With Russia’s recognition of the independence of the self-proclaimed DPR and LPR, the Ukrainian crisis does not end, but enters a new, perhaps even more acute phase. Donetsk and Luhansk may raise the issue of restoring their territorial integrity within the administrative boundaries of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, most of which are under the control of Kiev. And to help them in this, except for Moscow, there is no one to ask.
President Vladimir Putin on the evening of February 21 announced that he had decided to recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR). The statement was preceded by an almost hour-long speech by Mr. Putin on the air of federal channels. And it sounded ominous. The Russian leader noted that if Ukraine has weapons of mass destruction, then “the situation in the world, in Europe, especially for us, for Russia, will change in the most radical way.”
It was a response to statements by the Ukrainian authorities that Kiev might reconsider the renunciation of nuclear weapons. Mr. Putin recalled the tragedy in the Odessa House of Trade Unions in 2014, promising to punish those responsible and bring them to justice. Separately, he spoke about Kiev’s relations with NATO. According to Vladimir Putin, “the command and control system of the Ukrainian troops is already integrated with NATO”, and “this means that the command of the Ukrainian armed forces, even individual units and subunits, can be directly carried out from NATO headquarters.”
After listing the claims against the West and the Kiev authorities, and also noting that Russia had done everything to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine, the President of the Russian Federation said: “I consider it necessary to make a long overdue decision to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic.”
He asked the Federation Council, whose unscheduled meeting will be held on February 22, to approve the agreements “On Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance” with the republics of Donbass. According to Mr. Putin, they will be ratified in the near future. Most likely, this will happen on Tuesday.
After Mr. Putin’s speech, Russian state channels broadcast his meeting with the leaders of the now partially recognized DPR and LPR, Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik. Under them, the President of the Russian Federation signed decrees on the recognition of the two republics, and then the agreements “On Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance” were signed.
The signed documents are almost identical to similar agreements with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were signed in September 2008 after the war between Russia and Georgia and the subsequent recognition of the independence of these republics by Moscow. They have a military component, up to the construction of military bases. In Art. 4, for example, states that “the contracting parties will jointly take all measures available to them to eliminate the threat to the peace, violation of the peace, as well as to counteract acts of aggression against them by any state or group of states and provide each other with the necessary assistance, including military.” And Art. Article 5 states: “For the purpose of ensuring security, each of the contracting parties will grant the other contracting party the right to build, use and improve by its armed forces military infrastructure and military bases (objects) on its territory.”
Before announcing the final decision, the Russian leader held an expanded meeting of the Security Council, hearing the heads of the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Defense, the FSB, the Foreign Intelligence Service, the speakers of the State Duma and the Federation Council (for more details, see the material). The discussion was shown by Russian TV channels. None of its participants spoke out against the idea of recognizing the independence of the territories that broke away from Ukraine.
The denouement was preceded by Moscow’s attempts to force Kiev to ensure that the uncontrolled territories of Donbass – certain areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions (ORDLO) – return to Ukraine in strict accordance with the Minsk agreements. The issue was raised during all the foreign policy contacts of Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with Western interlocutors. The intensity of such contacts increased sharply after Russia demanded legal security guarantees from the US and NATO late last year.
Although the Russian side stated that the implementation of Minsk should not be considered in the context of this negotiating track with the collective West, the Ukrainian accent was clear. Vladimir Putin has been stubbornly repeating over the past few months that the “military development” of Ukraine by the North Atlantic Alliance, and even more so its membership in NATO, is a direct threat to Moscow. In particular, because the doctrinal documents of Ukraine stipulate the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity, including the return of Crimea by all possible means, including military.
It should be noted that the “Strategy for the De-occupation and Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Crimea”, approved in March 2021 by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, really states that Kiev will take measures of “diplomatic, military, economic, informational, humanitarian and other nature” to return the peninsula. According to Mr. Putin, Ukraine’s membership in NATO could turn into a war between Russia and NATO. “If Ukraine joins NATO and takes Crimea back militarily, European countries will automatically be drawn into a military conflict with Russia,” Mr. Putin said at a joint press conference with French leader Emmanuel Macron in the Kremlin on February 8.
Attempts by the West, including Mr. Macron, to somehow influence Kiev on the implementation of the Minsk agreements did not lead to anything. According to a Kommersant source in Russian government agencies, informed about the Russian-French talks at the highest level, Emmanuel Macron told Putin that he intended to convince Vladimir Zelensky of the need for a neutral status for Ukraine and the implementation of Minsk. But the Ukrainian side refused any concessions.
This was confirmed during the talks between political advisers to the leaders of the Normandy Format countries (Germany, Russia, Ukraine, France), which took place on February 11 in Berlin and ended in failure. Kiev flatly refused to comply with the Minsk agreements in their current form and grant the ORDLO a special status within Ukraine.
After that, the Russian side made all the formal preparations for Russia’s recognition of the independence of the two self-proclaimed republics of Donbass. On February 15, the State Duma turned to the President of the Russian Federation with a request for their recognition. Then, against the backdrop of a sharp escalation in the Donbass that began on February 18, the leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik asked for recognition.
It is noteworthy that even when the State Duma began to discuss the independence of the DPR and LPR, the press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Peskov admitted that it “does not correlate with the Minsk agreements.” “It really is,” he said at the time.
Samuel Charap, a senior researcher at the RAND Research Corporation (Washington), in an interview with Kommersant noted that this is not only a violation of the Minsk agreements, “but also a violation of UN Security Council resolution No. 2202, which was adopted in support of these agreements.”
One way or another, but on February 22 unscheduled meetings of both chambers of the Russian parliament will be held. They appeared in the schedules of the State Duma and the Federation Council last week. Holding meetings of both chambers of parliament on the same day will allow organizing the most prompt ratification of agreements with the DPR and LPR. According to the law “On International Treaties of the Russian Federation”, if the decision to sign such documents is made by the president, then he also submits them to the State Duma for ratification. After a preliminary discussion in the relevant committees, the Duma ratifies the treaties and sends them to the Federation Council.
Similarly, everything was formalized in 2008 after a five-day military operation to force Georgia to peace.
Donbass without borders
The international reaction to the Kremlin’s decision was immediate. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Vladimir Putin’s decision “an obvious violation of international law, a flagrant violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
“This is a rejection of the Minsk process and the Minsk agreements. I think this is a bad omen and a very gloomy signal,” he said.
The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the head of the European Council, Charles Michel, criticized Russia’s decision. “The recognition of two separatist territories in Ukraine is a flagrant violation of international law, the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the Minsk agreements. The EU and its partners will respond with unity, firmness and determination in solidarity (with Ukraine.— “b”),” they said.
France called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. A number of Western countries spoke in favor of the urgent imposition of sanctions against Russia.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Moscow’s decision was expected by Washington. According to her, US President Joe Biden will soon issue an executive order prohibiting new investment, trade and funding by American persons in relation to the DPR and LPR. In addition, additional measures have been announced “related to Russia’s gross violation of its international obligations.”
“To be clear, these measures are separate from the swift and harsh economic measures that we are preparing in coordination with allies and partners in the event of further Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Ms. Psaki said.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul wrote on Twitter: “The West must respond immediately to another Putin takeover of part of Ukrainian territory. We cannot allow powerful countries to change borders at will.”
Meanwhile, there are reasons to believe that the crisis will not end with the recognition of the DPR and LPR. The constitutions of both republics contain carbon-copied articles with the same number – 54. In the case of the DPR, this article reads: “The territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic is determined by the borders that existed on the day of its formation.” The constitution of the LPR says: “The territory of the Luhansk People’s Republic is determined by the borders that existed on the day of its formation.” Thus, Donetsk and Luhansk can, referring to their basic laws, raise the issue of restoring their territorial integrity. If this is done after the signing of agreements with Moscow, the only country that can help them will be Russia.
Such a scenario was allowed by the interlocutor of Kommersant in one of the republics of Donbass, who asked for anonymity. At the same time, Andrey Klimov, deputy chairman of the Federation Council Committee on International Affairs, said on Rossiya 24 that the Russian Federation recognizes the LPR and DPR within the borders that are now actually established. “We are talking, of course, about those territories that are within the boundaries established today. Everything else is beyond the scope of legal actions,” the senator assured. On the other hand, Dmitry Peskov also recently said that the recognition of independence does not correlate with the Minsk agreements.