The concealed markers of sovereignty

30 November 2019, 10:31

Volodymyr Zelenskiy has stated recently that the “Steinmeier formula” has already been agreed and should now be implemented in legislation. Given that this formula was a diplomatic metaphor from day one and the government’s soothing rhetoric has not been very persuasive, the reaction of society to the news was quite nervous. This is natural as there is no clarity on a specific action plan for the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (ORDiLO) or the format of their existence after reintegration. It is possible, however, that the current intensification of negotiations will lead to nothing and the Steinmeier formula will end up being the same still-born project as the Minsk protocol of 2014. 

In the eyes of society, this prospect is not the worst one. A relative majority of Ukrainians, i.e. 34%, support termination of fighting and freezing of the conflict. 23% insist on forceful liberation of ORDiLO. Another 23% are willing to give autonomy to these areas and just 6% want to see them cut off from Ukraine, according to a 2019 survey by Rating, a sociology group. But it looks like the government wants to try on the crown of peacemakers and liberators of Ukrainian land. Western partners are willing to support it in this as the “conflict” in Ukraine still gives them a lot of trouble. So is Russia as it tries to impose its own reintegration scenario on Kyiv. The most likely scenario now is that any option for reintegration will be presented to Ukrainians as a long-awaited victory that serves Ukraine’s interests best. If that happens, society needs to develop its own criteria for evaluation of what Ukraine is offered as part of ORDiLO reintegration. 


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Criteria of a successful reintegration seem quite obvious. Firstly, the fighting in the Donbas should stop, Russian military should leave Ukraine’s territory, illegal armed formations should give up their weapons, and Ukrainian border guards should get back control over the border. Secondly, the puppet occupation regimes should be replaced by legitimate authorities established as a result of free and clean elections held under Ukrainian law and international standards. Both local and nationwide parties should run in these elections. Thirdly, the newly-elected representatives of ORDiLO should prove their loyalty to Ukraine by rejecting separatism and promotion of Russian interests. If ORDiLO ends up with no permanent “special status” in addition to all this, this scenario could be seen as almost perfect. It would at least be a good starting point for the return of the Donbas into the political, economic and cultural realm of Ukraine. In reality, these markers are less informative than they seem to be at first sight. Even if all these terms are fulfilled, reintegration of ORDiLO may end up being more or less formal, a mere facade with a different reality behind. 

Chechnya offers a good example of such decorative unity. This mountain republic is a reliable outpost of the empire by all official criteria. Its unchanging leader Ramzan Kadyrov keeps pledging loyalty to Vladimir Putin, United Russia gets nearly 90% there and Chechen law enforcers eliminate members of underground armed separatist movements from time to time. In a nutshell, this scenario could seem like an acceptable one for ORDiLO, especially when compared to obscure prospects stemming from the Steinmeier formula. Turning a hub of separatism into an outpost of statehood could be seen as a victory, but Chechnya never really became one within Russia. Moscow found itself unable to reintegrate the whole republic, so it just “reintegrated” Kadyrov and his clan. In exchange for his loyalty, Kadyrov received full power in the republic backed by generous subsidies. The term for this in political management is “outsourcing sovereignty”, which literally means delegation of state functions to some private actors. That approach allowed Putin to end the Second Chechen War as soon as possible while creating an image of a victorious statesman for himself that has integrated a rebellious republic. In fact, however, Putin just put yet another bomb under Russia’s statehood, and it will explode sooner or later. 

Chechnya is essentially a state in a state, and Moscow’s authority barely extends over it. Its parliament, prosecutor, judiciary and law enforcement authorities are accountable to Kadyrov personally. Local units of the Russian Interior Ministry and Internal Troops totaling up to 20-30,000 are in reality Kadyrov’s personal army. They are staffed on the basis of nationality and their participants go through special religious and political training. His Young Kadyrovtsy actually inspired the Young Zakharovtsky in the “DNR”, a teenage paramilitary organization named after its deceased leader Oleksandr Zakharchenko. All this allows Kadyrov to act build up a lot of confidence. In 2015, Russian policemen killed a Chechen who was on the federal wanted list in a detention operation in Grozny. Kadyrov responded with a public address to the Chechen law enforcers: “Whenever someone from Moscow or Stavropol appears on your territory without your knowledge, shoot to kill.” Meanwhile, people deemed as Kadyrov’s enemies are killed throughout Russia and beyond. Moscow still controls its subsidies to Chechnya, but the Kremlin has not dared to pressure Kadyrov as his loyalty is the only point allowing Moscow to consider that it controls the Chechen Republic.

Attempts could be made to reintegrate ORDiLO by outsourcing sovereignty. The price of formal return of this territory to Ukraine’s control will be non-interference of Kyiv in ORDiLO’s internal affairs and endless financial subsidies to “rebuild the region”. Kyiv, however, should not expect even formal loyalty Kadyrov-style from it in exchange as Russia will stand behind ORDiLO leaders as the guarantor of their privileged status within Ukraine. Even though the negative consequences of this scenario are obvious, Kyiv might find it more acceptable than it seems. This is true not just for the current government: Kyiv always tended to accept damaging compromises in relations with the Donbas. Local elites assumed the blackmailing position virtually from day one of independence. Two months after it was declared, MPs of all levels gathered in Donetsk demanding federalization from Kyiv. In February 1993, Donetsk Oblast Council demmanded a “special status” for the Donetsk and Dnipro region, and autonomy for Donetsk Oblast in June. The first illegal referendum on federalization and the status of the Russian language took place in 1994 in the Donbas. The notorious assembly of MPs in Severodonetsk in 2004 where they threatened establishing an entity called PiSUAR (an abbreviation for South-Eastern Ukrainian Autonomous Republic in Ukrainian) followed a tested scheme which was to be used in 2014, too. 

Kyiv accepted compromises and offered concessions every time in exchange for the Donbas returning to the status quo. Once they received what they wanted, Donetsk actors turned from blackmailers over separatism back into average Ukrainian MPs, mayors and officials sticking to all formal criteria of loyalty. In the meantime, they were turning the Donbas into their fortress. A separatist information and humanitarian policy was implemented locally; administrative, political and economic resources were concentrated in the hands of one clan, and the region was building its own relations with Russia. De facto central authorities exercised their powers in the Donbas in a curtailed form but Kyiv saw this as an acceptable price for temporary calm. Stakes are far higher now, and the temptation for Ukraine’s government to pose as statesman peacemakers is far stronger, not to mention the pressure from external forces. Pretence integration would perfectly work for Russia granting it new leverage over Ukraine, and for the West which is increasingly open about its desire to normalize relations with Moscow. Therefore, the reintegration show could be staged quite persuasively: Ukrainian flags would flow over Donetsk and Luhansk while the local political establishment could switch to the banners of Ukrainian parties and take on reconciliation rhetorics.  

But the true quality of reintegration can be assessed on the basis on the following three criteria. First, post-war justice should take place. Obviously, any scenario of reintegration entails amnesty, but that amnesty cannot be universal. Unless Ukrainian entities can conduct investigations and searches in the territory of ORDiLO and courts deliver adequate verdicts, real reintegration is impossible. Even if the Russian military leave the Donbas and Ukrainian guards return to the border, ORDiLO will remain an outpost of the militants, even if stripped of their weapons – even if nothing actually guarantees that. It is highly unlikely that ex-militants will leave the Donbas along with the Russian military. It is in Russia’s interests to leave them in put so that it has a trained contingent in case it wants to resume the aggression. If these people are unable to leave ODRiLO, so much better for Russia. The worst scenario is if the Ukrainian side refuses to hold ex-militants to account. History of investigating crimes against the Maidan shows that malign intentions, professional negligence and overall flaws of Ukrainian judiciary can cumulatively lead to sad consequences.

The second criterion is also linked to justice – this one in the sphere of property. It is common knowledge that the occupants have profoundly redistributed property since 2014 in the territory of ORDiLO. “Nationalization” of enterprises in 2017 was just the peak of the iceberg of all the looting that took place there. Ukraine will have to charge Russia for the destroyed and depreciated assets, and that will be extremely difficult. But reinstatement of property, both private and public, should start immediately after ORDiLO reintegration. This will mean returning assets to Ukrainian oligarchs in many cases, including the sponsors of the Party of Regions back in the day and of pro-Russian forces today. Such controversial cases will be plenty and they will trigger controversial reactions in society. But Ukraine’s failure to restore the rights of lawful owners in ORDiLO will stand for the recognition of the occupants’ policy and signal that Ukrainian sovereignty in that territory is purely formal, not supported by any real powers of state authorities. 

Finally, the third criterion is about the non-government sector and the Fourth Estate, i.e. civil society and media. The participation of Ukrainian parties in the elections preceding the reintegration of ORDiLO is essentially a pointless indicator: changing party banners is common practice in Ukrainian politics, especially on the local level. Virtually all of Ukraine’s leading parties were represented in the pre-war Donbas, but their presence was purely nominal. What matters much more is whether civil society structures can unfold in ORDiLO and whether Ukrainian media gain access to that territory. 


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The public and the media would have to act as watchdogs of reintegration and inform Ukrainian society about the real situation on the ground. If reintegration is purely formal, the local authorities will try to enclose the region behind an iron curtain where they will retain its authoritarian model, apply repressions, conduct anti-Ukrainian activities under Russia’s control and more. For now, reintegration of the Donbas is still a thing of the future. Thanks to this, Ukrainian society still has time to apply the criteria of real reintegration to the government’s intentions, even if not to what has already happened along Ukraine’s eastern border. 



Translated by Anna Korbut 

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