Written by Alexander J. Motyl
Source: Foreign Policy
Ukraine’s occupied Donbas region is a pointless burden. It’s time for Kyiv to accept that it’s better off without it.
Although the Russo-Ukrainian war appears to have been largely forgotten in the West, it’s still claiming lives every day. Indeed, the last two months have seen a major escalation by Russia and its proxies, leading some analysts to expect a full-blown war.
That being the case, it’s all the more unfortunate that Ukraine’s policy toward its occupied eastern Donbas region, which has been held by pro-Russian separatists since early 2014, is stuck in a dead end. Kyiv lacks the power to defeat Russia and its Donbas proxies and cannot accept reintegrating the region on Vladimir Putin’s terms. But Kyiv insists it must continue to fight for the region in the name of preserving national sovereignty and checking Putin’s aggression. Never mind that the Russian president’s willingness to invade, attack, or escalate appears to have little to do with what Ukraine does (or, indeed, with any rational strategy).
What, then, should Kyiv do? The answer won’t be easy, particularly since, unsurprisingly, Ukrainians are extremely sensitive about any potential dismemberment of their country. Ukrainians, however, must ask themselves whether they want to expend their very scarce resources on themselves or on the occupied territories. In an ideal world, there would be no need to choose. But in the real world of economic crisis and Russia’s existential threat,
Ukraine must let go of the Donbas psychologically, economically, and, perhaps even politically.
This choice is informed by three basic considerations.
First, Ukraine cannot roll back Russia militarily, and any attempt to do so would only increase its vulnerability. Although Ukraine has effectively won the limited conflict by fighting Russia to a draw, Kyiv cannot defeat Moscow in a full-scale war. If it were to invade the rest of Ukraine, Russia would probably be unable to prevail against widespread partisan resistance. But even in the best of circumstances, any large-scale conflict would have deadly consequences for Ukraine and its people.
Second, possession of the occupied Donbas is an economic drain on whoever controls it. The occupied enclave’s economy is in free fall. Using nighttime electricity usage as a surrogate for GDP, three Western economists have calculated that “the economic activity in the Donbas region has … dropped in economic terms to 30 to 50 percent of the pre-war level for the big cities and to only a tenth of the pre-war level for some smaller cities.” The region’s educated professionals have fled and are unlikely to return. Health conditions may be on the verge of catastrophe; investment is non-existent. And without Russian aid, which amounts to some $39 million per month, the economy and society would, in all likelihood, collapse. Russia is already feeling the pain of maintaining the occupation, even though its economy and resources are far larger than Ukraine’s.
Were Ukraine suddenly to come into possession of the occupied territories, it would be unable to sustain them or itself economically.
Read more: Is Putin Preparing a New Attack on Ukraine?
Third, reintegrating the occupied Donbas on Russia’s terms — with Russia controlling the national border and the Russian proxies who currently misrule the enclave still in place — would mean suicide for Ukraine. The proxies would demand scarce resources, obstruct reform, halt Ukraine’s political movement toward Europe, and provide a base of support for the return to power of the parties, oligarchs, and criminal elements that have governed the region since Ukraine’s independence in 1991.
From these three points it follows that Ukraine is more secure and more capable of reform without the occupied Donbas than with it, and that Russia is weaker and more overextended with the occupied Donbas than without it.
What, then, should Ukraine do? How can letting go of the occupied Donbas become a realistic and politically palatable policy choice?