H-Nationalism is proud to publish here the eighth post of its “Secessionism and Separatism Monthly Series”, which looks at issues of fragmentation, sovereignty, and self-determination in a multi-disciplinary perspective. Today’s contribution, by Professor Andre Liebich (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva), deals with Ukraine as the second in our series of case studies.
In spring 2014 militants in Eastern Ukraine proclaimed the People’s Republic of Donetsk and soon thereafter the People’s Republic of Luhansk. Western media refer to these entities as “separatist” (the official Ukrainian designation is “terrorist”). Yet, after more than two years of existence, they have not separated. Why not?
In the first flush of excitement, the authorities of the two breakaway republics loudly proclaimed their intention of following a “Crimean scenario.” They would first declare their independence from Ukraine and then petition to join Russia. They were further encouraged to envision expanding their scope by evidence of unrest in other Ukrainian regions and by the weakness of Ukrainian military means. Donetsk and Luhansk united in proclaiming a union that it named Novorossiya, endowed with a flag consisting of a red St. Andrew’s cross with white borders against a blue background. Although the flag drew on a little remembered tsarist precedent it bore an uncanny resemblance to the flag of the Confederate States of America. In the spring and summer of 2014, Novorossiya prepared to extend its authority over Southern Ukraine, including the port city of Odessa, and reaching up to the Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria. The name adopted, Novorossiya, was a historic construction that dated back to the nineteenth century imperial tsarist project of colonizing Russia’s southern territories covering much of what is presently Ukraine and extending unto the shores of the Black Sea. Putin himself briefly used the term “Novorossiya” but the project of a new “Novorossiya,” never came to fruition. Local resistance, as well as strong opposition from irregular Ukrainian forces, obliged the partisans of Novorossiya to abandon their ambitious project. In the late summer of 2014, Ukrainian military units pushed back the “separatist” (or, in their vocabulary, “terrorist”) armies thus threatening the very existence of the self-proclaimed peoples’ republics in Eastern Ukraine. It was only direct Russian military intervention that more or less re-established the status quo ante even as it put an end to dreams of Novorossiya. The Union of Donetsk and Luhansk that was the vehicle of this concept was quietly dissolved in 2015.
The People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk continued to exist, however. Polls undertaken by the Pew Research Centre in May 2014 showed that, whatever the thinking of the leadership that had seized power, the great majority of the population (70%) wanted to remain in Ukraine. This was true even for a majority (58%) of those in the East who defined themselves as Russian. Their quarrel was with the new nationalist government in Kyiv whom Russian media, prevalent in Eastern Ukraine, were describing as “fascist.” Even those skeptical of the Russian presentation of events were moved by images of far-right demonstrations in Kyiv commemorating such villains (in Russian eyes) as Stepan Bandera, the head of an ultranationalist movement (OUN) in wartime Western Ukraine and the spiritual leader of Ukrainian partisans (UPA) who collaborated with Nazi Germany, murdered Jews and Poles, and continued the struggle against Soviet power after the war. Eastern Ukraine shared the Russian cult of the “Great Fatherland War” and that of liberation by the Soviet Army to such an extent that contrary views were seen as sacrilegious. Moreover, after more than twenty years of living in an independent Ukraine that recognized only one official language, Ukrainian, in spite of the existence of a substantial Russian-speaking minority (officially, estimated at 17%) and the prevalence of Russian in all walks of life, Eastern Ukraine had finally benefited from the recent recognition of Russian as a regional language, a much contested disposition adopted to bring Ukraine into conformity with its commitments to the Council of Europe under the terms of the Charter for Minority and Regional Languages. It was this disposition that the new Ukrainian parliament sought to abolish and, even though the abolition failed to obtain presidential assent, it confirmed Eastern Ukraine’s suspicion of the new régime in Kyiv. In short, there was widespread sympathy for the spirit in which the “separatist” authorities defied Kyiv but little desire to break ties definitively with Ukraine.
The most important factor behind Donetsk’s and Luhansk’s failure to carry through on their leaderships’ project of separation from Ukraine and adherence to Russia was Russia itself. Moscow was surprised by the vehemence of international reaction to its annexation of Crimea. Whereas the Kremlin had compared this move to the declaration of independence of Kosovo, world opinion saw it as a flagrant violation of international norms, the forceful seizure of territory that belonged to another state in direct contradiction not only to general principles of respect for the integrity of state territory but to Russia’s specific commitment to Ukrainian integrity as embodied in the Budapest Declaration of 1994 according to which Russia (as well as the United States and the United Kingdom) guaranteed Ukrainian borders in return for Ukraine’s adherence to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Many observers acknowledged that most inhabitants of Crimea would have voted for adherence to Russia in a free referendum but non-Russian media managed to sweep aside the referendum held in Crimea as fraudulent and held under duress. Russia’s appeals to the principle of “self-determination of peoples,” (the argument that had prevailed in the West during the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s) made no impact. Indeed, the members of the United Nations Security Council all (with the exception of Russia, of course) voted to condemn the Russian move, with even Russia’s ally, China, abstaining. Such a reaction certainly gave Russia pause. It underlay Russia’s reluctance to pursue the Novorossiya project and it explains, in part, Russia’s unwillingness to welcome Donetsk and Luhansk into the Russian Federation, as it had welcomed Crimea.
Even more important, however, is the role that Russia seeks to have Eastern Ukraine play with regard to Ukraine itself. Sober minds in Russia acknowledge that, for a long time to come, Ukraine would not be the “little brother” to Russia that it once was seen to be (at least in Russia). Ukrainian identity has now coalesced around anti-Russianism, a sentiment that was once prevalent only in Western Ukraine but now has spread throughout most of Ukraine. Russia no longer has realistic hopes of integrating Ukraine into its Eurasian Union, an Eastern response to the EU, thus perhaps dealing a fatal blow to the future of the Eurasian Union. Russia does, however, count on attaining its overwhelmingly important goal: maintaining Ukraine outside NATO. The prospect of this important neighbor entering an alliance that Moscow considers as anti-Russian as it had once been anti-Soviet is a nightmare for the Kremlin. In its eyes, NATO is bent on reducing Russia to the status of a compliant minor power, through all possible means including internal subversion and fragmentation, military threat, and economic pressure. Absorption of Ukraine into NATO would be a significant step in that direction. The existence of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics, under the influence of Moscow, is thus the most important card that Russia has to play with regard to Ukraine’s future alliance strategy. These entities would only return to the authority of Kyiv if the latter makes a firm commitment to remain outside the NATO sphere and adherence to this commitment would be vouchsafed by giving Eastern Ukraine a veto over Ukraine future alignments. It is this reasoning which explains both the adoption of the Minsk agreements, in September 2014 and February 2015, and the difficulties of their implementation. Whereas Moscow calls for Ukraine to adopt measures which would, effectively, tie Kyiv’s hands with regard to its international position, Ukraine, and specifically the Ukrainian Parliament, is unwilling to make such concessions to those whom it sees as agents of an enemy foreign power.
For Russia, annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk would thus serve no purpose and would even make likely the scenario that Russia fears most: Ukraine’s total alignment with the West culminating in its entry into NATO, now prevented by Kyiv’s hopes of recovering Eastern Ukraine and the objections of NATO members who fear the added responsibilities and dangers (vis-à-vis Russia) that an Ukrainian NATO would imply. Russia is already the largest country in the world. It does not need more territory, as it has shown by establishing Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia as independent states rather than annexing them. In this respect, Crimea is the exception that confirms the rule. Whereas Crimea has strategic significance because of the Russian naval base located there and because of the access it provides to the Black Sea, Eastern Ukraine plays no such role. It does represent an industrial heartland which produces much of what Russia imports from Ukraine, particularly arms, but it is also a “rust belt” whose economic future is uncertain. Nevertheless, Russia cannot abandon the Eastern Ukrainian people’s republics. The enormous popularity of Crimea’s “return to the motherland” among virtually all Russians demonstrates that the Kremlin is well-advised to take account of popular sentiment, much of which is more radically nationalist than the version of nationalism that Putin espouses. Western opinion has made much of the Bolotnaya demonstrations that began in late 2011, seeing in them an expression of liberal opposition to Putin. Not only did these demonstrations include an important nationalist presence but the radical xenophobic demonstrations at the Manezh Square the previous year attracted far more participants. Putin is already criticized for providing insufficient support to “compatriots” in Eastern Ukraine. He cannot be seen as doing less or, worse still, betraying them.
Ukraine too has hardened its position vis-à-vis Eastern Ukraine. Even as it has continued to affirm that Donetsk and Luhansk are integral parts of Ukraine “temporarily” under hostile occupation, it has walled off the area from the rest of Ukraine, for instance, ceasing to pay salaries and pensions there. Some beneficiaries cross the border to collect what is their due; others depend on subsidies from Moscow. In all cases, ties with Kyiv are fraying. There have not been reliable recent polls in Eastern Ukraine, such as the ones cited earlier, but it is likely that the number of Eastern Ukrainians who see no future for themselves in a united Ukraine has grown. Meanwhile, the authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk, aware of the constraints under which Moscow is operating, are increasingly pursuing self-regarding policies, enjoying their ability to disregard Moscow’s wishes, even as they flaunt their dependence upon their Russian protector.
The Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics are, with Transnistria, examples of separatist movements in the former Soviet Union which have not crossed the line towards actual separation. Maintaining the prospect of separation without separating is a delicate game. Who is to say that it may not end badly for the parties concerned?
 Andre Liebich, “La minoranza russa e la crisi ucraina,” Il Ponte LXXI nrs. 8-9, August-September 2015, pp. 32-35
 See O. Myslovska, “Deconstructing the Ukrainian Nation-State : Myths and Realities of the Ukrainian-Russian Encounter in Independent Ukraine” in J. Eisenberg and D. Rodogno, (eds.) Ideas and Identities: A Festschrift for Andre Liebich, Berne: Peter Lang: 2014, pp, 171-192.