The Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” (DPR, LPR) staged pseudo-presidential and pseudo-parliamentary elections on November 11 (see EDM, November 15), pursuant to decisions handed down from the Kremlin in early September (see EDM, September 12, 13).
Along with the November 24–25 naval attacks on Ukrainian vessels in the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait, the November voting in DPR-LPR aims in part to destabilize Ukraine’s internal politics. Both moves seem calculated to produce ripple effects of distraction, fatigue, mistrust, or defeatism in specific sections of Ukraine’s political establishment and electorate.
Moscow’s decision to stage the DPR-LPR voting must be viewed in two interrelated contexts: the bilateral context of Russia’s policy toward Ukraine, and the international context of diplomatic negotiations over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine’s east.
The Kremlin seems prepared to destabilize Ukraine to the extent necessary for the general elections in 2019 to unseat President Petro Poroshenko’s government and the current parliamentary majority from power. Moscow seeks to align Ukraine’s narrowly based pro-Russia groups with far broader circles in society under pro-peace slogans.
Toward that end, Moscow has reverted to depicting Ukraine’s present authorities as (among other cardinal sins) loyal to the United States, rejecting peace, unfit for negotiations with Donetsk-Luhansk and Moscow, and therefore unacceptable to Russia (BBC Monitoring, November 2018). This is the messaging by Russia’s state television channels to Ukraine in the context of the DPR-LPR “elections” (even prior to the November 24–25 naval incidents).
Russian President Vladimir Putin has reinforced this messaging in the wake of the DPR-LPR “elections.” According to Putin, Russia would work with any authorities in Ukraine after the 2019 elections. But “[a]s long as these people are in power in Kyiv, one can hardly count on a peaceful solution in these territories… The Minsk agreements must be implemented, but Ukraine’s authorities have so far not shown any will to comply. The law on the special status of Donbas has not yet entered into force. This is the key part of the settlement… The incumbent president, unfortunately, has not shown any will to implement the Minsk agreements. He does not want to. Why? Ask him” (Interfax, November 15).
In parallel, Moscow is using the DPR-LPR “elections” to try to enforce its own interpretation of the Minsk armistice terms in the diplomatic negotiations. Although the international negotiations are currently on hold (see EDM, November 15), Moscow undoubtedly plans to relaunch them in the event that political power changes hands in Kyiv. In that case, Russia would present the newly elected authorities of Donetsk-Luhansk as holding a popular mandate (Moscow is content with “popular” instead of “democratic”); as civilians who were not personally involved in fighting at the front against Ukraine (this group has replaced the warlord leaders of Donetsk-Luhansk); and as representing institutionalized “republics, governments and parliaments” that supposedly can no longer be ignored or bypassed. Moscow wants Kyiv and its Western partners to believe that they must negotiate the implementation of the Minsk documents with Donetsk and Luhansk.
At this stage, Moscow stops half-way short of officially recognizing the Donetsk-Luhansk “elections,” these “republics” and their leaders. As phrased by Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russia “understands” those “republics’” need to hold such elections, and it takes this opportunity to “listen to the people who voted there.” Although unrecognized, the DPR-LPR and their positions “must be taken into account” by Russia as well as internationally. Kyiv has “refused to implement the Minsk accords on reintegrating Donetsk-Luhansk into Ukraine” (through special status and legitimization of elections). Thus, Ukraine’s “abandonment” has practically “compelled the republics to self-organize” and hold these elections. Russia’s senior officials refrain from commenting on whether these elections have met international democratic standards or not. “It is a fact that they were held” and “expressed the people’s will” (Interfax, November 9–13).
Russia’s official policy of semi-recognition barely covers up its full practical support and supervision of the DPR-LPR.
No government or international organization would recognize these elections and their winners. This had already been made clear by the United States, Germany and France (Berlin and Paris have underwritten the Minsk armistice and participate in the follow-up “Normandy” negotiations), by many Western governments, the European Union collectively, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in multiple statements ahead of the voting and afterward. This non-recognition policy remains in force ever since the November 2014 “elections” in the DPR and LPR.
Despite the official non-recognition, however, Berlin and Paris and some other Western authorities accept the DPR and LPR with their leaders de facto as parties to negotiations with Ukraine. This ambiguity suited the Kremlin as long as Germany, France and the Barack Obama administration in the US were pressing Kyiv to legitimize Donetsk-Luhansk by accepting a ”special status” and the holding of local elections there, based on the Minsk documents. But the Ukrainian government and patriotic public opinion have successfully resisted those pressures; the Donald Trump administration in Washington has closed ranks with Ukraine; while Berlin and Paris, immersed in their domestic problems, have allowed the Normandy negotiations to stagnate. Thus, Russia can no longer expect to win against Ukraine through the Minsk and Normandy processes any time soon, barring implausible scenarios of regime reversal in Kyiv.