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Ukraine Should Abandon the Donbas Enclave

Ukraine has two nonnegotiable priorities in its ongoing war with Russia: survival and reform. Ukraine must survive as a sovereign democratic state in the short term if it is to reform, and it must reform itself in the medium term in order to survive and become a prosperous and secure sovereign democratic state in the long term. Both goals can be best advanced if Ukraine washes its hands of the enclave of the Donbas region that Russia and its proxies now control.

Europe’s foremost priority is inextricably connected to Ukraine’s. Europe’s two key pillars—the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—must survive as effective institutions, but they can do so only if Ukraine survives and reforms. If Ukraine, a geopolitically pivotal country in the heart of Europe, falls to Russia or becomes a European Zimbabwe, Europe will be hard-pressed to remain functional, prosperous, and stable.

Ukraine’s priorities are, therefore, Europe’s—and by extension America’s. The only difference—and the only source of policy disagreement—is on the time frame. Ukraine needs to survive immediately, and it must reform itself as soon as possible. If it fails to do so, Europe’s survival will come into question, but only in time—a prospect that enables some Europeans to hope that things will somehow work themselves out in the future.

Ukraine’s survival is predicated on one simple goal: stopping Putin.

Stopping Putin means two things. First, the West cannot abate its sanctions or recognize Russia’s illegal occupation of the Crimea and the Donbas. If sanctions are rolled back and the occupations are deemed legal, Putin will be told that imperialism pays. No one knows what he wants, but it’s clear that his minimal goal is to keep Ukraine unstable, poor, and on the verge of collapse. His maximal goal may be all of Ukraine or, as he told Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, “If I want to, Russian troops can be not only in Kyiv in two days, but also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw, or Bucharest.”

Second, Ukraine must have the defensive capacity to deter a further Russian invasion. Kyiv has already adopted a plan to build extensive fortifications along its border with Russia and the Donbas enclave. Ukraine must now do everything possible—preferably with Western help—to strengthen its army and acquire the force structure it needs to stop Russian tanks and aircraft. Since vast amounts of Western military assistance are unlikely, the burden of security will fall on Ukraine, which will be able to sustain it only if its economy begins to grow briskly.

Ukraine’s adoption of painful systemic reforms requires political will on the part of the political elite, a willingness by the population to endure hardship, and a clear road map. For the first time since independence in 1991, all three components are in place. The post-Maidan democrats understand that reform is unavoidable; the vast majority of Ukrainians want change and know that reform can make life only marginally worse; and the EU Association Agreement provides Ukraine with a clear vision of the concrete steps it must take.

But systemic reform will be next to impossible if Kyiv’s attention and resources remain focused on the Donbas enclave. Under the worst-case scenario, if fighting continues or intensifies, increasingly scarce resources will flow eastward and reform will be delayed until peace finally comes. Under the best-case scenario, if some form of peace arrives and holds, while Kyiv continues to devote its attention to integrating and, ultimately, financing the reconstruction of the region, reforms will be tabled because the Donbas enclave will, as Putin knows, obstruct westward-oriented change and promote Russian influence in Ukraine’s internal affairs.

The enclave’s population has been and may still be unremittingly anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western. Its elites—whether the old guard in the Party of Regions and the Communist Party or the new guard in the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics—are political and economic reactionaries. The enclave’s chief oligarch and corruptioneer, Rinat Akhmetov, is still uncertain about his loyalty to Kyiv. And the enormous economic and human destruction wrought by Russia and its proxies will require massive amounts of subsidies that Kyiv can obtain only by raiding the coffers of Ukraine’s other provinces.

In sum, reintegrating the Donbas enclave into Ukraine will retard and prevent reform and, thus, undermine Ukraine’s survival. In contrast, keeping it at arm’s length will free Ukraine to pursue reform and consolidate its sovereignty.

There are several ways in which “keeping it at arm’s length” may be interpreted. Ukraine could cut the enclave loose and tell it to determine its own future. It could, as Poroshenko’s current peace plan does, grant them a special status within Ukraine that effectively amounts to independence, especially if Russia’s proxies run the enclave. Or Ukraine could “freeze” the status quo, turn inward and westward, and “wash its hands” of the region.

Whatever Ukraine’s choice, it—and the West—must understand that their future ultimately hinges on what happens to the enclave. The Donbas was probably the single most important obstacle to Ukraine’s adoption of reforms in the last 23 years. It would be a tragedy if, through Kyiv’s and the West’s unwillingness to recognize Ukraine’s priorities, the enclave continued to play this dubious role in the future.

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