Roman Lyagin, former head of the Central Electoral Commission of the Donetsk People’s Republic has stated that Russia has recognized documents issued by the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR) militant groups because Russia seeks to bring in migrant workers (what’s commonly known in Russia as “gastarbeiters”). On February 18th, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin signed a decree recognizing documents issued by Russia’s DNR and LNR proxy groups, including birth certificates, diplomas, and passports, until such a time as a political resolution to the crisis in Donbas can be found.
Analysts, journalists, and pundits have offered varying interpretations of Putin’s recognition of DNR/LNR documents. Vitali Portnikov offers the interpretation that the move has the potential to become the prelude to a formal Russian annexation of the occupied territories, but offers Putin room to maneuver: Putin may yet recognize the independence of the DNR/LNR territories, or may refrain from formal recognition. According to Portnikov, none of the above scenarios means that Russia intends to weaken its military position in the Donbas. Indeed, there are signals that Russia intends to at least maintain its military hold over the occupied region of the Donbas, having recently sent its 60th supply convoy there. Deputy Minister for the Temporarily Occupied Territories, and former governor of the Lugansk oblast, Georgiy Tuka, states that Russia’s recognition of DNR/LNR documents is intended to show moral support for the DNR/LNR, while evading legal responsibility for the occupied territories.
A survey carried out by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) found that 59% of Russians do not believe that Russia should diminish its “support” for Donbas in exchange for improved relations with the West or Ukraine. 24% of respondents believed that Russia should recognize the DNR and LNR’s independence from Ukraine (up from 13% in 2014), while 18% were in favor of the “reunification” (Ed: this would be tantamount to an illegal annexation, comparable to what Russia did in Crimea) of the occupied Donbas territories with Russia. 36% of Russians were in favor of non-interference in the situation, while 4% supported Ukraine’s re-establishment of control over the region. Polls from the Donbas region suggest that the population there does not support annexation by Russia, nor autonomy, but desires to remain part of Ukraine.
Lyagin’s interpretation of the Kremlin’s decree attributes even more cynical and shortsighted motives to Putin that do Portnikov and Tuka’s interpretations. He made the following statements:
“[The residents of the DNR/LNR-controlled territories] are needed by Russia as gastarbeiters, not as citizens.”
“[The DNR/LNR documents] are the documents of Russians of a second class. With these documents, we don’t have the opportunity to work, study, or receive medical treatment in Russia. We remain citizens of Ukraine with a practically useless scrap of paper.”
“[Donbas] is being tossed around by Ukraine and Russia like a hot potato. Nobody needs the Donbas because it has lost its economic potential.”
“The Russians of Donbas and of South-Eastern Ukraine are interesting to Russia only as cannon fodder on the nightly news.”
Lyagin believes that Ukraine is unwilling to reintegrate the DNR/LNR territories because they would become a destabilization factor in Ukraine.
All of the above interpretations of Russia’s recognition of the DNR/LNR documents are likely to contain a kernel of truth. As Portnikov suggests, Putin has left himself room to maneuver in Donbas. Putin would prefer to accomplish his political goals in Ukraine (including the annexation of as much Ukrainian territory as practically feasible) through the path of least resistance – this path would entail a combination of political, economic, and military pressure, but the military element would not extend to overt full-scale war. It’s possible that recent political developments, such as the Ukrainian trade blockade in Donbas and a series of statements from members of Trump administration which have caused Russia to question the administration’s ability to permit Russia operational flexibility in Ukraine, have caused Putin to feel pressured to accelerate his program for the annexation of Donbas.
If VCIOM’s polls can be taken as a reliable indicator, a large-enough cross section of Russian society supports continued Russian hostilities in Donbas, that formal Russian recognition of the independence of those regions may be possible in the future. The European Union, as well as successive United States administrations, have not demonstrated a will to seriously increase their sanctions on Russia since the summer of 2014, when Russian forces shot down the MH17 civilian airliner with a BUK missile; the weak response to Russia’s recognition of DNR/LNR documents will give Putin further reason to believe that if Russia were to recognize the autonomy of the DNR/LNR, the worst-case response from the West would likely be the maintenance of the current sanctions regime.
A possible scenario for overt Russian military involvement in the Donbas (as opposed to the current covert mode of Russian military involvement) would be preceded by the recognition of DNR/LNR autonomy. If Russia were to recognize the occupied territories as autonomous, it could precipitate the creation of a legal framework (from the point of view of Russian law) to introduce the Russian army into the region as “peacekeepers,” by “invitation of the DNR and LNR,” of course. If this were to happen, Russia would argue that this is not an invasion of Ukraine (since Russia would no longer recognize these tegions of Donbas as Ukrainian territory), but simply “cooperation with the autonomous republics.” If Russian military units were to overtly operate on the border between the DNR/LNR territory, and Ukrainian-controlled territory, Russia could then launch provocations against the Ukrainian army at will, and when met with a response, launch “counter-attacks” to expand its occupation of Ukrainian lands. The prevalent Russian public interpretation of such events, assisted by Kremlin propaganda media, would be that the Ukrainian army is engaging in hostilities against Russia, which is engaging in “defensive activities.” Of course, this is one possible scenario, and Putin may decide that overt military action in Donbas is not the most practical route to achieve his goals in Ukraine.