Russia has recognized the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR, LPR) as “independent states,” eight years after seizing these territories in eastern Donbas from Ukraine. The scenario closely resembles Russia’s official seizure of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008 under the guise of recognizing their independence, many years after having occupied them de facto. In the case of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas, however, the Kremlin moved to recognize the DPR and LPR with lightning speed and to general surprise.
On February 15, Russia’s State Duma (lower chamber of parliament) approved a Kremlin-inspired resolution requesting President Vladimir Putin to consider recognizing the two “people’s republics” as independent states, meaning independent of Ukraine (see EDM, February 17). On February 17, Russian propaganda invented Ukrainian threats to attack the DPR and LPR imminently with military force; and the Russian-installed local authorities staged a “refugee exodus” into Russia without cause. On February 21, DPR and LPR “heads” (their official title) Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik, respectively, appealed to Putin for recognition of the “people’s republics” as independent states, ostensibly on humanitarian grounds, but requesting at the same time to enter into military cooperation agreements with Russia (TASS, February 21).
That same day, Putin chaired an enlarged session of the Russian Security Council, which, in a set-piece televised spectacle, unanimously recommended recognizing the DPR and LPR, as per the earlier Duma’s resolution and the DPR-LPR appeals (Kremlin.ru, Rossiya 24 TV, February 21). Putin then addressed his country (as well as Ukraine, he specified) on television to explain this decision (Kremlin.ru, Rossiya 24 TV, February 21). Putin proceeded that same evening to sign Russia-DPR and Russia-LPR treaties of friendship and mutual assistance with Pushilin and Pasechnik, respectively (TASS, February 21). The next day, both chambers of Russia’s parliament (TASS, February 22) as well as the DPR and LPR “parliaments” (Donetskoye Agentstvo Novostei, LugInfoCenter, February 22) all unanimously ratified the Russia-DPR and Russia-LPR treaties.
The treaties provide for integrating the DPR and LPR, respectively, with Russia: militarily, economically, socially and culturally. No treaty exists between the two “people’s republics” directly. Moscow’s approach to integration relies, traditionally, on bilateral and vertical agreements with allies, ruling out any meaningful agreements on the horizontal level among its allies.
The two treaty texts (TASS, February 22) are identical in their wording. The sides shall mutually respect their sovereignty and territorial integrity (a potentially contentious point—see below). They shall mutually provide for their defense and security, including the right [for Russia] to build and use military bases and installations in either “republic.” The sides shall sign follow-up agreements on specific aspects of military and security cooperation. The DPR’s and LPR’s borders (i.e., the frontlines opposite Ukraine) shall be protected by the “republics” jointly with Russia on the basis of follow-up agreements.
Russia shall recognize dual citizenship, DPR-Russian and LPR-Russian, for these “republics’ ” residents (many of whom are already Russian-passportized). The signatory sides shall unify their legislation on citizenship, civil documents, and social benefits, complete the passportization process and equalize the rights of DPR and LPR residents with those of Russia’s citizens. DPR and LPR residents traveling abroad shall enjoy the same protections as Russia’s citizens abroad.
The DPR and LPR are entering the Russian ruble zone. Russia shall support (read: be in charge of) the two “republics’ ” financial and banking systems. They, in turn, obligate themselves to ensure favorable economic, financial and legal conditions for entrepreneurs and investors (apparently opening the way for Russian takeovers of Ukrainian state and private assets “nationalized” by the DPR and LPR illegally). The signatory sides shall unify their energy, transport, and communications systems (i.e., former Ukrainian infrastructure assets to be merged into Russia‘s infrastructure systems).
Although Putin depicted the Donbas as Russian and nothing but Russian in his February 21 explanatory speech and many times previously, the two treaties just signed attempt to convey a somewhat different message. The sides pledge to “ensure the protection of the ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious identity of national minorities, create conditions for preserving and developing their identities.”
Such pledges, however, bear no relation to the situation on the ground, which is one of total Russification, erasing the last traces of Ukrainianness. Defining what constitutes the “national minority” in Donbas looks like an intractable question. In Russian imperial, Soviet and independent Ukrainian times, those defining themselves as ethnic Ukrainians constituted the majority of the Donbas population, up to the Russian occupation in 2014. However, those who declared Russian as their primary language (including Russian-speaking ethnic Ukrainians) grew to a majority owing to state-driven Russification of Ukrainians in Soviet times. The DPR’s and LPR’s cultural policies pursue a radical de-Ukrainization coupled with linguistic Russification and Russian World (Russkiy Mir) political indoctrination in the territory under their control.
Both treaties are effective from the date of ratification (February 22) for a period of ten years, to be automatically prolonged by successive five-year periods. The sides may abandon the treaties at the end of each period, with a six-month pre-notification.
These two treaties do not define the DPR’s and LPR’s “borders.” This matter (see above) is potentially contentious. The two “republics” hold about one third of the territory of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, and about two thirds of these provinces’ pre-2014 population. The DPR and LPR proclaimed themselves as such in April 2014, held pseudo-referendums in May 2014 and pseudo-elections in November 2014. In their founding documents, the two “republics” lay claim to the entire territory of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. At present, the military front line that has taken shape since 2014–2015 separates the DPR and LPR from the rest of Ukraine. The “republics’ ” leaders have, from time to time in the past, claimed the whole territory of the two pre-2014 Ukrainian provinces.
Queried about the “borders” within which Russia recognizes the two “republics”—whether in the pre-2014 lines of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces or in the post-2015 lines—Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov has given an answer that could be interpreted either way (TASS, February 22). Foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova replied even more diplomatically: this issue remains to be addressed in the future (TASS, February 22).