Ukraine’s Fateful Choice

Ukraine stands at a crossroad. Russia and its proxies have seized about a third of the eastern Ukrainian industrial region known as the Donbas. Kyiv insists the territory is an indivisible part of Ukraine. Moscow agrees— at least officially, while insisting that the region acquire an autonomous status that would enable it—and Russia—to veto any Ukrainian move westward.

If Ukraine holds on to the Donbas enclave controlled by Russia, it will revert to its status of a vassal of Russia and have to bear all the costs of the region’s reconstruction. Russia, in turn, will acquire leverage over Ukraine and get away without paying for the destruction she and her proxies caused. Once again, Ukraine will become an impoverished colony incapable of reform and unable to integrate into the West, while Russia will retain its status as an imperial overlord.

In sum, the choice for Ukraine—and, politically, it is a very painful choice—is between independence, democracy, and Western integration on the one hand and retention of the Donbas enclave, political decay, and Russian hegemony on the other. Russia’s dictatorial president Vladimir Putin knows this and is hoping that an exalted sense of Ukrainian nationalism will trump common sense and produce a disaster for Ukraine.

If Kyiv keeps the enclave, it will be permanently saddled with a region that has consistently been most pro-Russian, most pro-Soviet, most anti-Ukrainian, and most anti-Western in its outlook. Those attitudes are unlikely to have changed much during the last six months of fighting and they will remain an obstacle to any kind of move westwards.

Secondly, Kyiv will be permanently saddled with the most reactionary political forces in Ukraine: the terrorists who control the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics; the Party of Regions that has sustained the corrupt rule of former President Viktor Yanukovych; the still Stalinist Communist Party of Ukraine; the Russian Orthodox Church; the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov; the Russian military authorities and security services running the region; all manner of Russian fascists, nationalists, supremacists, and imperialists who streamed into the Donbas to promote the region’s independence. Whatever the political arrangement that Kyiv develops for the region—decentralization, autonomy, federal status, or something else—these forces, abetted by Russia, will always be able to blackmail Kyiv and prevent it from adopting pro-Western reform measures. At best, Kyiv will be enmeshed in endless, fruitless, and time-wasting negotiations with political troglodytes. At worst, the enclave will serve as a conduit for Russian interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs.

Thirdly, while Russia and its proxies have destroyed vast swathes of the areas they control, Ukraine, if it retains the enclave, will be the one to shoulder all the costs of the area’s reconstruction. Given that the area will exert political blackmail on Kyiv, Ukraine will have no choice but to sacrifice the economic development of the rest of Ukraine to that of the Donbas enclave. The following data suggest the extent of the destruction and the size of the subsequent burden on Kyiv: industrial production in Donetsk province has fallen 29 percent, while that in Luhansk province has fallen 56 percent. In particular, the following spectacular drops have been recorded: 46 percent in light industry; 41 percent in the chemical industry; 34 percent in machine building; 22 percent in construction materials; 19 percent in pharmaceutical production; 13 percent in metallurgy; 13 percent in the coal industry. If Ukraine were not on the verge of economic collapse—if Ukraine were like West Germany after the reunification with East Germany—the economic burden of reviving Donbas might be manageable. But Ukraine is not West Germany. Putin knows that the enclave will retard Ukraine’s modernization and thereby freeze its neocolonial status as a supplier of raw materials and low-quality goods to Russia.

If, alternatively, Kyiv abandons the Donbas enclave, all three of the negative consequences listed above will be elided. Better still, lacking a common enemy, Kyiv, the reactionary political forces will turn on one another, and saddled with the destruction it caused in the Donbas and Luhansk People’s Republics, Moscow will have to bear the costs of reconstruction or risk their alienation and the collapse of Putin’s imperial project.

Moreover, the economic costs of abandoning the enclave may be quite manageable for Ukraine. As the authoritative Ukrainian Week magazine points out, although Donetsk province accounted for 17.5 percent of Ukraine’s industrial production and 17.9 percent of its exports, the lion’s share of that is produced by enterprises that are located on territory controlled by Kyiv. Ditto for the still-untapped Yuzovka shale gas field and over 50 percent of Donbas coal mines, most of which are fully intact—in contrast to the others in the enclave, which were severely damaged during the fighting. Kyiv will retain control of most of Luhansk province’s agriculture, chemical industry, as well as the important Lysychansk oil refinery. Moreover, Kyiv will no longer have to fork out millions for pensions and the upkeep of disloyal government and security apparatus. Indeed, Luhansk and Donetsk provinces—and, especially, their rustbelt industries— have been the recipients of vast amounts of government subsidies. Those subsidies would become largely irrelevant, while many of the region’s loss-making industrial products and much coal can be bought for comparative prices abroad.

Overall, Ukraine would benefit from abandoning the Donbas enclave, while Russia would lose from having to become its caretaker. The enclave itself is likely to go into steep and irreversible decline as a Russian protectorate, its population—and especially its professionals and middle class—are likely to leave for good, and its deindustrialization is likely to proceed apace. That will spell hardship for the residents of the region, but it will not be tantamount to the humanitarian catastrophe of a war. As the region becomes a no-man’s land, it is also likely to cease being a bone of contention between Russia and Ukraine. An enduring peace might even be possible.

All that is possible only if Ukraine abandons its visions of territorial indivisibility and thinks in cost-benefit terms. Is it better for Ukraine to become modern, independent, and prosperous without the Donbas enclave, or is it better for Ukraine to remain whole—and a colony of Russia? That is the choice.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated that Russia rejects the notion of transforming the Donbas enclave into a “second Transdnistria”—that is: into a frozen conflict. Ukraine should reject Russia’s rules and deny Lavrov his wish.

Alexander J. Motyl

is a Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University-Newark. He is a specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory and the author of 10 books of nonfiction. He is also a novelist, poet, and painter.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

Current issue - 03/2019

Saving Europe?

Judging from the recent election to the EP, Europe seems to be increasingly fragmented. However, Czechs and Slovaks, the two most Eurosceptic nations in Europe, elected the two most pro-European delegations to the European Parliament in the region. Perhaps we should not panic.

Download PDF