Putin’s Government in Donbas

STANFORD – In March, the German tabloid Bild published an article based on a secret document that reveals how breakaway areas of eastern Ukraine are “being treated as parts of Russia’s sovereign territory.” The revelations cast the ongoing Minsk 2 peace negotiations in a new light, one that illuminates the frustration being expressed by the Ukrainian government.

The document obtained by Bild is a report from an October meeting of Russia’s “Inter-Ministerial Commission for the Provision of Humanitarian Aid for the affected Areas in the Southeast of the Regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.” It describes how the meeting’s attendees did not just focus on humanitarian assistance, but rather served as a sort of shadow government. Working groups cooperating with Russian authorities were set up to manage the region’s finances, economic policies, energy and transportation infrastructure, and trade.

Notably, the meeting took place under the watchful eye of four members of the Russian secret police (FSB) and was chaired by the Russian politician Sergey Nazarov. The titular heads of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics were not present. Indeed, the only Ukrainian in attendance was a representative of the energy giant DTEK, owned by Rinat Akhmetov, the country’s richest oligarch.

The Kremlin’s official negotiating stance is that it wants a unitary Ukraine that gives the separatist republics considerable autonomy and the right to veto key national legislation. This requires Ukraine to amend its constitution in order to provide special status to the breakaway regions – a change to the fundamental structure of the country, which, after the loss of some 10,000 lives, is unlikely to be politically feasible. In exchange, the Kremlin has pledged to support – but only after the constitution is changed – Ukraine’s national government in its reassertion of control over those regions, as well as over its border with Russia.