Explainer: Might Russia recognise 'independence' of breakaway east Ukraine regions?

3 minute read

A woman stands on a road in the village of Staromarivka located on the separation line that divides Ukraine between government-controlled territory and the enclave controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces, in Donetsk Region, Ukraine November 23, 2021. Irina Rybakova/Press service of the Ukrainian ground forces/Handout via REUTERS

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MOSCOW, Jan 20 (Reuters) - A group of Russian lawmakers have urged parliament to appeal to President Vladimir Putin to recognise two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent states.

Here's a look at what such a move might mean for the Ukraine crisis, in which Russia has deployed around 100,000 troops near its neighbour's border in preparation for what the United States says - and Moscow denies - could be an imminent invasion.

WHAT ARE THE BREAKAWAY REGIONS?

Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions - collectively known as the Donbass - broke away from Ukrainian government control in 2014 and proclaimed themselves independent "people's republics", so far unrecognised. Since then, Ukraine says about 15,000 people have been killed in fighting. Russia denies being a party to the conflict but has backed the separatists in numerous ways, including through covert military support, financial aid, supplies of COVID-19 vaccine and the issue of more than 600,000 Russian passports to residents. A Ukrainian defence ministry source said Kyiv estimated there were 35,000 separatist fighters and 2,000 Russian regular forces in Donbass, though Russia disputes this. read more

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IF RUSSIA RECOGNISES THEM, WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS?

Russian recognition would kill off the 2014 and 2015 Minsk peace agreements that, although still unimplemented, have until now been seen by Russia, Ukraine and Western governments as the best chance for a solution. The 2015 deal called for self-government for the two regions in accordance with Ukrainian law. read more

Recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk "statehood" could provide Moscow with a pretext for overt military intervention in support of its allies, in the same way that it has stationed troops in breakaway regions of Georgia (see below). A Russian parliament member and former Donetsk political leader, Alexander Borodai, told Reuters that, in this scenario, the separatists would look to Russia to help them wrest control of parts of Donbass now controlled by Ukrainian forces. Western governments have lined up to warn Moscow that any movement of military forces across the Ukrainian border would draw a strong response, including stringent financial sanctions. read more

HAS RUSSIA RECOGNISED BREAKAWAY STATELETS BEFORE?

Yes - it recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions of Georgia, after fighting a short war with Georgia in 2008. It has provided them with extensive budget support, extended Russian citizenship to their populations and stationed thousands of troops there.

WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS FOR MOSCOW?

In the Georgia case, Russia used recognition of the breakaway regions to justify an open-ended military presence in a neighbouring former Soviet republic and indefinitely thwart Georgia's NATO aspirations by denying it full control of its own territory.

Olesya Vartanyan, a South Caucasus specialist at Crisis Group, said there was also a significant downside for Moscow, however, in taking responsibility for two territories unrecognised by even its close allies and with no prospects for economic development. "You don't really know what to do with them but you still have to continue financing them, you have to provide funds and from time to time you have to deal with their internal crises," she said. Russia had also destroyed any possibility of dialogue on foreign policy with Georgia.

That precedent suggests the Kremlin might see more advantage in directly annexing Donbass, as it did with Crimea in 2014, than in recognising it as independent.

WHAT IS THE KREMLIN SAYING?

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has responded cautiously to the idea of Putin recognising Donbass. He said it was a parliamentary initiative that would require a vote, and he could not comment until that process had finished.

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Reporting by Mark Trevelyan, Maria Tsvetkova, Anton Zverev and Pavel Polityuk; Editing by Alex Richardson

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