Ukraine Might Be Better Off If “Little Russia” Did Secede

Donetsk and Luhansk are unlikely to form a new country. The rest of Ukraine might be better off if they did.

Military vehicles of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic are seen in eastern Ukraine, May 30, 2015
Military vehicles of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic are seen in eastern Ukraine, May 30, 2015 (Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov)

Separatists in the southeast of Ukraine have declared a new country: “Little Russia”.

The announcement by Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, amounts to little, argues Gwendolyn Sasse of Carnegie Europe.

She points out that leaders in Luhansk, Ukraine’s other breakaway region, have distanced themselves from it. Russia, which otherwise backs the Donbas uprising, hasn’t voiced support either. And the local population doesn’t want independence. A survey conducted earlier this year found a majority in favor of remaining in Ukraine. Only a third want to join Russia.

Yet it might be better for Ukraine if the region does secede.

Ruin

Russian support for the rebellion in Donetsk and Luhansk has not prevented the areas from sliding into economic malaise.

The regions have been allowed to use the ruble as their currency. Residents can apply for Russian passports. The Russian Ministries of Defense and Internal Affairs control their soldiers and security forces, respectively. Finance, infrastructure and transportation are all run through an interdepartmental commission in Moscow.

Yet little has been done to repair heavy industries, mines, infrastructure — including the Donetsk airport — power and waterlines. Reintegrating the provinces into Ukraine would be costly.

“Perverse advantages”

Russia expert Mark Galeotti has argued (PDF) 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 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.

Russia too would be better off cutting the Donbas loose.

It has kept Donetsk and Luhansk on life support, but — especially with its own economy suffering under low oil prices and Western sanctions — it doesn’t have the wherewithal to midwife a “Little Russia” into the world. It should rather force the regions back into Ukraine, “like a rusty nail to poison the country’s bloodstream.”

Unlikely

Neither Ukraine nor Russia is likely to take Galeotti’s advice.

The former is not prepared to abandon an estimated 3.2 million compatriots living under separatist rule.

The latter’s priority is preventing Ukraine from joining the European Union and NATO. So long as the War in Donbas continues, the country cannot be admitted to either. For Russia’s government, that is worth the economic pain.