Russia has staged “republic“-level “elections” in Donetsk and Luhansk for the second time in four years, establishing a regular quadrennial electoral cycle there. This move is designed to perpetuate the “republics” de facto, institutionalizing them more firmly and exploiting a murky situation of undefined status (see EDM, September 12, 13, November 15, 26).
Illegal and illegitimate as they are to all concerned except Russia, the “elections” just held do not technically contravene the political clauses of the Minsk armistice. Those clauses stipulate the holding of municipal elections (district, city, town and village level) in the territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” (DPR, LPR). The elections are subject to certain conditions—including Ukraine’s consent, the applicability of Ukraine’s electoral legislation and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) monitoring of the electoral processes—but without requiring the withdrawal of Russian forces, nor the disbandment of “local” (DPR-LPR) military and police forces. Thus, the municipal-level elections that the Minsk armistice does envisage could well be held in the presence of Russian and proxy forces. The Minsk armistice documents say nothing about any “republics” or republic-level “elections.” Moscow rushed through this loophole to stage such elections in the DPR-LPR in November 2014 with impunity. Although the “republics” and the “elections” remained unrecognized, the DPR-LPR leaders and delegations were smoothly accepted again as negotiating parties in the Minsk Contact Group from February 2015 (Minsk Two) onward.
Russia is now playing the same game in the wake of the November 2018 “elections,” in the certainty that DPR-LPR’s newly “elected” leaders and plenipotentiaries will again be accepted as negotiators in the Minsk Contact Group. Indeed, the Contact Group met on November 22 for the first time after the Donetsk-Luhansk “elections,” with the participation of delegations mandated by the two “republics.” While those “republics” are unrecognized internationally, the mandates of their delegations are apparently recognized in the Minsk Contact Group. The Ukrainian delegation symbolically called for the two unlawful “republics” to be dismantled and for Russian forces to withdraw from Ukraine’s territory. But, predictably, the “mediatory” power Russia vetoed discussion of those requests, while the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s representative chairing the Minsk Group simply looked on, given that the OSCE itself is subject to Russia’s internal veto. Ukraine also requested yet again the formation of an additional (fifth) Minsk subgroup to study modalities for the restoration of Ukraine’s control on its own side of the Ukraine-Russia border in the Russian-controlled territory. Moscow vetoed that discussion as well (Ukrinform, November 22).
Germany and France are trying to keep the Normandy talks going for the sake of process, and in part also because Chancellor Angela Merkel insists that economic sanctions on Russia and talks with Russia must continue on parallel tracks. The Kremlin, however, has lost interest in a process that no longer delivers Ukrainian concessions to Russia and its proxies. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov have repeatedly declined to hold any more summit-level and ministerial-level meetings with their German, French and Ukrainian counterparts in the Normandy format. Putin declined this on November 11, when he, Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko were attending the World War I armistice anniversary in Paris (Ukrinform, November 22).
The Normandy group continues to meet irregularly at lower levels, most recently in Berlin at the level of ministerial directors to discuss a possible United Nations–led peacekeeping mission in Ukraine’s Russian-controlled territory (Ukrinform, November 17). Ukraine, however, rests its hopes for such a mission on the United States working directly with Russia outside the Normandy format.
The European Commission, Berlin and Paris announced both before and after the fact that the Donetsk-Luhansk “elections” are illegal and illegitimate and would not be recognized. Apart from this premise, however, their response has been indecisive. Instead of asserting that any elections in that territory are inconceivable in the presence of Russian and proxy forces (as Ukraine and the United States assert), those three chancelleries weakly called for municipal elections to be held as soon as possible in that territory, as foreseen by the Minsk armistice (Bundeskanzlerin.de, Elysee.fr, Eeas.europa.eu, November 9, 11).
Russia, not the DPR-LPR, initiated these “elections” and bears the responsibility for this. Nevertheless, Brussels, Berlin and Paris had entreated Moscow to “use its considerable influence” on Donetsk-Luhansk so that they desist from the “elections.” Such a misunderstanding of the situation, whether genuine or (more likely) a weak pretense, is consistent with those same chancelleries’ reluctance to characterize Russia’s policy in Ukraine’s east as military aggression and occupation. This could only have increased Moscow’s resolve to proceed with these “elections.” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov responded to those entreaties after the voting became a fait accompli: “Russia does indeed have considerable influence on them, but not unlimited influence” (Interfax, November 12). The unmistakable sarcasm aside, such rejoinders display Moscow’s evasive methods in waging conflicts by proxy (as tested previously in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia) as well as ambiguity for bargaining purposes. Russia could, after all, choose to exert its unlimited influence on its local proxies, if Western diplomacy pays the right price—for example, by consenting to federalization or a special status for Russia-controlled territories.
These “republics’ ” non-status situation is fraught with multiple ambiguities. The DPR-LPR are illegal, indeed criminal, under international law and Ukrainian law. Nevertheless, the Minsk armistice and Normandy process have failed to acknowledge that criminal character and its twin, the Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory. Instead, Minsk and Normandy purport to entitle Donetsk and Luhansk to legalization through a special status, one to be negotiated between them and Kyiv, with the occupant Russia’s participation.
The special status entitlement, however, has become inoperative since the Minsk-Normandy process became de facto bankrupt; although its demise is not (and perhaps need not be) declared officially. Ukraine has enacted several legislation packages (most comprehensively in January 2018) that preclude any political settlement with illegal Donetsk-Luhansk authorities, any election there in the presence of Russian or proxy forces, and any mediatory role for Russia, characterizing the latter as the occupying power. Berlin and Paris still hope half-heartedly to resuscitate the Normandy process with Russia, but they can no longer count on Washington’s backing in this regard, since the Donald Trump administration has decisively turned against Russia’s interpretation of the Minsk armistice that underpinned the whole Minsk-Normandy process. Yet, Minsk and Normandy limp on (see below).
Crowning the ambiguities is Russia’s official policy of semi-recognition of DPR-LPR. This not only veils Moscow’s full support and supervision of them, but also allows Russia to hold a range of options in reserve for possible use in the near, medium or long term, depending on international developments and how bilateral Russia-Ukraine relations may evolve. Moscow could either conserve the existing situation indefinitely, or steer the two “republics” toward final separation from Ukraine and some form of association with Russia, or invent pretexts to start a military operation on land or at sea, or yet re-start serious negotiations with Ukraine toward its federalization, in the event that politicians more amenable to Russia prevail in the 2019 general elections in Ukraine.
Russia will probably await the outcome of those elections, overtly and covertly helping what the Ukrainian analyst Vitaly Portnikov describes as a potential coalition of “outright collaborationists and useful idiots” (Espreso TV, November 13). Ukraine’s final exit from the Russian World will be at stake in these elections.