Russia is putting down roots in Ukraine’s Donbass region. After the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Russia annexed Crimea, where a referendum saw 97 percent of voters opt to join the Russian Federation. But Moscow took a different approach in Donbass, where it chose instead to prop up the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. (Both republics are just part of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which are part of the wider region of Donbass; Donbass itself is not an official administrative region.) Now, it looks as though Moscow might be preparing to absorb them into Russia. It could be that Moscow’s motivation is to increase its leverage in negotiations with Kiev and the European Union on sanctions imposed on Russia over its activity in Donbass and Crimea. But it’s also possible that Russia is trying to create a new reality on the ground.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree that will make it easier for residents of the LPR and DPR to acquire Russian citizenship. The government opened a center in Russia’s Rostov region from which it will issue Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens living in the rebel-controlled parts of Donbass. Yesterday, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry criticized the move and called on other governments to not recognize the new passports. A representative of Russia’s Directorate for Migration Affairs said recent polling indicates some 86 percent of LPR and DPR residents will seek Russian citizenship, and, anticipating long lines, Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs is ready to open more passport processing centers for Donbass. If there’s any truth to those numbers, over the coming years there could be as many as 500,000 new Russian citizens in Donbass. In response, Ukraine’s deputy minister for the occupied territories said residents who chose to obtain Russian citizenship should be stripped of their Ukrainian citizenship.
Holding a Russian passport would fundamentally change the status of LPR and DPR residents. The governing ideology of the Russian Federation today is Russian nationalism – the goal of which is to protect not only Russians living in Russia but also Russians living in foreign territories. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Russia uses new Russian citizens in Donbass as justification to shift from not-so-covertly funding regional separatists to deploying its own military forces. And the ground is well laid for such a move; in recent years, Russia has deepened economic links between itself and the fledgling Luhansk and Donetsk republics.
In the 2015 Minsk agreements, which aim to bring peace to eastern Ukraine, both sides were required to pull back heavy weaponry, and a contact line was established to separate the rebel- and Ukraine-controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. However, several recent military developments indicate that both sides are increasingly violating the agreement and support the idea that Russia is planning to take a more official role in Donbass. A March 16 report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe indicated that Russia has a Tirada-2 electronic jamming system in place in Donbass, and a Ukraine-based volunteer intelligence analysis publication speculated that Russia is actively testing the Tirada-2. It would be the Russian army’s first known use of the equipment, which could be used against both the Ukrainian army and U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles.
Meanwhile, the DPR’s Joint Center for Cease-fire Control and Coordination representative said Ukrainian forces fired 33 mortar rounds into the western suburbs of the city of Donetsk on Wednesday. The representative said Ukraine had violated the cease-fire 12 times over a 24-hour period, firing 209 times at the rebel-controlled part of Donetsk near the contact line, according to the head of the DPR’s mission to the JCCC. While such reports of cease-fire violations are a dime a dozen, they are usually published in less reliable Ukrainian sources; this time, however, the generally reliable Russian news agency TASS ran the story. Add to this the fact that, for the first time since 2015, the Ukrainian military and separatist fighters did not agree to an Easter truce, and there are at least hints of a shift in the region.
Peace will not come quickly in Donbass. Ukraine is not going to halt military operations, and the Russia-backed rebels won’t give up the territory they’ve secured. Even if Moscow makes its presence in Donbass more official, Russia still lacks the ability to wage a full-scale war against Ukraine itself. Moscow is playing a long game, assuming that over time new passports and closer ties will make the absorption of the LPR and DPR into the Russian Federation a fait accompli. As long as Ukraine and the Minsk Group refuse to accept Russian demands, Russia will proceed as if nothing much will change so that it can legitimize what has already changed over the past five years.