Events in Ukraine’s war-torn Donbas region stopped being front-page news long ago, but the new escalation of Russian-Ukrainian tensions and possibility of renewed hostilities there have pushed the region into the spotlight once again.

The self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics (DNR and LNR), which were conceived as temporary entities, have survived and even grown stronger. They have acquired their own political systems and new elites ready to ensure Donbas’s lengthy existence as a Russian protectorate. The doctrine of Donbas having its own “special path” is very likely to come true, even though irredentist ideas are waning there.

The self-proclaimed republics have seen major changes in the seven years since they were established. The “heroic” period of the Donbas elite came to an end in 2018 with the assassination of the DNR leader Alexander Zakharchenko. Fervent nationalists were replaced with an alliance of bureaucrats and siloviki (security service officials) that co-opted any surviving figures from the “Russian Spring.”

“How many people who initiated the Donbas protests and feel personally responsible for ongoing events do we presently have in the government? You can count them on the fingers of one hand,” laments one of the DNR’s founding fathers, Alexander Khodakovsky, on his Telegram channel.

Both republics now have a power vertical adorned with a pseudo-democratic façade. Numerous restrictions on political activity are attributed to the republics’ wartime status (both Luhansk and Donetsk still have curfews in place). Behind-the-scenes infighting that includes Russian political operatives stands in for public politics.

Moscow-approved leaders—Denis Pushilin in the DNR and Leonid Pasechnik in the LNR—won virtually uncontested elections in 2018, while only ruling and spoiler parties were allowed to participate in local legislative elections.

Party lists were comprised of members of local elites with prewar Ukrainian political experience: former Party of Regions youth activist Denis Miroshnichenko became the head of the LNR People’s Council, while the former Communist Party parliamentary deputy Vladimir Bidyovka was chosen to lead the DNR legislature. Meanwhile, locally registered Communist parties weren’t allowed to take part in the elections.

The only real opposition to the republics’ current leadership comes from influential separatist veterans, but the authorities thwart their political aspirations: the Donbas Republican Party created by one of the DNR’s founding fathers and former head of legislature, Andrei Purgin, was denied registration.

Opposition-leaning Telegram channels—essentially the only uncensored sources of information—play an important role. Paradoxically, the arguments made by critics of the LNR and DNR regimes are very similar to those made by the nationalist opposition in Ukraine. They claim that the government is opportunist and solely concerned with personal enrichment, while neglecting the main aim of defense from an existential foe.

Although this criticism rests on Donbas patriotism, the regime fiercely suppresses any sign of disloyalty. In the summer of 2020, during coal miner strikes in the LNR, the authorities blocked the Russian Spring website for its coverage of the protests. At the end of the year, they arrested the high-profile separatist blogger Roman Manekin on suspicion of being a “Ukrainian spy” for his criticism of the DNR siloviki.

Two Become One?

In the absence of credible approval ratings, it’s difficult to gauge the popularity of the current LNR and DNR leaders. Nor can the media-created personality cults be taken seriously, since the local media is completely under government control. According to a 2019 poll conducted by the Institute of the Future and the Zerkalo Nedeli newspaper, the residents of separatist Donbas had far less trust in the DNR leader Denis Pushilin than in Russian TV show hosts Vladimir Solovyov and Olga Skabeyeva.

Low standards of living are not adding to the local government’s popularity. Government-run enterprises haven’t paid their employees for months, and promised salary increases are accompanied by benefit cuts. A 20 percent hike in utility costs has tested people’s loyalty, as low utility tariffs (below those in Ukraine and the neighboring Russian region of Rostov) had helped contribute to the myth that the republics were indeed the “people’s.”

These economic woes are linked to a decrease in the Russian subsidies that keep the republics afloat. It’s been rumored that Moscow is contemplating optimizing the management of its de facto protectorates by replacing their leaders or merging the two republics into one entity. The current rulers could be replaced by people affiliated with the pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, or even by Russian officials outright (there is already a precedent for that: the DNR cabinet is headed by the former deputy governor of Russia’s Irkutsk region, Vladimir Pashkov).

A merger between the two republics has long been discussed, but local elites reject the idea on various pretexts. Currently there is a border and customs posts between the DNR and the LNR. The republics’ officials fear that their status will be downgraded and they will lose some of their benefits if Russia succeeds in its push to merge the two entities.

In another paradoxical twist, the situation mirrors prewar developments, when the Luhansk and Donetsk elites competed fiercely for local economic and political powers, despite being allies in the Party of Regions. Back then, local leaders saw Luhansk’s possible takeover by the more powerful Donetsk as a disaster.

“Two republics means two leaders, while one big republic means one, and no one wants to lose their place. The Luhansk elites were always weak and lost out to those in Donetsk, and they understand: the sharp-elbowed Donetsk people will come and just devour us,” the former DNR Foreign Ministry official Konstantin Dolgov has said.

There are also problems at the enterprises controlled by Vneshtorgservis, the company affiliated with the fugitive Ukrainian oligarch Serhiy Kurchenko, who previously managed the family finances of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and is now unofficially responsible for the republics’ economies. In 2017, Kurchenko gained control of his fellow oligarch Rinat Akhmetov’s Donbas assets after they were “nationalized” by the LNR and DNR. His management of them has been rapacious and inefficient.

Now Vneshtorgservis has started transferring those assets back to the republics’ balance sheets. Unofficial reports suggest that the Donetsk metallurgical plant and the Yenakiyevo coke and chemicals plant have been returned to the DNR. There are rumors that Kurchenko’s Donbas businesses might be transferred to entities owned by Medvedchuk, which would strengthen the latter’s influence in the region.

Ukrainian security services claim that companies affiliated with Medvedchuk were involved in coal shipments from the LNR and DNR. This was one of the reasons for sanctioning his television channels, which are allegedly financed through business transactions in the separatist territories.

Replacing Kurchenko with Medvedchuk may also have a political dimension: it indicates that Moscow is dispensing entirely with people from former president Yanukovych’s inner circle who have tried to return to Ukrainian politics. Instead, it is investing in Medvedchuk and his Opposition Platform party as the leader of the pro-Russian faction in Ukraine, and President Volodymyr Zelensky’s main opponent.

Integration by Stealth

Although Moscow is unlikely to directly make Donbas part of Russian territory in the foreseeable future, propaganda for integration plays a key role in the republics’ domestic policy. Russian cities are being twinned with those in Donbas, and laws are being changed to model Russian legislation (such as the introduction of a labor code).

The simplified procedure for obtaining Russian citizenship continues to be popular: by January 2021, about 400,000 of the republics’ residents (over 10 percent) had completed the process. At the same time, the authorities are also actively distributing DNR and LNR passports, which make it easier for holders to get Russian citizenship.

Nevertheless, most people still hold Ukrainian passports, raising the issue of loyalty. So far, Ukrainian, republican, and Russian passports are equally recognized, but there are plans to phase out Ukrainian documents by 2025. To accomplish that, the DNR has been working on a citizenship law that will closely resemble those in place in the Russian-backed breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

There are rumors that the republican passport will soon be required to do business or complete real estate transactions. That would really complicate matters for property owners who fled separatist Donbas for Ukraine back in 2014–2015, especially in light of the recent executive order issued by the DNR head Denis Pushilin to transfer “abandoned assets” to the state.

Meanwhile, the republics are trying to distance themselves from Ukraine as much as possible. In the summer of 2020, the previously bilingual DNR and LNR declared Russian the only official language. It’s obvious that these propagandist steps were taken in response to new Ukrainian laws curtailing the use of the Russian language.

Faced with political and economic stagnation, the authorities are trying to shake things up through high-profile propaganda events such as the recent Russian Donbas forum, which featured Russian politicians and propagandist TV stars. The forum saw the presentation of the “Russian Donbas” doctrine, which casts the republics as “Russian national states” that should trigger the unification of other Russian-speaking Ukrainian regions and become “an experimental platform for a Russian future.”

To all intents and purposes, it’s a retouched version of the 2014 “Russian Spring” ideology, whose supporters expected the regions disloyal to the Kyiv government to secede from Ukraine, ultimately creating the Novorossiya confederation and bringing about a national renaissance in Russia itself. But seven years later, the Novorossiya movement has clearly run out of steam, plus there is less money to sponsor such experimental platforms.

In practice, the new doctrine is more of a way to blackmail Kyiv into complying with the Minsk agreements aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine. For instance, paragraph 6 of the doctrine mentions the restoration of the LNR and DNR’s “historical borders” to the pre-conflict territories of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

But the new Russian passport holders would often prefer to live in Russia itself. Moreover, the Russian authorities encourage the arrival of ethnically and culturally similar migrants to replenish the country’s shrinking population. Ukraine remains one of the largest sources of migration to Russia.

This is also true of the republics’ political elite, who are gradually joining the ranks of Russian politicians. The former acting head of the DNR, Dmitry Trapeznikov, was appointed mayor of Elista, while former LNR trade union boss Oleg Akimov is now an aide to the Russian parliamentarian Andrei Kozenko.

The more isolated Russia becomes, the more demand there will be for managers from these “gray territories.” Not only will they be entirely dependent on their patrons, having no real roots in the system, they will also be immune to the temptations of bank accounts and real estate in the West, since they are already subject to sanctions. In other words, they make the ideal loyalists.

What Next?

In spite of the fresh hope sparked by the election of new Kyiv authorities in 2019, the peace process is deadlocked again. Initially under pressure from the nationalist opposition, and now for its own reasons, Zelensky’s administration effectively refuses to accept Donbas on the terms laid out in the Minsk agreements.

Kyiv and the Moscow-backed unrecognized republics are developing unrealistic and mutually exclusive road maps. European intermediaries play an increasingly symbolic role, and the last hopes of resolving the conflict are fading fast.

The reintegration of Donbas into Ukraine—in Moscow’s understanding—is now on hold until some hypothetical pro-Russian government comes to power in Kyiv. This explains Medvedchuk’s newfound strength in the region (his party is the frontrunner in the parts of Donbas still controlled by Ukraine).

The Kremlin continues to optimistically believe that such a turn of events is possible. But despite the Opposition Platform’s triumphant ratings, Ukrainians agree that a pro-Russian party cannot win, and the West supports that position. The lightning-fast decimation of Medvedchuk’s media empire is confirmation of that notion.

Accordingly, Donbas should brace itself for a long time in the role of a Russian military protectorate like Transnistria or South Ossetia. Local elites will have to deal with Moscow’s efforts to optimize the region’s administration, while the people there will see creeping integration of the republics with Russia. From the inside, these changes will be interpreted as restoring order and normalcy.

Strengthening Russia’s positions in the region will allow Moscow to use the DNR and the LNR to exert pressure on Kyiv. Donbas is turning into something of an armored train that the Kremlin is for now keeping in reserve, but which it won’t hesitate to launch on its way should the foreign policy situation require it.

  • Konstantin Skorkin