. 

Therefore, hypothetically speaking, if Moscow objects to these territorial claims, the decision on recognizing the DNR and LNR should explicitly state that Russia only acknowledges their claim to territories that are under their de facto control (and not to the parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are currently controlled by Kyiv). Presumably, we’ll have a concrete answer to this question in the near future. 

Notably, Russian senator Andrey Klimov — the deputy chairman of the Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee — said that the treaties on friendship and cooperation with the “republics” refer to “those territories that are within the currently established boundaries.” (The Russian Senate is expected to ratify these treaties on Tuesday.)

However, in 2019, both “republics” adopted legislation concerning their “state borders” that contain the same, specific 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.

In the event that Russia recognizes the entire Donetsk and Luhansk regions as part of the DNR and LNR (respectively), these “territorial claims” could serve to put additional diplomatic or even military pressure on Ukraine.

The first deputy chairman of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, lawmaker Vyacheslav Nikonov, has already dropped a none-too-subtle hint at this. On Monday, Nikonov suggested that Russia may “strongly urge” Kyiv to withdraw its forces from these territories. “And then they will [be faced] with a very difficult choice,” he added.

That said, the fact that Moscow recognizes the DNR and LNR does not implicitly mean that Russia will undertake to “capture”’ the entire Donbas on their behalf. In fact, even the Kremlin-backed militants in the Donbas haven’t taken active steps to “restore” their proclaimed frontiers in recent years. In other words, the ambiguity surrounding the “borders” of the DNR and LNR may persist.

Explainer by Dmitry Kuznets

Translation by Eilish Hart

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