King’s College London
// Pathways to Peace and Security. 2022. No 1(62) Special Issue: Peace Processes, Violence, and De Facto States. P. 92-106
Abstract. In order to better understand the new phase of the war in and around Donbass that started in February 2022, the article suggests looking back at the “interwar” period in the region. This period is analyzed through the prism of a combination of three interpretations of the conflict – as an irredentist movement to join the “historical homeland” which the region had been “separated from”, as a civil conflict for a different (multiethnic, multilingual, more decentralized) Ukraine, better disposed towards the aspirations of the people of Donbass, and as an international geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West. All three interpretations are seen as valid.
In 2014–2022, self-proclaimed republics (the DNR and the LNR) went through the stages of their formation in the context of a historical cataclysm, early postconflict development when their economic and social life was still oriented towards Ukraine, the cut-off stage resulting from a strict economic blockade by Kiev, and the concluding period of creeping integration into Russia. The article specifically addresses the limbo phase that lasted from 2016 to early 2022. While this phase brought a greater level of security that allowed life in the DNR and the LNR to go on, security was brittle and prone to significant disruption. However, in both security and socio-political terms, the worst was the sense of a lack of clarity about the entities’ future, with three scenarios circulated by politicians at once: return to Ukraine on the basis of the Minsk agreements, joining Russia, and building up their own “statehood”.
The Minsk Agreements that were initially viewed positively, as they reduced the level of hostilities, progressively lost their value. Special status was not what the war had been fought for and it remained an amorphous and abstract idea, which the years that passed since failed to fill with practical content. Balancing on the verge of renewal of hostilities necessitated the resources that the two republics did not have, which locked them into dependency on the Russian government. While the republics survived as self-governing entities with a political and cultural proximity to Russia and established proto-state institutions, they also experienced governance deficit and economic decline. By the early 2020s, any illusions of the two republics’ independent agency evaporated. What started as a people’s rebellion, when the region asserted its right to make choices and act upon them, came to the situation that their future was to be determined elsewhere. This future seemed to clear up since Russia’s formal recognition of the DNR and the LNR and the start of Russian military operation in Ukraine in 2022, but its contours lie beyond the article’s scope.
Keywords: Donbass, Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR), armed conflict, peace process, Ukraine, Russia
Anna Matveeva – Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the King’s College, London.
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