The fate of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics and how to reintegrate the breakaway territories into Ukraine came up repeatedly during the Minsk talks aimed at bringing peace to eastern Ukraine. Yet not one of the parties in the talks currently has a reintegration road map for the peaceful handover of control over the territory—including the state border—from the separatists to the Ukrainian authorities.

The Minsk accords state that the Ukrainian constitution must be amended to grant special status to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and that they should start functioning under that status after local elections carried out in accordance with Ukrainian law. Restoring control of the state border to the Ukrainian government should start on the first day after the local elections and end after “full political regulation.” This suggests that the unrecognized republics will continue to exist for some time after the elections, until control over the border is handed over completely, meaning there are two possible scenarios.

The first scenario is the voluntary dissolution of all regional authorities that are illegal under Ukrainian law before local elections are held. In this case, Kiev will have to allow the current authorities of the unrecognized republics to take part in the elections. During the transition period, when the state structures of the self-proclaimed republics have already been dismantled but the new Ukrainian authorities have not yet been elected or started work, the power vacuum could be filled by a UN administration, while responsibility for security could be handed over to international police forces or UN peacekeepers. 

In this scenario, the process of disarmament and demilitarizing the conflict zone would also have to be completed before the elections. The legitimacy of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics relies largely on force, and the disarming of the separatists before the vote could result in the power structures effectively ceasing to exist before new ones have been elected, which is why the UN would have to obtain broad powers over the territories. 

The second scenario is the voluntary dissolution of all regional authorities that are illegal under Ukrainian law after local elections are held. In this scenario, the co-existence of parallel authorities would essentially be recognized for a period that would have to be agreed on and formalized separately by both sides of the conflict and endorsed by international intermediaries. 

The terms of any voluntary disbandment will only be determined after Kiev, the representatives of the regions elected under Ukrainian law, and representatives of the separatists resolve the issue of handing over control of the border. It’s possible that the dissolution of the self-proclaimed republics could be spread out over several phases dovetailing with the stages of expanding Kiev’s control over the territories. 

The functioning of parallel authorities will leave control over the territory during the run-up to the elections and for some time afterward to the de facto authorities, i.e., the separatists, even if one of the conditions is the presence of a UN contingent in the conflict zone. Retaining control over the territory means the insurgents will have certain weapons at their disposal, so disarmament and demilitarization will not be completed before the full return of border control to the state authorities, and until a new police force starts work. Until then, the separatists will at the very least have access to small arms and will retain the role of security enforcers in the region. 

The first scenario would clearly be better for Ukraine, and is at first glance more simple to implement. It assumes, however, that the separatists would get very strong guarantees of their own safety and political future within a united Ukraine until local elections are held. Kiev would also have to provide guarantees to Russia, which will inevitably have to bring political pressure on the representatives of the self-proclaimed republics.

The second scenario is more complicated to implement and entails a large number of conditions whose full observance would require a high degree of trust among all parties. It would also pose serious risks to Ukraine that the separatists would try to manipulate the process, keeping hold of their weapons and delaying the return of control over the territories even after the elections. For Russia, on the other hand, this scenario could be the most acceptable, since it preserves Moscow’s leverage over the situation in the Donbas for as long as possible, and for that period provides the separatists with relatively reliable guarantees of their physical safety. 

The Minsk accords stated that Ukraine should regain sovereignty over the breakaway territories by the end of 2015. At the time the agreements were signed in February of that year, the unrecognized republics had existed for less than a year. The signatories were working on the basis that the political rupture with Kiev could be reversed in a short period of time. And perhaps if the parties had agreed on the order in which to take steps to implement the accords, the problem of restoring sovereignty over Donbas wouldn’t have been so difficult to solve. 

But the time factor (the self-proclaimed republics are now four years old, and in November are expected to hold their second elections for executive and legislative bodies), the transformations that have taken place there and in Ukraine, and the fact that the process of disarming the separatists never began will play a major role in the reintegration of Donbas. 

The priority right now, therefore, is not only a ceasefire along the contact line and the formation of a stable safe space across the territory of the conflict, but also the articulation of strong political incentives for the breakaway regions to finally begin disarmament and integration. This is first and foremost a task for the Ukrainian authorities, who will have to overcome the taboo and establish a legal framework for reintegration. 

One of the aspects that has changed is that Russia is no longer in a position to force the republics’ leaders, whose interest lies in preserving the status quo, into a reintegration scenario that would only benefit Ukraine. What could have been done in 2014 and 2015 cannot be done now, in 2018, and certainly will not be possible in the next few years.

Finally, even if a balance between the interested parties in the conflict is found on paper, the situation in Donbas and Ukraine has deteriorated so far that there is a very high risk of open resistance—including armed rebellion—from both sides. In order not to lose control of the situation, Ukraine and Donbas, with help from international intermediaries, will have to reach a very high level of cooperation and trust, which will again depend on Kiev creating real political incentives for the reintegration of Donetsk and Luhansk. 

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

  • Oleg Ignatov