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We still need a more realistic approach to the issue of Donbas de-occupation

Learning from the reunification experience of Germany, economic development and improving democratic institutions in Ukraine could be crucial in raising the prospects of returning the Donbas.

October 19, 2020 - Maksym Khylko - Articles and Commentary

Ukrainian tank during an exhibition in Kyiv in October 2015. Photo: Maksym Khylko

While commemorating the 30th anniversary of German reunification, it is worth remembering that it’s possible the world would not know today’s Germany as a pillar of the EU and NATO if in the early 1950s Western powers succumbed to Moscow’s deceptive proposals, also known as “Stalin’s Note,” on Germany reunification. The stated conditions of neutrality actually meant imposing limitations on the country’s foreign policy. Moscow also tried to lure the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) into direct negotiations with the puppet government of the Soviet-occupied German Democratic Republic (GDR), while refusing to create conditions for truly free and transparent elections in the latter.

Western Germany avoided walking into the Kremlin’s trap. Three years later, in 1955, the FRG became a NATO member and in 1957, along with Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, the FRG signed the Treaty of Rome, which created the European Economic Community and established a customs union, a prototype of the future European Union. Eventually, in 1990, the economically-weakened USSR agreed to German reunification, failing to impose any restrictions on Germany’s sovereign rights in its foreign policy.

Despite all the differences in the situations in Germany then and Ukraine today, it is worth remembering the German experience, bearing in mind the heredity of the Kremlin’s methods, especially given Vladimir Putin’s positive assessments of Joseph Stalin’s foreign policy.

The Kremlin’s “territory in exchange for sovereignty” formula

Today, Moscow insists on establishing direct negotiations between Ukraine and the Russian-backed puppet governments in the occupied territories of Donbas, and on providing special status to these areas that would limit Ukraine’s sovereignty. Actually, it is a “territory in exchange for sovereignty” formula, implementation of which would provide Moscow with additional leverage to destabilise the Ukrainian state and block reforms, as well as European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

We must once and for all say goodbye to the illusions of possible compromise with Russia’s current leadership as long as the latter is convinced that the continuation of the conflict is in line with the neo-imperial interpretation of Russia’s strategic goals and the personal motives of its autocratic ruling regime.

Russia believes it needs Ukraine to restore its global power status. Moscow’s attempt to increase its own geopolitical weights by establishing the Eurasian Economic Union can succeed only in the case of Ukraine’s participation, leading Russian experts have claimed. In February 2020, Putin said that “any unification of Russia and Ukraine, of their capabilities and competitive advantages, would create a global competitor, in Europe and in the world.” Having occupied part of Ukrainian territory since 2014, Moscow still hopes to block Ukraine’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration and someday be able to force Ukraine to agree to Russian integration projects.

Kremlin strategists are still thinking in terms of “spheres of influence,” and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was in line with this vision. Russia militarised the occupied Crimean Peninsula to use it as a strategic springboard for projecting Russian power in the Black Sea region and the Middle East.

Besides, the Kremlin’s autocratic ruling regime simply cannot allow an independent pro-European democratic Ukraine to succeed, fearing that this example would inspire Russian society.

Therefore, Russia will not stop waging its hybrid war against Ukraine, which is aimed at eroding its sovereignty and stability, bleeding the country’s economy and distracting it from reforms. A change in Moscow’s position would become possible with a change in the balance of power in the region or a power transition towards more democratic leadership in Russia.

The stronger Ukraine, the more prospects to return the territories

First, we should be more realistic and prepare for life under the circumstances of long-term confrontation with Russia. We have not chosen it, but we cannot prevent it given that capitulation is not an option.

We should be aware that Russia’s ultimate goal is neither Crimea, nor Donbas, but the whole of Ukraine. Therefore, we should be very cautious about Russia’s deceptive proposals within the “territory in exchange for sovereignty” formula – they all would eventually lead to loosing statehood.

Without abandoning attempts to achieve a peaceful settlement through negotiations, we must focus our efforts on preserving and strengthening Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty.

This envisages further increasing efforts to strengthen Ukraine’s defense capabilities, including modernisation of the whole security and defense sector, implementation of NATO standards, expanding cooperation with international partners, developing territorial defense, providing the Armed Forces with new and modernised weapons and investing in the training and social welfare of military personnel.

Together with its Western partners, Ukraine should consider a severe sanctions package to keep on the table and prepare to impose it immediately in case Russia escalates hostilities.

It is a well-known fact that weakness and unpreparedness to fight back provoke Moscow’s aggression. Therefore, we should be prepared and resolute to make it clear to the Kremlin that expected losses from any further escalation will exceed the possible gains.

The humanitarian dimension of security should also be a priority, focusing on efforts to provide international humanitarian organisations access to the occupied territories, release all illegally detained citizens, implement humanitarian demining in the conflict zone, ensure rights and freedoms, as well as social standards for the internally displaced persons and those who continue to live in the occupied territories, maintain mental connection with Ukrainian citizens on the other side of the contact line and take effective measures to counter Russian propaganda.

It is important to elaborate on this, together with our international partners, and to widely publicly present a comprehensive plan of reconstruction and effective reintegration of the occupied territories. This should include large investment projects, job creation, infrastructure reconstruction, solving environmental problems, creating a system of effective local self-government and equipping local communities with widespread citizen involvement in the management of local affairs. It is important to show people in the occupied territories what awaits them after the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty.

Going back to the historical parallel, it is worth noting that the reunification of Germany was preceded by the German “economic miracle,” in which the FRG became one of the world leaders in quality of life, which was an important stimulus for GDR inhabitants. A stagnant economy, troubled justice system and mass emigration are hardly the most attractive picture with which inhabitants of the temporarily occupied territories would like to associate their future.

Ukraine urgently needs effective reforms to achieve positive gains in economic development, substantially increase living standards and improve democratic institutions and the rule of law. We should build a country people would love to return to and live in.

Economic development is also important with the goal of increasing Ukraine’s capacities of rebuilding Donbas after its de-occupation. The infrastructure of the region has been largely destroyed during the Russian aggression. The equipment of some plants has been moved to Russia and some has been cut into scrap metal. Furthermore, dozens of coal mines are flooded. Reconstruction of Donbas will require, according to various estimates, dozens to hundreds of billions of US dollars, and we should be realistic in our expectations for international assistance. Most likely, the main economic burden of Donbas reconstruction will fall on Ukraine itself, and we will need a strong economy to withstand this burden.

Russia will be forced to withdraw from the occupied territories when it is convinced that it’s no longer possible to return Ukraine to its sphere of influence, and that further occupation of the Ukrainian territories is futile and unjustifiably expensive. Ukraine’s task is to bring this moment closer by strengthening our independence, sovereignty and resilience through reforms to build a strong security and defense sector, growing economy, high living standards, effective democracy and working legal institutions.

Maksym Khylko is the Chairman of the Board at the East European Security Research Initiative Foundation, a Kyiv-based think tank. He holds a PhD in Philosophy and Master’s degree in International Relations. He tweets @MaksymKhylko.

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