Donbas’ Secession Looks Increasingly Permanent

Continued Russian support and an election make it more difficult to reverse the Ukrainian region’s secession.

Demonstrators wave flags of Russia and the Donetsk People's Republic in Donetsk, Ukraine, March 1
Demonstrators wave flags of Russia and the Donetsk People’s Republic in Donetsk, Ukraine, March 1 (Wikimedia Commons/Andrew Butko)

Continued Russian support for the separatists in southeastern Ukraine appears to have frozen the conflict which could lead to the permanent, if internationally largely unrecognized, breakaway of the Donbas region.

The Ukrainian military said on Sunday Russia continued to move equipment and troops into the rebel enclave. In Donetsk, the largest city held by the separatist, journalists saw some twenty trucks carrying anti-aircraft guns heading in the direction of the airport where fighting with government forces continues to take place despite the signing of a ceasefire last month.

The truce, which was reached in Belarus’ capital Minsk, called for the establishment of a buffer zone thirty kilometers wide around the territory the rebels controlled at the time. The Ukrainian government has since deployed border guards along this new internal frontier.

Just two months ago, the separatists seemed on the verge of defeat, having been driven back by the Ukrainian army into the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. But the arrival of Russian tanks and troops tilted the battle in favor of the rebels. The situation is now at a stalemate.

The Donbas region’s de facto independence was underlined by an election on Sunday. Although it fell well short of democratic standards and the outcome was recognized only by Russia, there was great enthusiasm for it among older residents, The Guardian‘s Shaun Walker reported, “perhaps less as an endorsement of the Donetsk republic and more as a message to Kiev that the region would never again be part of Ukraine.”

Opinion polls have also shown older Ukrainians, especially those who live in the industrial and Russophone east, disproportionately regret the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. In parliamentary elections last week, the rest of the country overwhelmingly backed parties that favor closer relations with Europe, independence from Russia and a united Ukraine.

Ukraine’s army, however, seems no match for the professional Russian soldiers who are fighting on the separatists’ side. Nor is the government in Kiev willing to incur the levels of civilian casualties that would likely result from an offensive against the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

There, the rebels are becoming more capable administrators, “scrambling to provide residents with heat and repair the infrastructure damaged by months of shelling,” BuzzFeed‘s Max Seddon reported this weekend. But the situation is dire and would be even worse were it not for Russia’s help.

Losing funds from Kiev has essentially destroyed the region’s already stagnant industry- and mining-based economy which depended on huge subsidies to stay afloat. Many residents line up daily outside government buildings for emergency supplies delivered from Russia by truck.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the region has long produced components for Russian military equipment, “including aircraft engines for MiG fighter jets and guidance systems for Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles. Its uranium mines also produce fuel for Russian nuclear reactors.”

It was concern over the future of the outdated industries of the Donbas that last year set Russia and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich against an association agreement negotiated between the European Union and pro-Western forces in the Ukrainian leadership.

When Yanukovich unexpectedly pulled out of the European talks late last year, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets of Kiev and forced him to resign. Incumbent president Petro Poroshenko signed the pact in June, committing Ukraine to the gradual approximation of its economic, judicial and security policies to those of its western neighbors.

It is unclear if the rebels and Russia will be satisfied with a permanent insurrection within the territory they now control. Since the ceasefire, they have gained ground to the south of Donetsk, along Russia’s southwestern border, in the direction of the port city of Mariupol. From Mariupol, they could conceivably establish an overland connection to the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea that Russia took from Ukraine in March.