The protocols signed in Minsk recently do not give an ultimate answer to whether the war in Eastern Ukraine will end anytime soon, yet they allow us to peak into the future. The “Novorossiya” which, according to the Kremlin’s aspirations, was supposed to embrace eight oblasts of South-Eastern Ukraine, proved in the end to cover a small part of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts with almost 4 million people. It is for this territory that Russia wants to get a special status from the Kyiv government.
It is hard to tell what this means so far. Ukraine and Russia apparently reached the following agreement when they met recently in the capital of Belarus, Minsk: the Russian aggressor would halt its invasion, and Kyiv would legitimize the autonomy of the occupied territory in exchange. Apparently, the Kremlin did not expect to create yet another unrecognized state, since the other quasi-states created artificially with the help of Russian tanks, including South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and Transnistria in Moldova, are already burdensome enough for Moscow financially. Therefore, it has obviously opted for another, most convenient scenario, and left the burden of this new “state” to Kyiv by officially recognizing it as Ukrainian territory, while planning to establish a completely loyal local puppet government there.
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What does this mean for Ukraine?
On the one hand, Ukraine preserves its territorial integrity. The Donbas will stay within Ukraine de jure, so the “special status” is of secondary importance. Sooner or later, Moscow is likely to be distracted by concerns other than the miners’ Donbas, and the “special status” can then be abolished or adjusted to make the region subject to the Ukrainian jurisdiction.
On the other hand, the region will only fully return to Ukraine in the best-case scenario, and that will not happen soon. Until then, we will be facing serious problems. Kyiv will now have to restore and revive the territory that is de facto occupied by the Russians, and to give money to the bandits who were killing the Ukrainian military and dreaming of a Ukraine that seized to exist.
The local infrastructure will be restored by specific companies owned by specific individuals. We do not know the names yet, but Kyiv will have no control over them. This means that most money will be stolen while problems will be blamed on Ukraine. It will keep the supporters of separatism happy. They believed Mykola Azarov, Ukraine’s premier under the government of Viktor Yanukovych, when he was blaming “predecessors” for his own poor performance and terrible corruption in the government for four years. Another ten years of misery and destruction can then easily be blamed on the war.
Occupied by bandits and controlled by Russia, the Donbas will be a source of crime, a zone of fraud and smuggling scams. There will undoubtedly be many people in the rest of Ukraine who will readily participate in them. As part of Ukraine officially, the occupied territory will essentially avoid economic blockade; it will produce and export goods without paying taxes to the national budget. Most importantly, the population of the Kremlin-controlled territories will participate in national elections – and we know how elections work in such areas.
It now looks like Ukraine has a fragment of Russia on its territory that will affect political life here and continue to demand cash from the budget (through subsidies to mines at least). This does not bode well. Perhaps, the occupied territories should be called what they are officially, not the obscure “special territories”?
As long as parts of the two oblasts are not subordinate to the central Ukrainian government, they can only qualify as occupied territory of Ukraine, like Crimea. Presidential or parliamentary election cannot take place there because no Ukrainian political parties can in reality campaign or act there. If the territory with the “special status” indeed ends up as a de facto independent enclave seeking real power and influence, Ukraine is bound to face new turmoil and a surge of irritation, now from the west, not the east of the country. This is more dangerous for the government since it will not stand without the support of its electorate.
As to the Donbas, its future looks dim now. Russia has not annexed the rebellious territory. In Ukraine, it has turned itself into a pariah. Its fake “independence” is likely to turn the region into a depressive hole with no prospects from the wealthy land that it once was. This isn’t quite the welfare of a region that “feeds the entire Ukraine” promised to it by separatists.