Eastern Ukraine: Is reintegration still a realistic prospect?

Eastern Ukraine: Is reintegration still a realistic prospect?

On 24 April, Russia signed a decree allowing residents of rebel-controlled areas of Eastern Ukraine to apply for Russian passports. This was the latest in a series of steps making the reintegration of the Donbass less likely.

Growing Russian influence

Since the conflict in Eastern Ukraine broke out in 2014, Russia has reportedly financed and armed the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, known collectively as Donbass. Crimea’s Annexation in March 2014 through a suspect referendum, offers a model for how Donbass accomplish their ultimate goal of uniting with Russia.

Although Russia is not annexing the territories in a formal sense, it is doing so in a literal sense. Russian institutions have steadily been replacing the Ukrainian authorities. In 2017, Russia began recognizing identity documents issued in the breakaway regions. The Russian Ruble has replaced the Ukrainian Hryvnia as the accepted currency. Moscow even allegedly pays for some of the pensions and civil service salaries. On 24th April Russia offered a fast-track application process for Russian passports to all inhabitants of the Donbass.

This process of undermining and replacing Ukrainian institutions will make the reintegration of the Donbass into Ukraine very difficult. The longer the areas are under rebel control, the more acclimatised its inhabitants will become to living under Russian rule. While the Donbass may not be fully integrated into Russia like Crimea, it is rapidly transforming into a Russian colony. Ukraine’s sovereignty over the Donbass is fast becoming merely symbolic, as its people’s interact so little with the Ukrainian state.

Parallel institutions: an effective tactic

This method of replacing existing institutions with Russian equivalents has already proven to be effective. For example, in Crimea, Ukraine’s pension fund illegally cooperates with Russian authorities to ascertain whether people are receiving pensions from both Ukraine and Russia. The agency thereby recognises Russia’s occupation as somewhat legitimate, despite Ukraine’s government not accepting Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea.

Encouraging the independence of breakaway territories so that they can pursue close ties with Russia is now a well-worn strategy. Russia has previously exhibited the same policy in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which both declared independence from Georgia in the 1990s. Russia has also overseen the frozen conflict in Transnistria, an area of Moldova, formerly part of the U.S.S.R., which Soviet troops never left.

Transnistria has its own currency, still uses Soviet symbols, and asked to join Russia in 2014. Abkhazia and South Ossetia use the Russian rouble and Moscow issues passports to their inhabitants. Russian military support means that any attempt by Georgia or Moldova to reclaim the territories would advocate significant military confrontation. Since 1990, Moldova has refrained from using military force. The Georgian military was defeated in 2008 when they fought Russian, Abkhaz and South Osssetian forces. These regions have remained firmly out of the control of their sovereign states for years; making independence a practical reality despite lacking legal recognition. The same process is underway in the Donbass.

The Kosovo comparison

Russia has yet another example to follow: Kosovo. Putin himself has publicly justified the annexation of Crimea by invoking Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. Kosovo’s move towards independence was also marked by the development of parallel institutions in the 1990s that bypassed the Yugoslav and Serbian states, including a separate government and education system funded by the Kosovar Albanian diaspora. A declaration of independence in 1992 was only accepted by Albania. However, in 2008, after years of international administration had distanced it from Serbia, a new declaration of independence gained significant recognition.

The example of Kosovo does not bode well for Ukraine’s hopes of reintegrating the Donbass. Kosovo, with significant support from the USA and EU, has become functionally independent of Serbia. This is despite neither Serbia nor the UN recognising it as a state. Serbia’s control over its former province has been reduced to exerting major diplomatic efforts to block Kosovo’s membership of international institutions and persuading less prominent countries with nothing at stake in the matter to revoke their recognition of Kosovo’s statehood. Kosovo now has an internationally recognised football team and even competes in the Olympics. As such, Kosovo ever being fully reintegrated back into Serbia is fanciful.

Of course, the example of Kosovo is not applicable to every aspect of Eastern Ukraine. The support of the USA and EU has secured far more international recognition than the rebel republics in Ukraine can expect as a result of Russian backing. Nevertheless, this modern model of gaining de facto independence prior to legal recognition informs Russia’s strategy in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and now in the Donbass.


Kosovo shows that the development of parallel institutions can mark the beginning of gradual separation from a state. The longer Eastern Ukraine is free of Ukrainian control, the more difficult it will be to reintegrate the area. It already looks to be an extremely difficult task.

The growing separation of the Donbass from the Ukrainian state puts the rebels in a strong negotiating position with Ukraine. They will not give up control of their territories easily, especially if Russia continues to support them. Thus, Ukraine would likely have to concede a large degree of self-government to the rebel territories to incentivise rejoining Ukraine. Relations with the Russian population residing there will have been damaged by Ukraine’s nationalistic response to the crisis, such as the new language law that enforces the sole use of Ukrainian across the whole of the country, including majority Russian-speaking areas. The recent split of the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches will further divide the pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian communities.

Russian military support for the rebels means that any reintegration is unlikely to become a possibility without a serious military confrontation. Ukraine has so far refrained from a full-scale military invasion of the separatist areas, fearing war with Russia. As such, Eastern Ukraine looks to be on the same path as Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a long-term, unresolved, frozen conflict.

It seems likely that this state of affairs could last for years to come. Ukraine would then face the same fate as Serbia over Kosovo, constantly appealing to international standards and resolutions that have been rendered irrelevant by the facts on the ground. The Donbass could remain an integral part of Ukraine on paper for the foreseeable future, but the re-imposition of Ukrainian government control is looking increasingly distant.

Categories: Europe, Insights

About Author

Luke Bacigalupo

Luke Bacigalupo is a political analyst currently based in Belgrade, Serbia. He holds degrees in South Eastern European Studies and Modern History from the University of Belgrade and the University of Oxford, respectively. He has previously worked as a political reporter at the Office of the EU Special Representative in Kosovo and at UNDP in Serbia.