On July 16, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko steered the draft law to provide more autonomy for separatist-occupied areas of the Donbas through Parliament and to the Constitutional Court for approval. Though the motion passed convincingly (288 votes in favor, 57 against)—it was opposed only by the Radicals and Samopomich faction, and even supported by the Opposition Party—it represents only the first in a complex process focused on article 11 of the Minsk-2 Agreement signed earlier this year, which will change the status of the Donbas.
Providing that the court approves the law, it will be returned to Parliament where it requires the support of over 300 deputies in order to become valid. US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who was coincidentally in Ukraine during the deliberations, supports its acceptance as do the leaders of Germany, France, and other countries of the EU. In fact Ukraine is under intense pressure from its Western allies to accept the law in order to put the principles of Minsk-2 into operation.
There are, however, a number of disturbing issues raised by the passage of the draft law.
First of all, it contravenes the existing 1996 Constitution, which does not permit outsiders to dictate changes to the Ukrainian government. Specifically, it is stated in Article 157 that:
The Constitution of Ukraine shall not be amended, if the amendments foresee the abolition or restriction of human and citizens’ rights and freedoms, or if they are oriented toward the liquidation of the independence or violation of the territorial indivisibility of Ukraine.
In December 1991, when a Ukrainian referendum backed the August 24 Declaration of Independence all the countries currently pressuring Ukraine to the constitutional amendment recognized the country within its existing borders. The Constitution further strengthened the notion that these borders were inviolable.
Second, Minsk-2, like its predecessor Minsk-1, gave a voice to the leaders of the breakaway “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic.” It was signed by the leaders of these two regions, instantly enhancing their credibility when hitherto the Western world had considered them little more than advance posts of a predatory Russia. The rebels now demand that these changes become enshrined officially in an amended Constitution of Ukraine.
Whether the DNR and LNR have any real legitimacy is a moot point. There appears to be as much in-fighting among their leaders as there are barbs directed at the government in Kyiv. Clearly the settlements within are disaffected, having been bombarded by the Ukrainian army over the past year and used as a refuge by the renegade leaders. The reality is that we do not really know how popular they are, and how much support they could attract were a free and fair election possible.
Third, the goals of Russia are uncertain and fluctuating. Speculation about the eleventh point in the Minsk-2 agreement, which is already nebulous, suggests that Vladimir Putin’s personal advisor Vladislav Surkov, a Russian-Chechen businessman who was First Deputy Chairman of the Russian Presidential Administration for twelve years (ending 2011), inserted that particular clause, undoubtedly with the president’s approval. It stipulates that Ukraine should be decentralized “(taking into account peculiarities of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, agreed with representatives of these districts).
That Russia supports more autonomy for the Donbas is evident, but what are its long-term goals? The answer would seem that these goals have receded from the once triumphant (though fundamentally and historically flawed) concept of Novorossiya to one of holding on to one’s gains and propping up, more or less, a defunct gangster regime that will ultimately succumb to pressure from the Ukrainian army or collapse from within thanks to feuds and in-fighting.
The limitations of Russian ambitions are illustrated by a reluctance to escalate the conflict further and to engage in any form of physical occupation. Though propaganda against the “neo-Nazi” government in Kyiv has been relentless—and boosted by the rash actions of the Right Sector in Mukachevo, whether or not these were based on a moral crusade against corruption and smuggling—Putin himself has been strangely subdued, even extending some feelers to the West for cooperation over the crisis in Syria, while protesting the notion of an international commission to investigate the shooting of a Malaysian airliner over Donetsk region just over a year ago.
Lamentably, through the blundering of both sides, the Donbas is the real victim of this protracted conflict. Economically it is a wasteland that will take years to rebuild, if indeed it can be reconstructed. It would require enormous investment, an outlay that at present is as remote from the Ukrainian reality as it is possible to be. Its more enterprising souls have fled the scene. Thousands are dead, victims of shelling that does not discriminate between one side or another. Those surviving live amid intermittent warfare, dreading the coming winter. It may well be a frozen conflict, but that conflict is for a land that one one really wants.
Thus what the Europeans and United States are saying to Ukraine is: you must retain these devastated areas, feed them, provide them with resources, but without taking full authority over them or at least, not in the immediate future. In short, the fulfillment of this part of Minsk-2 would weaken fundamentally the Ukrainian state established in 1991. Today no one outside the country is supporting the notion of a centralized Ukraine under the rule of president or parliament. One would have to conclude that the recognition of 1991 has been abruptly violated by both friends and enemies of the country.
There are further implications for Ukraine here. The return of Crimea is not even part of Minsk-2. Further, those placing pressure on Poroshenko are not exerting similar pressure on the separatist governments, which are largely and openly ignoring the agreement, after some token gestures to comply. Most of its stipulations, like Ukraine’s control over its original eastern border by the end of the year, are unenforceable. Ukraine can survive without Donbas and (especially) without Crimea, but only if they are severed permanently. At present it cannot regain Crimea but it cannot discard the occupied Donbas, which it has treated as alien territory for some time.
Other questions will emerge, most notably the determination of where the border of the two oblasts should lie and whether Russia will permit the disarming and defeat of the two separatist regimes by ceasing the constant flow of advanced weaponry over the border and removing its “volunteer” soldiers from the war zone. For Putin it is a drain of resources; one suspects that for most of the Russian troops fighting in Ukraine, it is an unpopular war. The messianic phase is over but the end goal is unclear. The only certainty is that there are no winners in this conflict.