On February 21, President Vladimir Putin summoned his Security Council to an unscheduled meeting to discuss the future of the Russian-funded and -armed breakaway areas in Eastern Ukraine. At a bizarre televised meeting with his top officials and spies, the president derided the Minsk peace protocols and guided the discussion toward recognition of the occupied lands, a decision that was confirmed later in the day. This marks the second amputation of Ukraine, following the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
The direction of events had begun to become clear last week, when leaders of the Russian-backed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics (men not known for their independence from the Kremlin) announced an evacuation of an estimated 700,000 women and children due to what it termed the recent escalation in violence. President Vladimir Putin instructed the authorities to create refugee camps in the Rostov region and to give each resident 10,000 rubles (about $150.) Thus began a new phase of the conflict that began in November with the Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders.
For a significant period leading up to 2022, the occupied territories largely disappeared from a public view. Ukrainian opinion polls were unable to ask citizens of these areas what they thought about developments. Yet while hundreds of thousands of Donbas residents now have Russian passports and can vote in Russian elections, they are not formally part of Russia, unlike the annexed Crimea. Donbas was certainly warred over, in shellfire and words, whenever Russia or the West wanted to make a point, but it seemed that by itself, Donbas was nothing. Well, it is time to fill that vacuum, because the last eight years of conflict has significantly changed the situation in this region. And it is impossible to understand current developments without taking those changes into account.
Minsk II, the second package of measures to halt the fighting and re-integrate the region back into Ukraine, was agreed in February 2015. Ukraine has long argued it is a flawed and one-sided document, but even if it were close to perfect and both sides agreed to implement it, the reality on the ground has been changed, drastically. They have been cut out of Ukraine, and at the same time de facto integrated with Russia — culturally, economically, and politically — although Russia has never spelled out its plans about long-term integration or recognized them as independent states. Until last week.
Now that Putin has made his decision to recognize the occupied lands as separate from Ukraine, the question of reintegration into Ukraine becomes irrelevant. Russia has done almost everything in its power in recent years to make the Donbas another country, as different from Ukraine as possible.
According to various estimations, the occupied territories now have anything from 45-70% of their pre-2014 population, which was then above four million. In 2019, Vladimir Putin signed a decree granting residents a chance to get a Russian passport through a simplified procedure. By January, more than 720,000 had done so, and more are in the bureaucratic system. Now those people are officially designated as “Russian citizens residing in Donbas,” which has multiple consequences. Most importantly, it gives them the right to claim Russian social security and pension payments, and it makes easier for them to work in Russia.
Meanwhile, it has become ever harder, especially during the last two years, for Donbas residents to travel to Ukraine to get medical help or social payments. In September, during Russia’s Duma election, additional voting stations were opened in the Rostov region to allow these newly minted Russian citizens — presumably loyal to President Putin – to vote. The leaders of both self-declared republics last year publicly joined United Russia, Putin’s ruling party. Perhaps most significantly, this now allows the Kremlin to argue that it not only supports Russian speakers in Donbas, but also Russian citizens.
Political integration with Russia goes hand-in-hand with a considered attempt to ensure cultural alienation from Ukraine. Both “people’s republics” abolished Ukrainian as a state language in 2020. Since then, local schools have ended teaching of the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian history. Ukrainian language has disappeared from public sphere, from official documents and from media. As a result, young people born shortly before or during conflict have been stripped of any sense of their Ukrainian identity (unless passed on in private by their families) — the rulers of these lands have made clear that they want citizens who cannot speak Ukrainian, who are uneducated in Ukrainian history, and who ultimately will not consider themselves Ukrainians. Many don’t know what is it to live in Ukraine, and many more will have fading memories of rule from Kyiv. As noted above, it has been made much harder to travel to Ukraine across the line of control (many residents have family in the country). The authorities have cited the pandemic as the reason — forcing travelers to enter government-controlled territory through Russia, which makes their journeys longer and much more expensive.
If at the beginning of the conflict the question of identity was not pressing — many locals believed it possible to be Russian and Ukrainian at the same time — the years of conflict have changed this too. “Russian Donbas Doctrine” has since 2021 represented the official ideology of both so-called republics. It claims that Donbas is a Russian land, and that the states which were created after Soviet Union dissolved — which in Ukraine’s case derived from a 90% popular vote favoring independence — are “artificial” and “anti-Russian” projects. In last two years Russian flags have begun to replace the flags of the two regions on local administrative buildings, streets and squares.
Largely blocked from entry to Ukrainian universities because of their inability to speak the national language, local universities have provided an alternative for those Russian-speaking students unable to fund themselves or win grants for their education in Russia proper. Russia now acknowledges local school and university diplomas. Last year, the biggest university in Donetsk got Russian accreditation, and more universities are preparing to follow.
In 2017, Ukraine cut all economic ties to the unrecognized republics: transfers of goods and electricity in both directions were stopped. Since then, Russia has been the only economic partner for the unrecognized territories, whose budgets are also heavily reliant on Russian subsidies. In November, a Kremlin decree abolished duties on all goods from the region imported to Russia. Last year too, all major factories in both republics were transferred to the company of the Russian businessman, Yevgeni Yurchenko.
The breakaway lands of Eastern Ukraine are becoming ever-more separate from government-controlled Ukraine both spatially, economically, ideologically, politically, and socially. And at the same time, they are becoming more integrated with Russia. This process started back in 2014 and accelerated in 2017, since when the process has taken on its own logic. In recent days and weeks, the situation had begun to accelerate still further, greatly widening the breach between the aims of the Minsk II deal – with its in-built recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty – and its implementation.
The reality on the ground had changed so significantly that there remains only one question: why were the west European leaders who were talking to Russia – particularly France and Germany —hoping for a revival of Minsk? The deal was already dead, and the proposal an illusion.
Dr. Natalia Savelyeva is a Resident Fellow at the Future Russia Initiative with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She is a sociologist who has studied at universities in Russia and the US, specializing in research on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.