Opinion
Evgeniy Maloletka / AP

How Kiev can keep the Donbas

Squeezed and isolated, pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine have no endgame other than annexation by Russia

May 15, 2014 1:45AM ET

On April 30, Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov may have been dissembling when he stated that Kiev had lost control of the country’s rust-belt eastern region, the Donbas. At first glance eastern Ukraine does indeed still appear to be as much in the hands of pro-Russian forces as at any time in the past few weeks. Anti-Ukrainian militias still occupy buildings in several cities, including Luhansk and Donetsk, the largest in the Donbas. On May 11, separatists held poorly planned referenda in Luhansk and Donetsk provinces under unfair and unfree circumstances. Despite an absurdly low turnout, they immediately claimed victory, declared independence and asked Russia to annex their regions.

Upon closer view, the situation is less favorable for the militants and their sponsors in the Kremlin. For starters, a day after Turchynov’s statement, Ukraine’s security forces launched a large-scale “anti-terrorist operation” in which Ukrainian security and armed services engaged pro-Russian extremists in firefights. The Kiev units dismantled guard posts and recaptured buildings in some of the more than 10 Ukrainian cities where militants have tried to assert control. Ukraine is continuing its offensive, nibbling away at areas controlled by militants and imposing significant casualties on their forces.

In the face of well-armed and well-trained professional pro-Russian rebels, Ukraine’s armed forces — decimated by four years of former President Viktor Yanukovych’s intentional neglect — have performed quite well in the counterterrorism offensive. In addition to providing the Ukrainians with combat experience — which may come in handy if Russia decides to invade — the fighting has improved Ukrainian morale. The militants, who appeared to be on a roll until late April, are clearly not unstoppable.

More important, last week’s pseudo-referenda revealed that the pro-Putin commandos are isolated from the people they claim to represent and have no endgame short of annexation of the Donbas by Russia. In turn, their predicament has placed Vladimir Putin, who has remained silent about the ballots and their implications, in a difficult position.

The militants have shown they are adept at seizing buildings, kidnapping opponents, terrorizing the population, instigating pogroms and making bold statements. But they have also demonstrated that they are dreadful administrators. Local economies are grinding to a halt, the proliferation of weapons and the impotence of local police forces have led to exponential increases in crime, and the population is increasingly impatient about the militants’ inability to answer the question “What’s next?”

If Kiev fails in its counterterrorism offensive, the Donbas could easily become a ‘warlordistan.’

Meanwhile, Putin has to decide on the militants’ request to annex Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. Given the farcical nature of the referenda and the militants’ terrorism, sending Russian troops to “liberate” the Donbas could not be justified with appeals to putative popular will. Putin happily thumbed his nose at international law and annexed Crimea, invoking a nonexistent historical “Russianness” and pointing to the jubilant crowds greeting his invading troops. But after the human rights council affiliated with the Russian president’s office said the turnout for the Crimean referendum was only 30 percent, or one-third of what Putin claimed, and that only one-half, or a mere 15 percent of the population, voted for annexation, Putin must now have qualms about using another set of sham referenda to invade more of Ukraine. Moreover, any Russian invasion would likely be met with firm resistance by Ukrainian forces and possibly debilitating Western sanctions. Besides, as shown by reliable public opinion polls, most Donbas residents have no desire to join Russia.

At the same time, Putin knows he cannot sit idly by and watch his commandos in eastern Ukraine suffer defeat and lose popular support. Some of the militants are Russian intelligence agents with explicit orders to sow unrest. Many others, with origins in Ukraine, believe that Putin is their savior. By acting wisely and avoiding war, Putin risks losing the exalted status he enjoys among his commandos in eastern Ukraine.

Kiev’s options

However unexpectedly, the tide may have turned in Kiev’s favor. Expect the government to pursue a divide-and-conquer policy premised on divisions among the militants and to employ a wide range of sticks and carrots at its disposal.

The demands of pro-Russian rebels are as varied as their composition. In Donetsk and Luhansk, some want independent republics; others want Putin to invade. Many militants, together with most Donbas residents, want greater autonomy or a better life in Ukraine. Some are criminals on the payroll of local elites, Moscow, Donbas oligarchs and Yanukovych. Two cities in Donetsk province, Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, are under partial control of Russian-trained extremists, Russian intelligence agents and Russian Spetsnaz Special Forces. Rebels in Luhansk and Donetsk appear to be divided between a more radical “street” and a more moderate cohort that occupies buildings. Even the building occupiers in both cities are split between radicals and moderates. 

Seizing on these divisions, Kiev should try to separate the locals with legitimate grievances from the Russian agents, pro-Russian extremists and paid criminals. It can initiate negotiations with the former while continuing its anti-militant operations against the latter. Kiev can then offer the more moderate elements among the militants concessions on self-rule, language and referenda.

Ukraine’s east wants “federalization.” No one really knows what that means, except that eastern Ukrainians, together with all Ukrainians, want to run their own affairs. Kiev is already committed to a radical “decentralization” of authority that should placate the call for greater self-rule. But words matter. It’s imperative that Kiev frame the administrative reforms just as residents of the Donbas want them to be called — federalization.

Many in eastern Ukraine want Russian to become a second state language. Kiev should counter with two proposals. First, Russian can be the second state language of any province that demands it. Second, Ukraine’s genuine commitment to language equality would entail that all state employees in all of Ukraine demonstrate fluency in both Ukrainian and Russian. The east wants referenda. Kiev should accede and let provinces decide how much decentralization they want.

The Donbas still has a good chance of being reintegrated into Ukraine. The militants are isolated, Putin may be in a pickle and Kiev has shown that it can conduct successful anti-terrorist operations. The stakes are high. If Kiev fails, the Donbas could easily become a “warlordistan.” Corruption, instability, subversion and economic collapse in the Donbas would then radiate in all directions, producing a disaster for the rest of Ukraine, for the wider region and for Russia.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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