oDR: Analysis

What would Russian recognition of separatist territories in Ukraine mean?

Russia’s parliament has urged President Putin to recognise the independence of the ‘People’s Republics’ of Luhansk and Donetsk

Dmitry Sidorov
17 February 2022, 4.50pm
January 2022: Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin at the State Duma, the Russian parliament
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(c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

“This is a Kremlin propaganda stunt against the backdrop of the crisis in Donbas,” Ukrainian political commentator Vitaly Portnikov said, when I asked why there are moves in Russia to potentially recognise the separatist territories in eastern Ukraine this week.

“If the Kremlin really wanted to recognise the independence of the territories, it would have been done completely differently. Putin would have suggested this, or at least Dmitry Medvedev” he added.

As an apparent invasion deadline came and went on Wednesday, the lower house of Russian parliament voted on Tuesday to send president Vladimir Putin an appeal to recognise the independence of the ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ and ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ – the pro-Russian separatist entities set up in eastern Ukraine after the country’s Euromaidan revolution in 2014. The push for recognition came from the Russian Communist Party. It was supported by 351 out of 450 parliamentary deputies.

Shortly after, firing resumed in the Donbas region, with a school in Ukrainian-controlled territory hit by shelling. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the “situation near the border of Russia can ignite at any moment”, referring to “provocative actions” by the Ukrainian military. On Tuesday, Putin referred to the situation in Donbas as “genocide”, provoking fears of further Russian military action.

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To understand what Russia’s recognition of the so-called ‘People’s Republics’ could turn into, openDemocracy spoke to the Communist Party officials behind the initiative, as well as Ukrainian and Russian political commentators.

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A Ukrainian armed forces soldier walks near combat positions at the town of Avdiivka, Donetsk region
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(c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The Communists’ proposal

“I find it funny when our political opponents and certain media say that the Communist Party is opportunist,” said Dmitry Novikov, first deputy chairman of the Russian parliamentary committee on international affairs. “The issue [of Donbas’ status] remains unresolved, and we have always proposed this kind of solution.”

As fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine in the summer of 2014, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov called on the Russian authorities to recognise the independence of the ‘People’s Republics’ to “protect” them from the central Ukrainian authorities. The Russian authorities, another Communist parliamentarian, Nikolay Osadchii, told me, “were about to recognise [the separatist territories] – but at the last moment everything changed”.

Numerous reports have tied Russia to military intervention in eastern Ukraine, but it does not consider itself a party to the conflict. Ukraine, the US and the EU, meanwhile, regarded the independence referendums held in eastern Ukraine in 2014 as illegitimate. Russia “treated the results with respect”, but did not recognise them, though later recognised parliamentary elections held in the ‘People’s Republics’. At the time, separatist leaders asked directly to become part of the Russian Federation.

Yuri Afonov, another Communist Party MP, told openDemocracy he believed that recognition could prevent a “military adventure” by Ukrainian armed forces, citing the fact that more than 700,000 people living in the ‘People’s Republics’ now hold Russian passports.

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April 2014. Barricades in front of the Donetsk regional administration building
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(c) Mark Pourel / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Indeed, the Communist Party has lobbied to reduce the cost of applying for Russian citizenship for residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as well as a simplified application process. Afonov further remarked that the Communists have been “building integration ties with the [separatist territories] for several years”. According to official statements, the party has sent 93 humanitarian convoys to the Donbas since 2014.

On Tuesday, parliamentary deputies from the Communists, the ruling United Russia party, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and Just Russia voted for the petition to recognise the two ‘People’s Republics’, which was drawn up by the Communists. Sixteen deputies from a new centre-Right party, New People, voted against.

“The Communists’ initiative is probably a PR move”

The Communist Party’s initiative to recognise the territories does not say anything about the further integration of these entities into the Russian Federation, but economic, political and military ties are already in place. The Russian rouble is the official currency in the ‘republics’, residents with Russian passports voted in last year’s parliamentary elections in Russia, and a Russian presidential decree in November 2021 significantly simplified trade between Russia and the ‘republics’

“It was quite obvious: without recognising the republics according to the models of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it would be impossible to stop this conflict,” says Yuri Afonin, Communist Party MP. Novikov adds that the two breakaway territories in Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, were recognised by Russia according to the same scheme as the Communist Party has proposed over Donbas: the process began, in part, via Russian parliamentary initiatives.

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Cadets of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic"
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(c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Against the backdrop of an unprecedented Russian military build-up, and measures to prepare for a military escalation inside Ukraine, this week Putin himself commented on the initiative to recognise the separatist territories.

“We must do everything to solve the problems of Donbas, but we should do this... first of all, based on the as yet unrealised opportunities for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements,” he said, referring to the deadlocked ceasefire and reintegration process.

While the Russian government’s reaction to the Communists’ proposal has been “extremely diplomatic”, said Communist MP Nikolay Osadchy, he believes it could still happen.

“We understand that these kind of matters are often decided overnight,” he said.

Abandoning the Minsk Agreements

“The Communists’ initiative is probably a PR move,” said Alexey Tokarev, a senior researcher at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

“It’s meant to say: we are here, we do not quarrel with the [Kremlin], we did not listen to you on domestic policy issues, but we can offer a loyal initiative on foreign policy issues,” Tokarev explained, referring to the Communist Party’s relative success at September’s parliamentary elections. The only possible scenario for Russian recognition would emerge, he believes, if there was a large-scale offensive by the Ukrainian armed forces.

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September 2021: Members of the Russian Communist Party protest over election falsifications
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(c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Vitaly Portnikov, speaking to openDemocracy, agreed with Tokarev, calling the Communist Party “ordinary stupid puppets”. If the Russian authorities did go ahead with recognition, Portnikov believes, “the issue would be closed. Russia would have abandoned the Minsk Agreements. It would no longer be able to reproach Ukraine for violating them.”

He called the possible recognition a “gift for Ukraine” in the sense that it would lead to a deterioration in Russia's position in the international arena, following the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the annexation of Crimea.

Likewise, Portnikov believes that the Kremlin will not agree to the recognition of the separarist territories: following a ceasefire, the Minsk Agreements foresee the reintegration of these territories back into Ukraine via a special autonomous status in the country’s constitution. Recognition of their independence, therefore, would remove the Kremlin’s most important lever for putting pressure on Kyiv.

“With the help of constant shelling of Ukrainian territory from the Donbas, Russia maintains political instability in Ukraine, maintains a feeling of constant war inside Ukraine,” he said.

“On the one hand, you have the public statements of Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Putin, and on the other, there’s Russia’s actions on the ground: the maximum strangulation, killing, plundering of the [Donbas] region, turning it into an instrument of geopolitical bargaining”

Roman Tsymbalyuk, a former Moscow correspondent for news agency Ukrainian Independent Information Agency, agrees that Russia’s recognition of territories in eastern Ukraine will not lead to automatic peace, but suggests the overall situation could improve, as it could mean that Russia officially moves its military into the territories.

“The Kremlin will no longer be able to sing the song ‘We're not there’, ‘They don’t listen to us’ [regarding the Minsk agreements], ‘We don't know where they got their weapons from,’” Tsymbalyuk says. This could mean a ‘freezing’ of the Donbas conflict, he says, as in the cases of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In general, “the residents of free Ukraine will be neither cold nor hot from the decision,” Tsymbalyuk said, since Russia already actually controls the territories in Donbas – in terms of media, military and finances, and now demographically, via mass passportisation.

Tsymbalyuk said it was important to understand the “two parallel processes” happening in Russia over eastern Ukraine.

“On the one hand, you have the public statements of Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Putin, and on the other, there’s Russia’s actions on the ground: the maximum strangulation, killing, plundering of the [Donbas] region, turning it into an instrument of geopolitical bargaining.”

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