Will Russia Recognize the Self-Declared Separatist Republics in Eastern Ukraine?

On January 19, 11 members of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, registered a draft law to recognize the independence of two separatist statelets in eastern Ukraine that have been warring with Kyiv since 2014 with substantial but undeclared support from Moscow. The document, which was put forward by members of the Communist Party, comes amid rising tensions along Ukraine’s border and in occupied Crimea, as Russia continues its buildup of military forces while demanding that the collective West agree to proposals to reshape the European security order to its liking.

This is not the first time that Russian parliamentarians have sought to provide official recognition to the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (abbreviated as the DPR and LPR, respectively). In 2014, deputies from the party launched an abortive campaign to collect signatures in support of recognizing the territories’ independence, which would have been delivered to President Putin for consideration. Meanwhile, the Just Russia party called for recognizing the statelets’ independence that same year and has included it in subsequent party platforms. Further discussions among Russian lawmakers on recognition have surfaced in the intervening years, and the government took a step in that direction in 2017, when President Putin signed a decree recognizing the validity of certain documents issued by self-appointed authorities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. It also recently eased procedures for goods produced in the territories to be sold on the Russian market, simplifying customs procedures and making them eligible for state procurements on an equal basis with Russian-made products. However, none of these previous efforts advanced to the point of being considered in parliament.

The draft law will undergo the first level of review within the Duma Council in February. If it has sufficient support, a committee will be appointed to prepare the draft law for debate in a plenary session. So far, the draft law has the backing of the Communist Party and Just Russia, which together hold only 19 percent of seats in Russia’s lower house of parliament. State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin hinted that some members of Putin’s party might support the measure when he remarked that “for members of the United Russia faction . . . the issue of safety of Russian citizens and compatriots living in LPR and DPR is a matter of concern.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov downplayed the draft law as an attempt by minority parties to gain political points and emphasized the importance of avoiding steps that might lead to an increase in tension at such a delicate time. However, another recent statement was much less categorical and hinted that the question of the territories’ legal status in Russia could be up for debate if diplomatic talks in the moribund Minsk format fail to advance.

The Communist Party’s role in submitting the draft law—and the State Duma speaker’s willingness to bring it to the floor for debate—may be indicators that question of recognizing the DPR and LPR is under consideration by the higher echelons of power but that no final decision has been made on the matter.

Why Might Russia Consider Recognizing These Areas Now?

The proposal comes at a time when Russia’s existing means of pressuring Ukraine—the Minsk agreements—appear to have lost their effectiveness. Critically, the agreements foresee the eventual return of the separatist-held areas to Ukraine, so for Russia to recognize their independence would be tantamount to abandoning the deal. Russia has made no secret of its frustrations over Ukraine’s implementation of the agreements, which were signed in 2014–15 after Ukraine suffered grave setbacks on the battlefield and give Russia a lever of influence over Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policy, keeping the country locked within its orbit. However, top Kremlin officials since 2014 have declined to consider recognizing the independence of the self-proclaimed republics, because it would allow Kyiv to escape its own obligations under the Minsk agreements. Yet, it is Russia’s creative interpretation of its own role—that it is merely a guarantor of the agreements without obligations of its own to fulfill, despite being a signatory to them—that has been the principal factor in the deadlock. Compromise is necessary to resolve thorny aspects of the agreements, such as how to sequence troop withdrawals, how to restore Ukraine’s control over the state border vis-à-vis special elections in the separatist-held areas, and whether to grant amnesty for those who took up arms against the state. However, Russia’s position gives Ukraine no trade space for diplomacy and instead supposes that Kyiv one day will accept Russia’s proposals in full. It should come as no surprise that the talks have stalled.

As Ukraine’s foreign minister rightly noted, Russia’s recognition of the self-declared republics would effectively mean its withdrawal from the Minsk agreements. How much does that matter to Moscow anymore? With the Minsk process going nowhere, the Kremlin may find it more convenient to unshackle itself from this framework, which is predicated on the understanding that the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are and shall remain part of the Ukrainian state. Top officials in Moscow—along with their proxies in the Donbas—have accused Kyiv of violations that signal its de facto withdrawal from the Minsk agreements, but these arguments have been confined to the rhetorical sphere. If Russia made that argument an official position of the government, it would remove the main block on recognizing the territories’ independence.

Achieving Its Objectives Short of War, with a Domestic Bonus

The approach suggested by the Communists offers certain advantages to Russia. First, with negotiations on Russia’s security demands stalled, extending official recognition to the LPR and DPR could give Putin a relatively simple way to shift the status quo in Russia’s favor without (necessarily) involving the 127,000-strong Russian forces currently encircling Ukraine. The chairman of the State Duma’s committee dealing with relations in neighboring states has already indicated that recognizing the statelets’ independence could be part of Russia’s “plan B” in case talks fail. If Russia would want to allow more time for negotiations to play out, while also escalating pressure to compel the West to accept at least some of its core positions, then recognition of the statelets could be considered in the Kremlin as an appropriate next step. Should Ukraine and the West make substantial concessions at that stage, then Putin would be able to proclaim a victory in the current standoff and draw down his forces rather than risk a spiraling escalation with unpredictable outcomes. If the diplomatic impasse would remain after Russia’s recognition of the DPR and LPR, then the option to use military force would still be on the table.

Second, recognizing the self-proclaimed republics could bolster Putin’s image as a protector of the Russian people. He has repeatedly affirmed the Russian state’s commitment to protecting Russians abroad, and as a result of its years-long effort to distribute passports to residents of separatist-held areas in Ukraine, there are now about 600,000 Russian passport holders there. Putin also posited in an infamous July 2021 article that Ukrainians and Russians are, in fact, one people and that Ukrainians are held hostage by a malicious Western-controlled government that has turned their country into an “anti-Russian project.” Accordingly, if the LPR and DPR were to be recognized as independent states, then Putin would achieve his goal of creating a “pro-Russian Ukraine” that accepts and celebrates assimilation with its larger neighbor and presumably would be entitled to its defense.

Finally, there may be domestic considerations at play. The Communist Party reaped the rewards of Alexei Navalny’s Smart Voting initiative in the 2021 State Duma elections but was the biggest loser in the Kremlin’s election manipulation. Tabling its proposal and enlisting United Russia’s support could grant the Kremlin an opportunity to achieve rapprochement with a potentially wayward member of Russia’s “systemic opposition.” As noted by Mark Galeotti, the proposal comes from a group of veteran policymakers who represent the old guard of the party. Favoring their initiatives might increase their standing within the party and undercut the hopes of Communist parliamentarians who may consider presenting a true challenge to the Kremlin rather than serving as the mere “window dressing” of political opposition.

Does Recognition Make Sense?

Perhaps the biggest downside to recognition for Russia is the fact that it would irreversibly lose the possibility afforded by the Minsk agreements of influencing Ukraine’s policy course from the inside. While the process seems hopelessly stuck for the moment, Russia could decide that the possibility of Ukraine one day being forced to implement the agreements according to Russia’s understanding of them is worth holding onto, no matter how remote it seems. By contrast, Moscow’s recognition of the so-called republics would abrogate any commitments by Ukraine to provide special status to the regions and give its representatives an elevated position in decisionmaking, possibly freeing the country to shift decisively in a Western direction.

Additionally, recognizing the LPR and DPR will not bring Russia any closer to achieving the other policy goals that it has presented to the West: ending NATO enlargement, rolling back the alliance’s existing presence in central and eastern Europe, preventing deployments of offensive weapons in areas close to Russia, stopping Western military assistance to Ukraine, and more broadly, negotiating a new European security architecture that includes a larger role for Moscow.

Moreover, recognition comes at an economic cost, and Russia may also be unwilling to assume additional financial obligations at a time when its economic future looks shaky. According to an International Crisis Group report, in 2017 Ukrainian officials estimated that Russia was contributing 50 percent of budget revenues in the DPR and 80 percent in the LPR. Over the next three years, Russia reportedly is planning to spend $12.4 billion on financial support to separatist-held areas. This is not a significant sum compared to its $1.5 trillion GDP in 2020, but it is a losing investment nonetheless and is growing worse as more factories and coal mines shutter and brain drain intensifies. Recognition would lock Russia into paying these costs forever. The country’s forecasted economic growth for 2022–23 is already sluggish, and the extent of Western sanctions resulting from the current crisis could push those figures into the negative. In the long term, Russia is facing a massive loss of export revenues due to global decarbonization trends. Cooler heads in the Kremlin may impress upon Putin that now is not the time to gamble on recognition as a strategy to resolve the standoff with the West, while more cynical ones may suggest it is better to leave Kyiv burdened with steep cost of reintegrating its eastern regions once the guns fall silent.

Policy Options for Ukraine and the West

The question of whether the Communists’ draft law will advance is hotly debated within Russia and has no clear answer so far. It may be that the threat of recognition is a much more potent tool for Russia in the current crisis than recognition itself. Nonetheless, the United States, its Western allies, and Ukraine would be wise to prepare for this course of action, as certain scenarios resulting in Russia’s recognition of the DPR and LPR remain viable. Among them, Western intelligence officials have warned in recent weeks about the possibility of Russia mounting a false flag operation in Ukraine. A sufficiently terrible incident could give Russia the pretext to declare that Ukraine’s purported actions make the Minsk agreements null and void, leaving Russia no other choice but to recognize the DPR and LPR and issue overt military assistance to protect residents from further aggression. (There may be a precedent for this scenario, but it remains contested.)

The Biden administration should hold immediate discussions with counterparts in Kyiv and other European capitals to develop plans for a coordinated response to such a move. So far, the West has focused on deterring Russian military action in Ukraine, but it is not entirely clear how it would respond if the Kremlin recognized Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states. As the act falls short of the cross-border incursion that the United States and its allies have warned against, European states that are wavering on the issue of sanctions due to the potential impact on their own economies could be tempted to adopt a weak response. Developing a joint contingency plan for this event would help instill confidence among allies and partners.

It should also affirm in no uncertain terms that the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are integral parts of Ukraine, that the 2014 “referendums” on self-rule that were organized by Russia-backed separatists in the two regions lack any legal validity, and that the acknowledgement of these results by Russia or another other state would incur penalties. The exact nature of those penalties may be kept ambiguous in order to retain maximum flexibility in deterring the greater threat of a renewed Russian offensive in Ukraine.

Concurrently, disinformation experts in government and civil society should monitor statements by Russian officials, social media trends, and comments from media personalities regarding the issue of recognition. They should act quickly to reveal and neutralize messages that might be used by Russia to justify an attempt to challenge Ukraine’s sovereignty over its eastern regions. These communities should continue to challenge false narratives about Kyiv’s plans to commit a “genocide” or large-scale violence against its own citizens. Such messages are used to scare residents of separatist-held areas into believing that they should accept Russia’s protection from a threat that does not exist.

Finally, the United States, Ukraine, and European partners should continue to emphasize their interest in reaching the peaceful resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and finding a diplomatic resolution to the impasse over Russia’s latest demands. Ukrainian officials should also continue to stress their commitment to serving all Ukrainians—including those on the other side of the contact line—and building an inclusive and democratic society.

Andrew Lohsen is a fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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