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Answering the Critics: Donbas Disengagement

Written by Alexander J. Motyl
Source: World Affairs

What should Ukraine do about the occupied Donbas enclave?

I have long been arguing for disengagement. Critics of my view generally emphasize some or all of the following three points:

First, won’t disengagement help promote Vladimir Putin’s strategic goal of destroying Ukraine?

Second, doesn’t Ukraine have a moral obligation to reannex this territory and its citizens?

Third, what exactly does disengagement entail and how would it be brought about?

Regarding the first, let’s assume, not unreasonably, that Putin’s goal is the destruction of the Ukrainian state. Let’s also recognize a fact of life: Russia is and will remain, at least for the foreseeable future, a far stronger country than Ukraine, both militarily and economically. It follows that Ukraine cannot defeat Russia in any full-scale war.  But Ukraine can, with the right mix of armed forces, strategy, and tactics, deter and/or withstand a Russian attack by making it too costly for Russia to undertake such a move under all conditions short of a nuclear assault.

If you agree with this conclusion, then the questions before Ukraine are: does attempting to win back the Donbas enclave strengthen or weaken Ukraine’s capacity to deter a Russian attack? And: does disengaging from the enclave strengthen or weaken Ukraine’s capacity to deter a Russian attack?

I submit that the answer to the first question is a resounding NO: attempting to win back the enclave and defeating its 35,000 heavily armed thugs only exposes Ukraine to a debilitating Russian counterattack and thereby increases the likelihood of a full-scale Russian assault on Ukraine. And even if Ukraine were, miraculously, to defeat Putin’s 35,000 proxies, attempting to occupy and control an economically devastated region inhabited by a population of dubious loyalty to Ukraine would force Ukraine to expend scarce resources on the Donbas and thereby weaken its ability to resist further Russian aggression.

The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated. If Putin’s imperialist appetite is insatiable and unstoppable—i.e. if Putin is preprogrammed to expand regardless of conditions and costs—then he will expand and attack Ukraine regardless of whether it holds on to the enclave or not. Giving it up will no more encourage him to expand than retaining it will deter him from expanding. Alternatively, if Putin’s imperialism is opportunistic and, thus, somehow responsive to costs and benefits, then the important question is whether disengaging from the Donbas will increase the costs or benefits of Putin’s continued aggression.

I submit that disengagement enhances Ukraine’s ability both to forestall aggression and to raise its costs. The reason is simple. The occupied Donbas enclave is an economic black hole that drains enormous resources and provides marginal if any economic benefit to its owner in the foreseeable future. Whoever controls the enclave is, by definition, in a weaker position precisely because the region is a drain on resources and will continue to be so for many years to come. Forcing Russia to bear all the costs of the occupation is Ukraine’s single most effective weapon in the war with Putin. Complete disengagement, which would entail cutting off all social and economic subsidies to the region and its inhabitants, would only raise the costs to Russia and thereby enhance Ukraine’s relative capacity to forestall or withstand an attack.

Just why Putin would be encouraged to attack when the costs of the campaign and occupation would rise and Ukraine’s ability to withstand an attack would grow is unclear. To be sure, he might attack simply because he’s preprogrammed to do so, but, if so, Ukraine’s relative capacity to survive would be enhanced by virtue of Russia’s having to shoulder all the costs of the Donbas occupation.

In sum, disengagement enhances Ukraine’s capacity to stop Russia regardless of whether Putin is driven by an imperial impulse or is merely responding to opportunities to expand.

It’s important to realize that disengagement will not stop Putin’s proxies from continuing to fire on Ukraine and kill its citizens and soldiers. Only Putin can do that. But disengagement does open the door to more possibilities to resolve the conflict diplomatically and politically. As long as Ukraine claims the Donbas enclave, it will be involved in a zero-sum game with the proxies and Russia. Once Ukraine says ‘no’ to the enclave, it can explore imaginative solutions to the conflict precisely because it no longer claims sovereign control over it.

Won’t disengagement violate Ukraine’s moral obligation to the citizens of this benighted region? The answer to this question is simple, and it entails answering the following question: Which is the greater obligation—to 3 million individuals who have demonstrated by their behavior since 1991 that their loyalty to Ukraine is at best questionable or to the 40-plus million Ukrainians in Ukraine who have demonstrated that their loyalty to Ukraine is unquestionable? In an ideal world, policymakers would devote as many resources to one citizen as to all citizens. In a less than ideal world of limited resources, policymakers have to choose and opt for the greater good for the greater number. Seen in that light, promoting the life chances of 40-plus million loyal Ukrainians—by introducing reform, raising living standards, and consolidating democracy and human rights—is by far the greater good than sacrificing lives for a population that may not want to be liberated by Kyiv anyway.


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