Ukraine Is Better Off Cutting the Donbas Loose

The separatist republics are in ruins and its people’s minds have been poisoned by Russian propaganda.

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observe damage in the area of Donetsk, Ukraine, May 27
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observe damage in the area of Donetsk, Ukraine, May 27 (OSCE/Evgeniy Maloletka)

We haven’t heard much from the Donbas recently, but the two separatist republics there are still slowly being annexed by Russia. It may ultimately be for the best for the rest of Ukraine.

Alexander J. Motyl, a Ukraine scholar, reports for World Affairs Journal that the Donetsk People’s Republic alone now spends more on propaganda than Ukraine’s Ministry of Information Policy. Its newspapers, radio and television stations constantly denounce the Kiev “junta” and the “fascists” who have supposedly taken over since the more pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, was ousted in a pro-European coup in 2014. Local museums are devoted to exposing the “atrocities” committed by the Ukrainian army.

In the Luhansk People’s Republic, a children’s magazine recently featured a story about an evil Fasciston (Washington) being defeated by a valiant Vladimir Putin-like Papa.

Economically, the two self-declared republics are drawing closer to Russia as well. They use the ruble as currency. Residents can apply for Russian passports. The Russian Ministries of Defense and Internal Affairs control the territories’ soldiers and security forces. Finance, infrastructure and transportation are all run through an interdepartmental commission in Moscow supervised by Putin’s advisor, Vladislav Surkov.

“Perverse advantages”

Russian support has not prevented the republics sliding into economic malaise. Heavy industries, like coal and chemicals, are reportedly in ruins. Thousands of businesses have shuttered. Key infrastructure, including the Donetsk airport, are in disrepair. Power and waterlines that were disabled during the rebellion have yet to be restored.

Reintegrating the territories into Ukraine proper would be costly. The current situation supports Mark Galeotti’s conclusion in a report (PDF) for Wikistrat (where I am a project manager): that cutting away the separatist enclaves “offers perverse advantages” to Kiev.

“The rump Ukraine that remains could gain a new cohesion through the shared experience of struggle,” he wrote, “while the West — eager to teach Moscow a lesson — would both require and support the often-painful processes of political and economic reform the country so desperately needs.”

Putin’s not for turning

Indeed, Galeotti argued Russia too would be better off reversing its stated objectives. It can ill afford to keep Donetsk and Luhansk on life support while it is suffering an economic crisis itself due to falling oil prices and Western sanctions. It should rather force the rebellious regions back into Ukraine, “like a rusty nail to poison the country’s bloodstream.”

That isn’t likely to happen, though. Russia’s priority is preventing its former satellite state joining the European Union and NATO. So long as the War in Donbas is frozen, Ukraine cannot be admitted to either organization. For Putin, that appears to be worth the economic pain.


  1. I’ve been saying this all along. Putin is never going to let go of the Donbas, and Kyiv will never be able to recover while trying to defend this money pit. This land is so valuable to Putin? Then let him pay to restore it and put the people back to work. It’s good for the people and it’s good for Ukraine….

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