The key to ending the fighting in Kiev is for Ukraine to abandon Donbass – OpEd – Eurasia Review
By Jonathan Power *
As Russia / NATO passions rekindle, we should step back in time to seven years ago, when the Ukraine crisis began. What is it about?
Protesters in Maidan, the central square of the capital, Kiev, were motivated by arguments over a trade deal with the EU, then under negotiation.
They were ardently in favor, but the government, under Russian pressure, had made a somersault and reoriented its trade policy towards the Eurasian Economic Union sponsored by Moscow. In truth, Ukraine could have had both, just like the UK, until Brexit, had the EU and was simultaneously negotiating the North Atlantic Free Trade Area. But the EU and the US backed the protesters and said Ukraine cannot cope with both sides.
After a few days, the protests turned violent. Although the Western press was slow to understand, the protesters had been infiltrated by neo-fascists who shot first at the police and then at the more peaceful protesters. Some of the neo-fascists from the Svoboda and Right Sector parties, whose origins date back to Nazi times, became snipers, shooting from the 11th floor windows of the adjacent Ukraine Hotel. A BBC film broadcast footage of this. An Italian documentary too. Nonetheless, NATO countries ignored the evidence and accused the then pro-Russian government of President Wiktor Yanukovych of instigating the shooting.
It is now seven years since the dissident militias got rid of the yoke of the central government in Kiev and declared their de facto independence. They were supported by Russian troops, which President Vladimir Putin initially denied and later admitted. The Russians supplied the missile launcher that accidentally shot down a Malaysian Airlines airliner. A total of 17,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in this conflict.
The negotiations, negotiated by Germany and France, were suspended for seven years. The parameters of a settlement are easy to define: in exchange for a broad autonomy of the Donbass (this could be roughly the same as Scotland today), the Russian troops would withdraw and the militias would be disbanded.
Nevertheless, the gap between the positions of Moscow and Kiev seems almost impossible to bridge, not least because the central government has been slow to reform as demanded by Western negotiators. The US government in Kiev, a decision that really shook the Russians. He seems to have no other reason than to be unnecessarily macho.
Ukraine could never fight Russian troops on its own. Worryingly, NATO is now trying to make it clear that the latest Russian troop movements are a precursor to a Russian invasion. There is no real proof that President Vladimir would be so stupid.
There is a very attractive way out of the deadlock. It is up to Kiev to act unilaterally and announce that it is renouncing Donbass. Why not? It is a burden on Ukraine, both politically and economically, and Donbass offers little to the rest of Ukraine except territory. Even now, in the current semi-frozen conflict, Kiev is taking advantage. It no longer has to subsidize what is in fact a rusty belt of decaying industries where unemployment is massive and inflation has skyrocketed. Nor does he have to deal with the disproportionate number of corrupt oligarchs, political elites and criminal gangs in the region.
In addition, without the Donbass participating in the decision-making in Kiev, the center has been freer to advance economic reforms and improve the quality of its governance. Indeed, much of the economic burden fell on Russia. No wonder Kiev sometimes gives the impression of liking the status quo.
President Putin has created his own mess and popular Russian support for Donbass has waned. The fighting is deadlocked and the costs seem to increase every year. The alternative that Russia invades and seizes Donbass is a failure as far as the Kremlin is concerned. He would only inherit an economical stew with which he would be loaded for years to come. This would create a Ukrainian resistance movement and millions of refugees. I suspect that a majority of Russians have “Donbass fatigue”.
Thus, if Kiev unilaterally ended its sovereignty over the Donbass, it would be a checkmate for Russia and a victory for Ukraine. Since the end of the Cold War, Kiev has had a difficult relationship with Donbass, which has long been part of Russian culture and religion and mainly speaks this language. He should be happy to separate.
Ukraine should count the advantages of letting the Donbass go. The government could reduce the costs of its military and no longer need to import expensive weapons. If he succeeded in negotiations to win back the Donbass, economist Anders Aslund estimates that it would cost 20 billion US dollars to get the Donbas back on its feet when Ukraine’s total annual budget is around 26 million.
The environmental damage caused by the fighting is immense. The rust-belt factories are even more dilapidated. Health services have been degraded. The infrastructure has been neglected. There are 35,000 separatist soldiers. They have to be demobilized and then retrained for civilian jobs – another big expense. Even then, the tens of thousands of weapons in circulation should be wiped out. Inevitably, some of these combat-loving soldiers would remain a thorn in Ukraine’s side. Does the Kiev government need such an expensive mess? Surely not.
If Donbass were reintegrated into Ukraine, several million anti-Western voters would join Ukraine’s already controversial mix. Indeed, it is only because they no longer appear on Ukraine’s electoral roll that Ukraine has been better able to push through the reforms of the past five years. The oligarchs of Donbass would regain their foothold.
The only problem with these arguments for letting the Donbass go is that Putin in his heart may not want the eternal responsibility of the Donbass, with all its flaws and problems. Faced with Kiev saying he no longer wants Donbass, what would he do? In this situation, he could capitulate to Kiev. Kiev would then have no choice but to initiate a slow reintegration process, despite the cost.
On the positive side, over time, as the fighting has become a distant memory, Ukraine could be seen as a member of both the Eurasian Economic Union and the European Union. For the moment, it is frozen, which is of no use to Ukraine.
It is a paradox, but true: if Kiev says it is ready to let the Donbass secede, it will keep it and the Russians will leave.
About the Author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written several dozen articles for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who appeared the most in the opinion pages of these newspapers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com