In recent days, statements by Russian officials and political scientists have been made about Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Minsk agreements and the integration of the Donbass to Russia. Although these statements, which range from personal analysis or opinions to official statements, are far from being all in agreement, they have the merit of bringing the issue of the official integration of Donbass into Russia back to the forefront of the Russian media scene and to the heart of public discussions.
The gifts of the Russian people
The first statement to have caused much ink to flow was that of the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, concerning the fact that several Soviet republics took historically Russian land with them when the USSR broke up.
In the run-up to the vote on the amendments to the Russian constitution, Vladimir Putin referred to the importance of sovereignty, stressing that the constitution of the USSR provided for the possibility of a republic leaving it, but that nothing had been provided to prevent it from leaving with traditionally Russian territory given to it in Soviet times.
“The question arises: What if a republic was part of the Soviet Union, but received in its “baggage” a huge amount of Russian land, traditional Russian historical territories, and suddenly decided to leave the Union”, said the Russian President. If the constitution had been well designed, “at least it [the above-mentioned republic] would have left with what it brought and not with ‘gifts’ from the Russian people. After all, none of this was specified,” he added.
“This is the time bomb that was planted in 1922 when the Soviet Union was formed,” the Russian President said.
Ukraine is typically one of those republics that emerged from the USSR with a large amount of land that belonged to the Russian empire. As you can see on this map, the whole south-southeast part of Ukraine and the Crimea are Russian lands that were given to Ukraine by the USSR.
The secession of the Crimea and the Donbass after the 2014 coup d’état on the Maidan is precisely because these territories were integrated into a country with which they had no ties or affinity. These territories were Russian, and populated by Russians, who did not feel the least bit Ukrainian. As a result, 100 years later this artificial construction was shattered when the coup d’état that overthrew Yanukovych brought to power extremists who stripped the Russian language of its status as a regional language and demanded that everyone worship Nazi collaborators as national heroes.
Vladimir Putin’s statement so panicked some that his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, had to confirm that “Russia has no territorial claims to its neighbours“.
Already some people in Ukraine see Russian invasions arriving every three days, there with his statement, Vladimir Putin has brought them to the brink of heart attack…
Donbass integration to Russia put back on the table after changes to the Russian constitution
However, it was especially after the vote on the changes to the Russian constitution that the discussion about the possibility of Donbass being part of the Russian Federation get franzy.
According to Vladimir Karasiov, a Russian political scientist, one of the changes to the constitution of the Russian Federation, namely the creation of the concept of “federal territories”, could allow the Donbass to become part of the large neighbouring country.
“Vladimir Putin made a statement about the unjust and wrong departure of the former Soviet republics from the USSR for a reason,” Karasiov said.
The expert recalled that one of the amendments, relating to Article 67, added the concept of “federal territories” to the Russian constitution. These territories would not be subjects of the Russian Federation (such as the various regions, autonomous republics, krai, etc.), and would be established on the basis of a federal law.
“This is the way to return to Russia the Russian lands that have been “taken” by some former Soviet republics. During the negotiations in the Normandy Format, Kiev will receive an ultimatum on the special status of the Donbass. It will not implement them. After the deadline for fulfilling the conditions, a decision will be taken to force Ukraine to make peace”, said Vladimir Karasiov.
It was then that the former Prime Minister of the DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic) Alexander Boroday said at the congress of the Fatherland Party in St. Petersburg that the two Donbass People’s Republics will soon leave Ukraine and be integrated to the Russian Federation in a relatively short time.
“I am sure that within a relatively short period of time the Donbass republics will no longer be a de facto part of the Russian Federation – de facto they are already part of the Russian Federation – but will become de jure part of it,” he said.
For him, the fact that Donbass residents with Russian citizenship were able to vote for or against the amendments to the Russian constitution is an important step in this integration.
And the Fatherland Party is not alone in making such a statement. The “For the Truth” party of Zakhar Prilepin (the writer who fought in Donbass) called for the immediate recognition of the DPR and the LPR (Lugansk People’s Republic) and for a referendum on their integration to the Russian Federation, which should become effective after the vote. Prilepin’s party included the same proposal for Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in its electoral programme.
Finally, for Alexander Khodakovsky, former commander and head of the DPR Security Council, Ukraine will try again in the future to settle the conflict by force and only the official presence of Russian troops in Donbass could serve as a guarantee that there will be no bloodshed, as in Transnistria (moreover for him the Donbass is heading towards a Transnistrian scenario).
The blatant failure of the Minsk agreements
One wonders what is causing this eruption of declarations in favour of the full integration of the two Donbass republics into the Russian Federation (in addition to the recent changes to the Russian constitution) at this very moment. Why the sudden excitement around this issue? Why now?
In addition to the potentialities and clear state-building offered by the changes to the Russian constitution, it seems that it is mainly the developments in the negotiations and implementation of the Minsk agreements that dictate the Russian political agenda regarding the Donbass.
After a year as President, Zelensky has dashed all the hopes that some may have placed in him in Russia. The last few months have seen a flood of statements and actions by Ukrainian officials, which have proved that there is no hope of the Minsk agreements being implemented.
A situation commented on by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, who stressed that the recent meeting of political advisers and assistants in the Normandy Format had shown that “Ukraine has no desire to confirm the Minsk agreements, approved by the UN Security Council“. In other words, despite the request made in June, Ukraine refuses to confirm that it is going to apply the Minsk agreements.
The statements of Ukrainian officials on the non-binding nature of the Minsk agreements, their refusal to implement them in the established order, and their rejection of any direct discussion with the DPR and LPR, seem to have definitively shown Russia that the meagre progress made last year was only a smokescreen aimed at obtaining the December 2019 meeting in Normandy Format, and not proof of Ukraine’s real willingness to implement what it signed.
Moreover, Dmitry Kozak, the deputy head of the Russian President’s administration in charge of Ukraine and the Donbass, said in an interview with TASS that the negotiations with Kiev looked like a theatre of absurdity, and that the hopes placed by Russia in the peaceful resolution of the Donbass conflict have vanished in recent months.
“Until very recently, around the beginning of March, there were cautious hopes for an open and constructive dialogue on all issues of the conflict resolution. In recent months, however, those hopes have been dashed rather quickly,” he said.
In the face of continued procrastination and contradictory statements by Ukrainian officials, and the lack of concrete progress in implementing the Minsk agreements, Russia has become more demanding and has asked Ukraine to stop its prevarication.
“Recently, including at the last meeting in Berlin, we have repeatedly asked our [Ukrainian] colleagues to take an open position: if you do not think it is necessary or if you are not in a position, for one reason or another, to implement any obligation, say so directly. But don’t mislead the world with your continued commitment to the Minsk agreements or, for example, to a “complete, comprehensive and permanent ceasefire”,” Kozak added.
And while Vladimir Putin’s adviser has stated that there is no discussion at the Russian state level about the integration of the DPR and LPR to the Russian Federation, his view of the impact of Ukraine’s potential exit from the Minsk agreements is quite confusing.
“Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Minsk agreements will, of course, be an extraordinary event for all. But it will be a political event, not a natural or man-made disaster, for which a detailed plan of action to eliminate the consequences of such a state of emergency must be prepared in advance. From a political point of view, we will be ready for any developments,” he said.
To put it plainly, if Ukraine leaves the Minsk agreements, it will not be the end of the world, and Russia is ready for that eventuality! A statement that stands in stark contrast to Russia’s constant insistence on the strict application of the Minsk agreements.
The link between the non-implementation of the Minsk agreements and the evolution of Russian discourse was made by the Ukrainian media Strana, which wrote that unless Ukraine starts implementing the political part of the Minsk agreements, Russia will legitimise the DPR and LPR in one form or another after announcing the official death of the signed agreements.
Is this the reason for the sudden slight progress at the last meeting of the trilateral contact group, namely the agreement of Ukraine, the DPR and LPR on two of the articles of the Law on the Special Status of the Donbass?
“We reached a consensus on the content of Articles 2 and 3 of the Law on the Special Status of the Donbass (these articles determine the special procedure of the legislation on the status, as well as the guarantees of prevention of criminal proceedings, prosecution and punishment of persons who participated in the Donbass events – editor). We hope that it will be possible to maintain the positive momentum and continue the article-by-article discussion of this important law for the political settlement,” said Natalya Nikonorova, the DPR Foreign Minister.
One would think so, until one realizes that, at the same time, Ukraine continues to refuse any discussion on the inclusion of this special status in its constitution. Clearly, this slight step forward is, like last year’s signing of the Steinmeier formula, just another smokescreen to make people believe that Kiev really wants to apply the Minsk agreements, in order to obtain a new meeting in the Normandy Format, which Ukraine and especially Zelensky (whose approval rating has fallen down) desperately need media-wise.
Besides, Dmitry Kozak has showered Ukraine’s wishful thinking concerning the possible organization of a summit in Normandy Format in August, recalling that there is no reason for that for the moment, since the decisions of the previous summit have still not been implemented.
He also said that, faced with the waste of time constituted by these endless negotiations which are turning into a theatre of the absurd, he sometimes wanted to bang his fist on the table. A statement that contrasts sharply with Kozak’s very diplomatic character, and which seems to confirm the impression that Russian patience seems to have run out after five years of “theatre of absurdity” and sterile negotiations.
In any case, this toughening of statements by Russian officials should alert Ukraine and push it to stop this circus. As Kozak said, if they are unwilling or unable to apply the Minsk agreements, then let them say so frankly and let us stop once and for all this theatre of absurdity that continues to kill people in the Donbass every day. For if Russia’s patience is very great, it is not infinite, and as the proverb says, “русский мужик долго запрягает, да быстро едет” (which could be translated as “Russian man takes a long time to set off [because he prepares himself for a long time], but then he goes fast“).
When Russian patience is totally exhausted, the paradigm shift regarding the Donbass conflict and the degree of Russian recognition and integration of the two republics may well be brutal and surprise both Ukraine and its Western bosses.
As another proverb puts it, “the jugr goes so far in the water, that in the end it breaks”. It will not be once Russia has changed its paradigm regarding the DPR and LPR that we will have to cry about what should have been done to prevent it. It will be too late, the jug will be broken, and Kiev and its bosses will be left to ponder what they should have done and did not do.