By Sergei Garmash (Research Center of Donbas Social Perspectives)*
Published in English by HRWF (05.03.2021)
In the past few months, two trends have clearly emerged in the course of the conflict in Donbas. First, Moscow has stepped up its actions to effectively integrate occupied regions of Donetsk and Lughansk Regions (“occupied territories”) into the military, legal, economic and political sphere of the Russian Federation. Second, Russia has returned to the use of military actions launched from occupied territories as an instrument of political influence on Ukraine.
It should be noted that Moscow initially regarded the ceasefire agreement reached on 22 July 2020, not as a humanitarian gesture, but as an instrument to achieve its main goal: to position the “governments” of occupied territories as a party to the conflict and therefore a legitimate negotiating partner with the Government of Ukraine (Kyiv). To achieve this result, the Kremlin must move the center of gravity for resolution of the conflict from the “Normandy Four” (N-4), where there is no direct representation of the occupation “governments” and where Russia is considered to be a party to the conflict, to “the Trilateral Contact Group” (TCG) in which there is direct representation of the occupation “governments” and where Russia pretends to be the “second mediator.” That is why Moscow was not willing to reach an effective ceasefire agreement via the “Normandy Four” but was willing to agree to a ceasefire via the TCG as a method of proving the relevance of the occupying governments as an independent agent from Russia.
Therefore, Russia has set a trap for Kyiv. Any further movement by Kyiv towards a direct dialogue with the occupying “governments” via the TCG will be presented to the world by Moscow as “proof” that the conflict is and “internal Ukrainian” civilian conflict and not the result of Russian aggression. And, of course, it will then demand the lifting of sanctions tied to its failure to comply with the Minsk agreements while still providing money, weapons and “vacationers” to its puppet “governments” in the Donbas. And, at the same time, Kyiv will no longer have any instruments, other than military action, to influence the enemy.
Indeed, as Ukraine has for six years been forbidden by the Minsk Agreements to achieve the liberation of its occupied territories by military action, its only instrument to weaken the aggressor is economic sanctions, primarily those imposed by Western governments, as well as domestic. If Moscow, having succeeded at forcing Kyiv to negotiate table with the occupied “governments” of Donetsk and Lugansk, eliminates or weakens the effect of international sanctions, then Ukraine will be left with three options:
- Agree to federalization and thereby the de facto absorption of Ukraine by the so-called “Donetsk and Lughansk Peoples Republics”;
- Accept a “frozen conflict,” recognizing the eastern territories as lost until the ultimate collapse of Russia;
- Use the only remaining method – military force.
It is clear that none of these three options can satisfy the majority of Ukrainians, which means the conflict will continue to cause serious internal destabilization and therefore pose a threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty. And, this is precisely why the Kremlin is pursuing its “TCG strategy.” In other words, for Moscow the end of hostilities in the Donbas as a result of direct negotiations between Kyiv and occupying governments is not “the end of the war,” as Russian proxy/Ukrainian politicians such as Medvedchuk are singing sweetly, but the strengthening of the GLOBAL HYBRID WAR against Ukraine, the purpose of which is to destroy Ukrainian statehood. Seen in this light, it is clear why Moscow agreed in July to a ceasefire it previously rejected and why now, six months later, it has resumed hostilities. Moscow has concluded that Ukrainian President Zelensky would not trade a sham “peace deal” for his de facto recognition of the conflict as an “internal Ukrainian” civil conflict.
At the same time, Russia is intensifying the transformation of the Donbas occupied territories into an integrated Russian enclave (notwithstanding that majority of residents of occupied Donbass considered themselves as Ukrainian prior to the start of Russian aggression in 2014). Since Kyiv was not agreeable to a quick suicide on Russia’s terms, Moscow has now dedicated itself to playing the long game. As Russian political strategist and Vladislav Surkov protege Alexei Chesnakov recently said, “Moscow is ready to wait at least 50 years …” In practice, this “readiness to wait” means that Moscow will try to execute the “Abkhazian scenario” in Donbas occupied territories. “This means that Donbas is a part of Russia in fact, but not legally. Approximately the way it was with Abkhazia before the events of 2008,” explains the pro-Kremlin Russian political analyst Sergei Markov. In fact, the Abkhazian scenario is:
- Institutionalization of the puppet “state”;
- “Conversion” of the majority of residents to Russian citizenship;
- Integration of this quasi-state into the Russian economic and political space’
- De jure recognition in the event of a military attempt by Ukraine to liberate its territory.
There are, of course, material differences in the cases of Abkhazia and occupied Donbas. First, in Abkhazia there are Abkhazians, a separate nationality from the “oppressive” Georgian national majority. There are no such people as “Donbasians,” separate from Ukrainians by their nationality, religion, or any other characteristics. Secondly, in Abkhazia there are only 200,000 people while the population of occupied Donbas in more than 3 million.
But, Russia has figured out how to solve these “small problems.” First, Moscow is implementing a comprehensive strategy to effect the segregation of the population in occupied territories by cutting all ties to Ukraine and Ukrainian government services. This is reinforced by displacing Ukrainian citizenship with new “DPR” and “LPR” citizenship supported by occupation issued passports. According to information from our sources in Donetsk, Moscow has set a deadline for the occupation “governments” to complete the “de-Ukrainization” of the population by 2025 and also to ensure that more than 50% of these “DPR/LPR citizens” should also have officially obtained Russian citizenship and passports. In this way, the Russian Federation optimizes the expense of occupation, expands the possible pool of local combatants in future conflicts and creates a pretext for direct military intervention by Russian Army “peacekeepers” to protect “Russian citizens.”
- Implementation of the “Doctrine of the Russian Donbas”
The “governments” of the DPR/LPR have developed a “Doctrine of the Russian Donbas” that provides a road map for their policy and actions. According to “DPR” head Denis Pushlin, the original goal of the doctrine was to provide the legal and political basis for the absorption of the “DPR/LPR” into the Russian Federation. However, after push-back from the Kremlin, the final doctrine as issued instead promotes “strengthening the statehood of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics as Russian national states.” From this episode it is clear that while Moscow does not want the formal entry of the “peoples republics” into the Russian Federation, it does want the Donbas conflict to continue as an unhealed wound on the body politic of Ukraine. In this regard, the “Russian Donbas” doctrine has quite practical goals:
- Creation of an ideological and “scientific” basis for separating occupied territories from Ukraine as the region is allegedly “natively Russian”;
- Support for the myth that Russian aggression is actually an “intra-Ukrainian and ethnic conflict”;
- Creation of an uncontested ideological Russian identity for residents of occupied territory with the Russian Federation as their “future”;
- Psychological pressure on the Ukrainian government to accelerate a political settlement of the conflict on Moscow’s terms.
- Increased coercion in renunciation of Ukrainian citizenship
- In Donetsk, holders of Ukrainian passports can be detained for 30 days in order to “determine their identity.” This absurd and coercive situation, detention for 30 days to determine the identity of a person with an internationally recognized identity document, speaks for itself.
- Holders of Ukrainian ID-passports cannot receive social benefits in Donetsk or carry out other operations in which an identity document is needed. To do so, they must first “legalize” the ID-passport by getting an “address certificate” of their registered place of residence. In turn, this certificate is issued only if there is a certificate stating that the person has applied for a “DPR passport.”
- For about a year now, Ukrainian citizens in occupied territory who qualify for their first Ukrainian passport (age of 16) or upon passport expiry cannot receive a Ukrainian passport because of checkpoint closures by the occupation administrations. As a result, in order to have any sort of identity document, they are forced to obtain “DPR” passports.
- According to information from open sources and our confidential sources, in order to meet Moscow’s orders for 100% DPR/LPR “passportization” by 2025, the authorities are preparing a plan for the seizure of Ukrainian passports. Such a step will present Ukraine with a choice, either close the entrance to Ukraine for Ukrainian citizens with passports of “DPR” – “LPR”, or recognize the “passports” of the “republics”. Both options will suit Moscow, but both carry serious risks for Kyiv.
- Without a passport of Ukraine, residents of ORDLO (HRWF Note: Temporary Occupied Territories of Ukraine) will not be able to receive Ukrainian pensions, social benefits, enter universities, open bank cards, etc. That is, they will be completely cut off from Ukraine.
- The draft “Law” “On Citizenship” currently being discussed in Donetsk anticipates that “DPR citizenship” cannot be obtained by people who have been absent from the territory for long periods (forced migrants) or politically unreliable people. Thus, “legal” conditions will be created for the disenfranchisement of more than 2 million Ukrainian citizens from occupied territories.
- Forced Acceptance of Russian Citizenship / Passports
As a practical matter, receipt of a DPR/LPR passport by most people is primarily a means for the receipt of a Russian passport so they can leave occupied territory. This is because by the operation of Russian law, a holder of a DPR/LPR passport qualifies for Russian citizenship under a defined “simplified procedure.” Of particular note is that applications for Russian passports are accepted by officials of the DPR/LPR “Ministry of Internal Affairs.” This farcical situation, whereby the “independent government” officially accepts citizenship applications for another government (the Russian Federation) quite neatly exposes the fundamental lie of Moscow’s “non-involvement” in the administration of occupied territories.
Notably, Russian passports are issued only after a fingerprint check and the of taking the oath of a citizen of the Russian Federation. According to our sources, DPR/LPR authorities have set a goal the issuance of Russian passports to 80/90% of the population by 2025, significantly greater than Moscow’s order for 50% passportization. This mass Russian passportization resolves several pragmatic goals:
- Permanent consolidation of its influence over occupied this territory, regardless of the timing and modalities for its return to Ukraine;
- Creation of pretexts for military intervention in the event of Kyiv’s military intervention in occupied territories;
- Creation of a new mobilization resource from “citizens of Russia” living in DPR/LPR;
- Creation of a bridgehead for the seizure of new territories of Ukraine by the hands of the “DPR/LPR” military forces;
- Creation of a legal basis for military and special personnel training “republic citizens” as “citizens of Russia” living in DPR/LPR;
- Creation of an environment were able bodied men will want to leave DPR/LPR territory to evade military service;
- Creation of an environment where able bodied men will emigrate to Russia and assist in resolving Russia’s demographic collapse.
- Increase the pro-Putin electorate in Russia via emigration from DPR/LPR
- Militarization of DPR/LPR
A key factor explaining Moscow’s desire of the increased pace of DPR/LPR integration with the Russian Federation is the success of Azerbaijan in the Karabakh conflict followed by Ukraine’s agreement with Turkey on the supply of 48 “Bayraktar” drones, the use of which which has been widely recognized as the deciding military factor of the hostilities in Karabakh. This has caused a new stream of weapons deliveries by Moscow to DPR/LPR, as well as the beginning of the construction of a “second line of defense” of the “republics.” In addition, to increased mobilization and readiness, Moscow’s puppet leaders of the “DPR/LPR” have issued decrees mandating drills for the call up of “citizens in reserve at the mobilization points from December 2020 to November 2021″.
Against this background, an information campaign on the need to introduce universal military service has intensified. In the public announcements, details about the terms of mandatory service have already been resolved. According to the ex-commander of the “Vostok” battalion A. Khodakovsky, “Draftees will have the right to join the military on a contractual basis. They will not be initially sent to active units, but those who wish to join the army and defend their homeland can do so.”
It must be noted that the hype around “universal conscription” will also contribute to the emigration of young people from the territory of the “republics” as service in the legitimate Ukrainian or Russian armies is perceived as preferable to participation in illegal armed formations.
- Use of COVID-19 to isolate and reduce the population
The COVID-19 pandemic remains an important factor that is used to segregate the DPR/LPR population and isolate it from Ukraine. As before, the passage of people through the checkpoints is significantly limited by the DPR/LPR authorities. When compared to 2019, crossings have decreased by almost 30 fold. Existing checkpoints have been closed and the opening of new checkpoints (as anticipated by TCG agreements) is being blocked by the occupation authorities, notwhithstanding that the situation with COVID in government-controlled territory is much better than in occupied territory. As a result, one can only conclude that the reasons for such isolation are purely political. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that the militants intend to lift the blockade of checkpoints with an improvement in the epidemic situation.
Against this background, data on infection and mortality from COVID-19 in DNR/LNR obtained via open source information demonstrates the Kremlin’s policy to physically reduce the population of the occupied territory of Donbas. In DPR/LPR, on average, only 0.016 of the population is tested daily (for comparison – in Ukraine – on average, about 0.15%). There is only one (!) laboratory for testing COVID-19 tests for about 2.5 million persons. On average, 52% of the tests are positive. The mortality rate of patients diagnosed with COVID-19 in the “DPR” (according to “official” statistics) Is 9% (in Ukraine – 2.4%). If we add to this and mortality from “common pneumonia”, then the mortality rate will approach 15% – a rate higher than anywhere else in the world.
At the same time, local authorities are treating the vaccination program against COVID-19 as only a propaganda event and they are trying to compensate for the low amount of the vaccine received from Russia with false information that vaccination is contra-indicated for those who have already had COVID-19. This and other misinformation promulgated by the occupation authorities will significantly reduce the percentage of those who voluntarily apply for vaccination.
We can conclude that Russia’s purposes for continuing the conflict in Donbass are to use it as a tool to restrain Kyiv from Euro-Atlantic integration, divert its efforts from the fight against the occupation of Crimea, and as a mechanism to influence the internal political situation in Ukraine. Outside of these goals, neither the people of Donbas nor its territory is needed by Moscow. And, as a result of Moscow’s policies, the lives and safety of those living in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Lughansk will continue to deteriorate. This is an explicit Russian policy to purposefully cause the deterioration of the quality of life force the reduction of the regions’ population.
And yet, today, more than ever, there is light at the end of the tunnel – a real hope for the possibility of returning the occupied territories of Donetsk and Lughansk to Ukrainian sovereignty in the foreseeable future. The deterioration of geopolitical and economic conditions for the Russian Federation will slowly but surely influence the internal political situation in Russia, which is increasingly fed-up with the decrepit Putin regime. In turn, Zelensky administration in Ukraine has become more realistic and come to understand that Kyiv will not be able to come to an agreement with Moscow without shooting itself in the head. This leaves Zelensky no choice but to start a real fight against the aggressor state, including Russian agents within Ukraine. For the first time in seven years of war, the process, as they say, has begun. Now we must take even more care to make ensure that Zelensky continues in the right direction.
(*) Source in Russian https://www.ostro.org/general/politics/articles/607011/
Translated by Joel Ray Montgomery
Photo credits: Shutterstock.com