One year after Russia’s incorporation of Crimea, the Donbas is close to becoming a frozen conflict within Ukraine’s border. To prevent the further disintegration of Ukraine, the West first needs to understand how the Ukrainian crisis started and why it persists today.

The struggle for the strategic rail hub, Debaltsevo left the town in ruins and became one of the darkest pages in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has already killed more than 6,000 people. Photo: AP

Ukraine’s borders and the indivisibility of its territory is a highly discussed issue today in the context of the tragic events taking place in the Donbas region. Even one year after the incorporation of Crimea, the true reasons for hostilities continuing in Eastern Ukraine are not always easy to discern. There is an obvious conflict of interests, as clearly seen by comparing the statements made by Russian and Ukrainian opinion-makers, as well as by publications of political analysts on both sides.  

But what are the real origins for this conflict of interests?

What should be analyzed are the root causes of the Ukrainian crisis, which started more than a year ago. It still remains an open question for international observers as to the role of Ukraine’s domestic policy with regard to the conflict. To understand the internal problems of any state, it is necessary to live at least for some time in the country, to communicate with everyday people and to compare different sources of information. It is hardly possible to analyze objectively the conflict without using this background information.

Disintegration of Ukraine: Myths and reality

Analysts frequently consider Euromaidan to be the key internal factor provoking the current crisis, especially the current war in eastern Ukraine. In this context, events of the “Revolution of Dignity” have to be analyzed separately from the Donbas crisis. One of the key preconditions for mass protests taking place in Kiev was the former president’s refusal to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union

Furthermore, the demonstrators were fighting for freedom and against the violations of their rights. However, not one of the Euromaidan protesters could have imagined last winter that the revolution would have been followed by the annexation of Crimea or the Donbas war. Nevertheless, it was. 

The ethnic-territorial division of Ukraine is considered to be the most popular issue to debate while arguing about the local separatists. Yes, they are. Not only Russians but also Ukrainian citizens are taking the terrorists’ side in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. But all of them are financed and armed by the Russian authorities. And the international community, as well as the Ukrainian government, has no doubt regarding this fact. 

In addition, sometimes the Donbas conflict is considered to be a civil war between eastern and western Ukrainians. What’s more, it is believed to have started when the western nationalist “banderas” (people named after Stepan Bandera) came to seize the Donbas territory in order to implement a so-called “Ukrainization” policy. 

For a different take on this issue, read "Ukraine is divided in two, with or without Russia"

However, this is not objectively true. Citizens from western Ukraine are forced to defend Ukraine’s independence by serving in the state armed forces after the prolonged attack of pro-Russian terrorists. Differences between western and eastern Ukraine in terms of economic potential and religion have been used as a basis for many concepts for the division of the state. The myth of a divided Ukrainian nation served as a key issue to manipulate during recent election campaigns. 

Moreover, a particular emphasis was placed on the language issue. Candidates focused on the Russian- or Ukrainian-speaking population and promised abstract things to do for them. Consequently, the populists came to power managing to deepen the myth of a disintegrated Ukraine, in particular during the last ten years.

To a large degree, this is a consequence of the geographical location and economic situation of the country. The limited financial possibilities of Ukraine’s eastern citizens, for example, led to some striking statistics. According to data from the Research and Branding Group published in 2014, more than 80 percent of Ukrainians living in southeast Ukraine have never been abroad, while the number of such western Ukrainians is almost 49 percent. 

This is prominent evidence of the fact that the Ukrainian population has always been influenced by its close neighbor states. Having no opportunity to see either an alternative way of state development or a potential role for civil society, eastern Ukrainians were used to following the rules of the Soviet model. Contrary to these rules, western Ukrainians alienated by the “post-Soviet” stagnation were willing to live at least like their neighbor country – Poland.

In general, the country’s west did not have a picture of the east, nor did the east have a picture of the west. That is why it is easy right now to manipulate information. Ukrainians in the east believe that those who live in the west are nationalists, while those who live in the west see those from the east as Russian agents. 

As a result, it all contributed to giving ground to the notion that there exist Ukrainian citizens who are ready to betray the nation. It is crucially important to stress that pro-Russian separatists as well as Russian-backed terrorists are mostly fighting for money, not for ideas. They consider the war as a possibility to earn money, nothing more.

Why Donbas will never be part of Russia 

It can be supposed that if the “Donbas” or “Luhansk republics” were primarily launched as “Novorossiya” projects to incorporate to Russia, they would have already been partially or entirely annexed last autumn. What does it mean? The Kremlin is not interested in repeating the “Crimea scenario” in the Donbas region.

The Donbas occupation strategy used by Russia is slightly different from the Crimea one. And the key reason is quite obvious. The Kremlin had different target goals for starting the conflicts in the two regions. A pro-Russian government replaced Crimea’s pro-Ukrainian government after troops without insignia (who were later confirmed to be Russian) seized the Black Sea peninsula's government buildings. 

Afterwards, Russia annexed Crimea following a controversial March referendum in which, according to data made public, nearly 97 percent of voters supported secession from Ukraine. Despite Russian claims of an observer presence, there were no monitors from any internationally recognized body overseeing the vote.

There was no military resistance in Crimea and Ukrainian troops withdrew peacefully. First of all, such an outcome suggested to Putin that hard power tactics would bear fruit elsewhere. And so it was applied in the southeast of Ukraine, where, after the annexation of Crimea in March, the situation was escalating. 

Secondly, it was made for the consumption of the Russian domestic audience, which was admiring Putin for Crimea’s incorporation to Russia. More than 80 percent of the population’s approval was achieved. Despite these facts, Crimea’s annexation was primarily planned to destabilize Ukraine with its pro-European aspirations.

An occupied Crimea complicated in some way Ukraine’s further integration into the European-Atlantic unions even at that time. It is not legally possible for a country to join NATO when it has unresolved territorial problems. What’s more, it led to financial damages for Ukraine as well as economic problems in general. The maintenance of Crimea costs Russia $3 billion per year.

As regards the Donbas scenario, a federalized Ukraine is the most preferred outcome for Moscow. It is highly likely that the Kremlin views Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration process as threats to Russia’s strategic interests in its backyard. Consequently, the Kremlin could have initiated the Donbas conflict in order to create a frozen conflict and a so-called “grey zone.” Deepening the economic crisis in Ukraine is one of Russia’s strategies in this conflict.

So, the Donbas region is valuable for its natural resources deposits, in particular its coal and ore minerals. However, it is crucially important for manipulation through diplomatic negotiations. And it will remain a “grey zone” until it would be reasonable for at least one of the conflict parties to give up their claims.

The West’s role in Crimea and Donbas

The U.S. and EU governments are currently focused on the de-escalation of the military conflict in eastern Ukraine. Indeed, by seeking ways to establish peace in Ukraine, the West realized that the controversy surrounding Crimea might complicate the problem and aggravate tensions further with Russia.

So, it is highly likely that Western leaders would formally maintain its stand on Crimea as an integral part of Ukraine, since it does not want to set a "dangerous precedent,” but it would not raise the Crimean issue in negotiations with Russia over the fate of eastern Ukraine.

Western governments are in danger of creating a far larger and long-lasting problem for the region and themselves in the future. If the West legitimizes a role for Russia in the Donbas, Moscow will be able to destabilize Ukraine for decades ahead.

Moreover, EU leaders tend to believe that the logic of realism holds little relevance in the 21st century and that Europe can be kept whole and free on the basis of such liberal principles as the rule of law, economic interdependence, and democracy. But this grand scheme went awry in Ukraine. The current crisis shows that realpolitik remains relevant and states that ignore it do so at their own peril. 

In conclusion, there is still a chance to defuse the situation if Kiev and Moscow fulfill all the conditions of the Minsk peace agreement. In that case, the U.S. and Europe will start to lift its sanctions against Russia and the so-called “new Cold War” could be terminated. Analyzing the internal and external factors with regard to the Ukrainian crisis, both played an important role. But it is more likely that, without a foreign impact, internal problems could hardly have led to the Donbas crisis as it is today.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.