Stuffing the rebels back into Ukraine

Denis Pushilin and Vladislav Deinovo, two of the political leaders of the rebel Ukrainian Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR & LPR), caused something of a stir earlier this week when they announced that the DPR and LPR were willing to accept ‘broad autonomy’ within Ukraine. ‘We proposed adding an article to the Ukrainian Constitution that the country’s regions have a right to self-determination. We are ready to carry out local elections,’ Pushilin said, although he added that, ‘If Kiev further breaks the Minsk agreements, the DPR will move to full independence.’

The Minsk 2 agreement signed three months ago obliged the Ukrainian government to enact constitutional reform by the end of 2015. The DPR and LPR have now submitted their suggestions for constitutional amendments to the Ukrainian constitutional commission as well as to the Minsk Contact Group. According to news reports about Pushilin and Deinovo’s statements:

Their proposals include the creation of detachments of people’s militia under the control of the local authorities, official status for the Russian language, and a special economic regime. ‘Also envisioned is the possibility of concluding a whole complex of treaties and agreements between the central powers and Donbass. Amendments to the articles of the Ukrainian Constitution on the justice system, the procuracy, local self-government, and the administrative – territorial structure of Ukraine, are proposed.’ … The draft also envisions a strengthening of Ukraine’s neutral status.

In Russian nationalist circles, Pushilin and Deinovo’s statements are proof that Moscow is preparing to surrender Donbass to the Ukrainian government. For instance, the well-known military commentator ‘El-Murid’ writes that Pushilin’s talk of a ‘move to full independence’ is an ‘empty threat’, and that ‘Pushilin continues to hold his post only because he pronounces exactly what he is told to [by the Kremlin].’ Moscow’s aim, says El-Murid, ‘remains the same, to stuff the DPR (and LPR) back into Ukraine as Kremlin puppet territories and to guarantee their existence with this status.’  ‘One must understand that the idea of an independent DPR and LPR has been eliminated once and for all,’ he concludes, ‘we are talking about an attempt to find a more or less honourable form of capitulation.’

Others disagree. The author of the popular blog Yurasumy notes that ‘Apart from the time of the announcement, there is nothing new. Both sides are weary of the [Minsk peace] agreements, but neither wants to be the first to break them. Thus there are beautiful gestures and beautiful phrases, but no real progress, as neither side is ready for it.’ Meanwhile, Boris Rozhin, aka ‘Colonel Cassad’, one of the best informed commentators on the war in Donbass, remarks that ‘it is practically impossible for these proposals to come to life,’ as there is no support for them either in the rebel republics or in the rest of Ukraine. Talk of ‘autonomy within Ukraine’ is ‘empty words’, he claims, ‘At present the objective circumstances are that Donbass will sail further and further away from Ukraine regardless of whoever wants to stuff it back into Ukraine in one form or another by military or political means.’ Russia, he concludes, ‘de facto supports the two unrecognized state formations, providing them with political, information, diplomatic, and military support.’ It is not about to surrender them to Ukraine.

I think that Russia’s preferred outcome is indeed for Donbass to remain within Ukraine, but with some form of autonomy. And it is true that the recent declarations are nothing new. Immediately after the Minsk-2 agreement, for instance, the head of the LPR, Igor Plotnitsky, made some very conciliatory statements about the LPR remaining within Ukraine as long as there was political reform in Ukraine. But it is also true that in practice this is unlikely. For, as Rozhin writes, Kiev wishes to ‘return Donbass into a unitary state with some abstract “decentralization”, where there is no room for “autonomy” and “federalism”, as these terms are considered the same as separatism.’ The head of the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko’s parliamentary faction, Iurii Lutsenko, declared yesterday that ‘Donbass must not receive any special status different from the rest of Ukraine.’ Donbass could only receive whatever powers were also decentralized to other regions in the country. This effectively rules out any possibility of Kiev making constitutional concessions which the DPR and LPR might consider acceptable.

And then there is the tricky question of what to do with the rebel army. Pushilin’s proposal of a ‘people’s militia’ under local government control suggests that he sees this army becoming that people’s militia. That way, the rebel republics could officially re-integrate with Ukraine while not losing their ability to defend themselves. But there is no way that Kiev could ever accept the existence of such an armed force under local government control. At the same time, though, it is simply unimaginable that the rebels would agree to disband it. It is, after all, their only defence against the Ukrainian government reneging on any agreement. While there may be some solution to this problem, I confess that I have no idea what it is.

Overall, therefore, I think that the view that Moscow is preparing to ‘capitulate’ and sell the rebels down the river seems a bit far-fetched. Even if those in power in Russia do indeed want to ‘stuff the DPR and LPR back into Ukraine’, it is unlikely they will be able to do so, for that plan relies on the co-operation of the Ukrainian authorities and co-operation does not appear to be forthcoming. Although one cannot entirely rule out the possibility of reintegration, de facto independence for the DPR and LPR remains a more likely outcome. The rebels have made their constitutional demands. How Kiev responds will determine the future of the country.

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