What Russian Recognition of Self-declared “Luhansk People’s Republic” and “Donetsk People’s Republic” Means?
Huseyin Oylupinar (PhD)
Academic Adviser for East European Affairs
Foreign Policy Institute (FPI)
Then Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, turned away from the EU and rejected the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement under pressure from Russia. This caused the start of the EuroMaidan events in November 2013. Events lasted until February 2014 when Yanukovych had to escape to Russia. The political limbo caused by the events and the escape of the country’s president, Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation landed his soldiers on Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea; he illegally annexed the peninsula. While this was happening, Russia-backed groups in Ukraine’s Donbas tried to provoke events that would legitimize Russian interference. Yet, such events were insignificant and did not create the conditions for Russia to move its military into the Ukrainian territory. This being the case, Crimean Cossack groups were carried into Donbas to start occupation of Ukrainian government buildings, giving the impression that the “local rebel groups” uprose against the Ukrainian government. Such groups were supported by mercenary groups posted from Russia. Such groups ran armed aggression and were supported by the Russian government, including the involvement of regular Russian troops (uniformed and ununiformed) and Russian military equipment.
The fighting led to Ukrainian withdrawal in the first phase. Ukraine’s loss of parts of Donbas led to the Minsk Agreement that was supposed to lead to de-escalation. Yet, the ceasefire did not last and the Ukrainian army, now on the offensive, was recovering the lost territories, and the Russia-sponsored organized groups started to withdraw. At this very moment, the Russian regular army support arrived in the form of “humanitarian” support. The tides of the war turned and Ukrainian withdrawal ensued. This culminated in the signing of the Minsk II Agreement.
Why Minsk II did not Work?
Minsk II introduced a ceasefire in Donbas on February 15, 2015. The agreement envisaged de-escalation by removal of heavy arms and withdrawal of the Ukrainian army and the armed groupings to outside of the defined zone of engagement. According to the articles of the Minsk II, as the pullout of forces happens local elections were to be organized according to the Ukrainian laws and new legislation was to be worked out by the Ukrainian parliament (Rada) to introduce a temporary order for self-governance in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (which was supposed to happen in 30 days). For the normalization of life in Donetsk and Luhansk where the Ukrainian government lost control, the Ukrainian government was supposed to restore economic and social connections. Moreover, the Ukrainian government was supposed to control the borders in the conflict zone as the local elections take place, that is Ukrainian sovereignty was supposed to be reinstated. The foreign armed formations, read Russian troops and mercenaries, and military equipment would be pulled out. All illegal armed groups would be disarmed.
As Ukraine pushed for the disarmament of illegal groups and withdrawal of Russian and other mercenaries, as stipulated in the agreement, Russia prioritized and pushed forward for the new legislation from the Ukrainian Rada that gives self-governance rights to Donbas and Luhansk. As Russia denied the Ukrainian government regaining sovereign border control, the agreement came to a dead end. The Trilateral Contact Group for the regulation of the situation and the Normandy format talks to have the agreement work doomed as Russia denied that it has taken part in the armed aggression against Ukraine and that it is part of the problem, that its military is involved in the conflict, that it supported armed groups, and organized and dispatched mercenaries from mainland Russia. Moreover, it pushed the agenda that the situation in Donbas has to be defined and resolved as a civil war and that it is a Ukrainian domestic problem and therefore, the Ukrainian government has to recognize the so-called LNR and DNR leadership and negotiate with them. Russia, as Putin defended, is just a peacemaker in all this episode of events and extending its helping hand to Ukraine to resolve the “civil war” in Donbas. Yet, the Ukrainian governments have considered these LNR and DNR armed figures as terrorists and did not agree to negotiate on an equal standing.
Why Vladimir Putin did not Annex Donbas?
The armed aggression in Donbas caused the Ukrainian government to lose control of parts of Luhansk and Donetsk. The Russian sponsored and controlled armed groups formed self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR, formed on April 27, 2014) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR, April 7, 2014). Both formations declared independence after illegitimate, according to the Ukrainian constitution, referendums. Vladimir Putin, while not recognizing the formations as states, asked international fora to respect the referendum results.
For 8 years Vladimir Putin avoided recognizing LNR&DNR, contrary to his swift incorporation of Crimea soon after the Russian army captured it. Why he has not done so in the case of Donbas? The main reason is that Putin needed a bargaining chip. Vladimir Putin made proposals at the Normandy meetings where he asked for international recognition of Crimea, including the Ukrainian government’s recognition, in return for stopping his support to LNR and DNR. This proposal was refused by other Normandy format participants.
Vladimir Putin planned to return LNR&DNR back to the Ukrainian fold as a trojan horse. By refusing to support disarming LNR&DNR, he forced local elections to be held before Ukrainian control took place over the entire Donbas territories. In essence, Putin wanted to hold local elections under the control of his armed groups to keep the LNR&DNR political groupings, leaders, and formations in place as recognized by the Ukrainian government. This setting forced forward by Russia is rejected by the Ukrainian government. They, on the contrary, defended that the local elections shall take place only after Ukraine’s full control and after LNR&DNR disarms. This basic difference in positions secured the end of the deal in the context of the Minsk II agreements. The fragile ceasefire remained in place while being violated frequently and most agreement articles remained disobeyed until February 21, 2022, when the Russian president decided to recognize LNR&DNR.
What is at Stake?
For Vladimir Putin’s Russia, there are costs. Effectively confirming these two formations as Russia’s vassal states the long-time invested trojan horse project has collapsed. If Vladimir Putin does not continue with the further invasion of Ukraine and holds some more Ukrainian territories as a bargaining chip, the very fact that Russia recognized these two formations politically too costly taking Western sanctions this decision initiated.
If this recognition was costly then why did Putin go that way? To simply put, Putin considers that he has been held up too long by the Minsk process, which did not deliver what he wanted. He needs to move swiftly forward with his master plan to keep western influence off from his Eurasian borderlands. Therefore, he made the recognition decision despite being aware of the costs but with a reimbursement plan, a plan which should manifest in the form of security guarantees he has been asking from the US and NATO. This he can only achieve through further dismemberment of Ukraine. Russia, in each step of its intrusions into Ukraine, will force its demand for security guarantees. The west, Vladimir Putin calculates, lacks the will, unity, capacity, and tools to proportionately respond to the Russian dismemberment of Ukraine and therefore, should give up and agree to the Russian demands: disarming Ukraine, no NATO membership for Ukraine, recognition of Crimean annexation, independence of LNR and DNR.
If allies of Ukraine cannot hamper Russia, this progress of events will mark the coming of Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea. If the Russian hegemony is established, in this case, Russia will exert all its power to incapacitate NATO in Central Europe. If Russia goes unhindered then the countries of East Europe and the Black Sea should prepare for a Russian hegemony.