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Re-Imagining and Solving the Donbas Conflict: A Four-Stage Plan for Western and Ukrainian Actors

Re-Imagining and Solving the Donbas Conflict: A Four-Stage Plan for Western and Ukrainian Actors

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Since spring 2014, Ukraine suffers from a full-scale war in the Donets Basin (Donbas). For the solution of the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation, Western and Ukrainian political analysts, opinion- and policy-makers, civic activists as well as diplomats need to jointly implement an agenda of re-imagination, prioritization, pacification and re-integration. The Donbas conflict should be understood anew, approached differently, engaged with directly, and solved sustainably. It should start with clearer communication of the stakes of the Ukraine Crisis for the EU. Resulting tighter economic and individual sanctions should be accompanied with positive offers to a post-imperial Russia. For a transition period, the Donbas should be put under the control of an international administration and UN peacekeeping forces. Finally, Ukraine and the West need to find a way to secure sufficient central control over a reintegrated Donbas while formally implementing the Minsk Agreements’ political parts.

Phase One: Re-Imagination  

A communication campaign should address a widespread misperception that today’s Donbas confrontation is comparable to older territorial disputes in such “failed states” as Georgia, Azerbaijan or Moldova. The ongoing war’s repercussions beyond Eastern Ukraine demand public clarification. The Donbas war needs to become perceived as a hot conflict putting under question Europe’s security system as long as one of the largest European states remains on the brink of collapse.

The prime reasons for this risk are neither the current domestic political tensions nor grave economic difficulties of Ukraine. During the break-up of the USSR in 1989-1991, “Ukraine without Kuchma” protests of 2000-2001, Orange Revolution in 2004, or Euromaidan uprising in 2013-2014, Ukraine was shattered by tremendous upheavals. Yet, none of these conflicts seriously endangered the Ukrainian republic’s integrity. Ukraine’s economic situation throughout the 1990s or during the Great Recession of 2008-2010 was as difficult as – or more so than – today. Yet, neither of these two deep economic Ukrainian dives threatened European security.

While being laudable by itself, the West’s large-scale financial help and developmental support for Ukraine is sometimes misconceived as a (if not the) major instrument to solve the Ukraine Crisis. Yet, even graver earlier political and economic domestic dislocations in Ukraine’s recent past did not threaten the stability of its state. Western help for Ukraine should continue but not any longer be misunderstood as a substitute for actually solving the Donbas conflict.

Moscow’s shrewd combination of crude military and seditious non-military methods (“hybrid war”) is meant to subvert Ukraine as a socio-political community. The Kremlin’s premier instrument for achieving this aim is to keep the Donbas as an open bleeding wound that will eventually cause Ukraine’s state to implode. A seemingly domestic Ukrainian collapse can then be used by the Kremlin to demonstrate to Russia’s population the impotence of European integration and foolishness of post-Soviet democratization.

While this is a rational strategy in terms of short-term Russian regime stability, it is hazardous enterprise. Western public opinion shapers need to communicate better why and how Ukraine’s possible future collapse entails transnational risks. For instance, possible millions of Ukrainian refugees would be flowing into the EU. In a worst-case scenario, a malfunctioning of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhia, less than 300 miles away from the current war zone, would have repercussions worse than those of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. A public narrative emphasizing European states’ national interest in Ukrainian stability needs to replace currently widespread externalization of the Donbas war as a sad, but far away conflict with few direct implications for the EU.

Phase Two: Prioritization

A novel understanding of the all-European relevance of the Donbas war should lead the EU to put its solution higher on its foreign policy agenda, and closer in the immediate future. The current sanctions regime is not trivial, yet malapportioned. According to research results of Moscow’s Skolkovo School of Management, EU sanctions “are capable of jeopardizing Russia’s production of gas and, particularly, oil in the future.” The underlying assumption of Brussels’s approach is that strategic patriotism guides Moscow’s decision making. The West hopes that future income losses for the Russian state will lead the Kremlin to modify already today its policies towards Ukraine. Yet, the logic of Moscow’s approach to secure domestic regime stability may be different. A soon collapse of the Ukrainian state resulting from successful hybrid war – above all, in the Donbas – can be sufficient to compensate for negative political repercussions of declining future energy exports.

In other words, the West needs to more explicitly address the figurative race between domestic effects on Russia of, on the one side, Western sanctions, and, on the other side, Ukrainian destruction. If Ukraine’s negative example demonstrates in time to Russia’s population that democratization leads to suffering and chaos, the Putin System can absorb a later decline of Russian living standards that results from the EU’s current sanctions. While a poorer future Russian state may be bad, it may still be seen as better than a democratizing Russia that risks ending up in a Ukraine-like collapse. Putin’s regime will, according to this supposition, prevail in spite of notable future EU sanctions effects.

In order to counter-act this scenario, the West should develop a tougher combination of carrots and sticks. First, sanctions need to be modified so as to generate earlier effects. Among others, Russian access to Western financial markets should be further reduced, and the building of the Nord Stream II pipeline be frozen. Second, the Putin system’s integrity should be shattered via additional measures against government officials and so-called “oligarchs.” The freedom the regime’s major stake-holders (as well as their immediate family members) should be further restricted to generate more intra-systemic dissatisfaction.

Third, a forward-looking vision for improved post-conflict Russian-Western relations should be communicated throughout Russia. Western positive offers to a future less aggressive Moscow could include joint energy projects or a free-trade zone between the Eurasian and European unions. Western awards to Russia for even more comprehensive solutions to all disputed territorial conflicts from Transnistria over Crimea to South Ossetia could include an Association Agreement (including a DCFTA) with the EU, visa-free regime with the Schengen Zone, and Membership Action Plan with NATO. Think-tanks and NGOs should communicate such ideas within the Western public. After they become widely known, national governments and international organizations (EU, NATO) could be encouraged, by interested parliamentarians, intellectuals et al., to voice such proposals for a hypothetical Euro-Atlantic integration of Russia in meetings with Russian governmental and non-governmental actors. The offers should be made officially, explicitly and repeatedly to feed societal pressure for a change in Russia’s foreign political course.

Phase Three: Pacification

Once Moscow takes a more compromising position, practical solution of the Donbas conflict can start. Western experts, diplomats and politicians should thus explore the future financing, mandate and shape of an international peacebuilding operation across the entire Eastern Donbas. A temporary third-party intervention would provide a transitional stage between Moscow’s current crypto-occupation and the seized territories’ subsequent return under Kyiv control. A UN mission with up to 30,000 peacekeepers, as the core element of such an operation, could serve the Kremlin as a face-saving mechanism. Moscow would, in the UNSC, have to be approve employment of a multinational force in the Donets Basin, and could present this to the Russian public as Putin’s peace initiative.

In combination with OSCE observer and EU civil missions as well as in cooperation with the Ukrainian state, the UN troop’s primary task would be to provide for demilitarization, disarmament, demining, re-reset of local self-governance, media freedom, return of IDPs, creation of a new police force, observance of civil and political rights, as well as preparation of local elections. Armed UN detachments would have to come from non-NATO and non-CSTO countries to preempt accusations of instrumentalization. Andrej Novak (2014), Oleksiy Melnyk with Andreas Umland (2016), the International Crisis Group, Richard Gowan and Andrey Kortunov (2017), or, more recently, Alexander Vershbow, Vitalii Kulyk with Maria Kucherenko and Liana Fix with Dominik Jankowski (2018) have, among others, discussed various additional challenges of such a scheme. International developmental organizations (World Bank, UNDP, EBRD, USAID, GIZ, DFID, SIDA etc.) should become active in the occupied territories as soon as an improved security situation permits.

Phase Four: Reintegration

The principal issue for the restoration of the currently occupied territories as parts of the Ukrainian state, after transitional international administration, are the political provisions of the Minsk Agreements.

They include demands for a constitutional reform, a special “law on interim local self-government,” the creation of “people’s police units” as well as other prescriptions intended by the Kremlin to infringe upon Ukraine’s political sovereignty. In February 2015, the signed text of the so-called Minsk II Agreement had been largely pre-formulated by the Kremlin. Nevertheless, most of Moscow’s formulations were accepted by Ukraine, Germany and France under the impression of a Russia-led and victim rich military offensive by the separatists conducted concurrently with the Minsk negotiations.

Ukraine’s major stakeholders (MPs, parties, opinion-leaders etc.) reject today the 2015 agreements’ political parts. Western and Ukrainian politicians, diplomats and experts thus need to discuss, already today, a future way out of this deadlock. A possible trick to do so would be a joint Ukrainian-Western re-interpretation of the Minsk Agreements’ emphasis on exceptional standing of the Donbas. A new reading of the Minsk II’s call for a “special status” of the Donbas could mean future stronger rather than weaker control over the currently occupied territories, by Kyiv.

To be sure, the Kremlin’s goal, with Minsk II, was to increase the Donbas’s official independence, and Russia’s unofficial influence there. Yet, Ukrainian and Western diplomats could agree upon turning this purpose of the Agreement text on its head while still formally fulfilling its prescriptions. A future Ukrainian law on the Donbas could indeed proclaim a “special status” for the currently occupied territories. Yet it could, for instance, increase the power of the Luhansk and Donetsk prefects. The new political offices are envisaged by the constitutional reform in connection with Ukraine’s ongoing decentralization which, in turn, is explicitly mentioned in the Minsk Agreements. While these prefects had been originally designed to fulfill supervisory functions in a decentralized Ukraine, their prerogatives could, for the Donbas, be extended to that of temporary presidential governors within the framework of a regional interim regime. The National Guard – not mentioned at all in the Minsk Agreements – could, in a future Donbas law, be granted additional rights and obligations on the currently occupied territories. Similar further provisions could be included in a future Donbas law in order to make a constitutional reform acceptable or even desirable to the Verkhovna Rada.

Concluding Remark

This four-stage plan will hardly be to the liking of the Kremlin. If implemented consistently, it could still force Moscow to go along with it. Tightening Western sanctions will eventually lead Putin’s entourage to assent to an international administration of the Donbas, as the least embarrassing way out. Once UN troops have arrived, Kyiv could start gradually implementing a reintegration plan that does not violate the Minsk Agreements’ text, yet still re-establishes proper Ukrainian control over the Donets Basin. Only this end result will constitute a sustainable solution to the conflict.



Andreas Umland

Andreas Umland, Dr.Phil. (FU Berlin), Ph.D. (Cambridge), is a Research Fellow at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Senior Expert at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv, and Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He has held fellow- & lectureships at Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Urals State University, Shevchenko University of Kyiv, and Catholic University of Eichstaett. He is also General Editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" ( and on the Boards of Directors of the International Association for Comparative Fascist Studies (, Boris Nemtsov Academic Center for the Study of Russia ( as well as German-Ukrainian NGO "Kyiv Dialogue" (

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