Who Will Save the People of the Donbas?

The answer, as is becoming increasingly obvious, is no one. Having ruined the economy of the Donbas enclave they occupy and caused a humanitarian catastrophe, neither Russia nor its terrorist proxies will come to the population’s rescue. Western powers reluctant to confront Vladimir Putin certainly aren’t going to open their wallets to the tune of billions of dollars. And Ukraine, which continues to proclaim that the territories are “temporarily occupied,” lacks the financial and military capacity to liberate the area. That leaves the enclave’s people isolated and, ultimately, completely dependent on themselves.

As many residents of the area now realize, the self-proclaimed leaders of the Donbas and Luhansk republics are more inclined to destroy than to create. As long as they’re around, the enclave will be unsalvageable, and it looks like they’ll be around for a while.

Russia has the money to make a difference, but it appears determined to let the population suffer. Putin enjoyed playing the role of the bull in the china shop. Now that the china is all broken, Putin should pick up the tab. He’s the guilty one, and he should atone for his crimes. He won’t, of course.

Andrei Kortunov, a liberal Russian international relations expert who may be privy to Kremlin debates, stated on November 25th that Russia has no intent to annex the enclave territories. Why?

First, it’s very expensive to incorporate them into Russia. Second, if you annex them, you have to assume responsibility for their future. But, as you know, these are very complex territories with many criminals and radicals who would pour into Russia and the Russian political space. I don’t think Russia is ready for that.

Kortunov is absolutely right. It would be senseless for Russia to annex that much trouble.

But so, too, would it be senseless for Ukraine.

Tetyana Chornovol, an investigative reporter who was savagely beaten by former President Viktor Yanukovych’s goons back on December 25, 2013, and is now a parliamentary deputy, agrees with Kortunov’s logic. “I believe,” she stated on November 26th, “that the occupied part of the Donbas must be separated from Ukraine. That’s the most optimal variant for the state.” Why? Because a long-term war means defeat for Ukraine. Chornovol would even cut off gas supplies to the enclave: “Why should we give gas to territories that Putin controls? Let Putin give them gas.”

The upshot of these two complementary, though competing, logics is a standoff. And a standoff means a “frozen conflict,” a territory that remains disputed and ruled by the insurgents. That’s the worst-case scenario for the proxies. Left to themselves, they’ll drive the Donbas enclave deeper into depression, hasten population flight, and stoke criminality and radicalism.

Kyiv appears to agree with Chornovol. Although no Ukrainian policymaker could say that “the occupied part of the Donbas must be separated from Ukraine,” Kyiv’s decisions to build an armed perimeter around the enclave, cut off subsidies to its governing agencies, curtail pensions and other social payouts, close down ATMs and mail service, reduce rail traffic to the area, and remove the region’s key universities to Ukraine all point to a withdrawal of Ukraine’s institutional presence from the enclave.

Who then will save the enclave’s population? Keep in mind that a significant portion does not wish to be saved, believing that the self-proclaimed republics are just fine. Some of these folks may change their minds as winter settles in and misrule becomes the order of the day. They may then join those who wait for liberation.

Unfortunately, their waiting will be in vain.

Putin’s victims will have to realize that only they can free themselves. Will they rise up against the illegal occupying forces? That’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question.

In the meantime, the enclave’s inevitable drift toward “frozen conflict” status has important implications for Kyiv. If it’s serious about ending the fighting and re-establishing semi-normal relations with Moscow, Kyiv will have to insist that the status of the enclave remain indefinitely frozen in any possible peace deal. Kyiv could give up its NATO aspirations—which will not be consummated in the foreseeable future anyway—and it could agree to eternal love of Russia, but if it agrees to take back the enclave, all hope for reform in a European Ukraine will be dead. And Putin knows it. 


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