The Disintegrating Donbass. Is there a future for a con-federal Ukraine?

OSCE SMM monitoring the movement of heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine

The flight on 23 November 2017 of Igor Plotinitsky, President of the separatist Ukrainian area of the Lugansk People's Republic is a sign of the continuing difficulties of developing appropriate forms of constitutional government in the Ukraine.  Plotinitsky was in open conflict with his "Minister of the Interior" Igor Konet whom he had fired but who refused to give up his position.  It is reported that military troops are moving from Donetsk, the other People's Republic of the Donbass, and perhaps other troops from Russia but without signs of identification.

Much of the fate of the two Donbass People's Republics is in the hands of President Putin, but he is unwilling to take public responsibility.  Some have argued that two people's republics in Donbass is one too many and that the two republics will be unified under the leadership of President Alexandre Zakhartchenko of Donetsk.  Meanwhile the Ukrainian government has reinforced its troops on the frontier with the separatist zone.

Officially the Donbass is under an agreement signed in Minsk on 12 February 2015 among Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine acting under a mandate of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  The agreement called for a ceasefire, local elections, a reintegration into the State of Ukraine but with constitutional reforms giving greater local autonomy.  In practice, the Minsk accords have never been carried out.

The new crisis may return to the status quo of continuing tensions, occasional artillery exchanges, a  lack of any effective cooperation, and a continuing economic decline. It is estimated that some 10,000 persons have been killed in the conflict since April 2014.  However, there is a danger that the conflict slips out of control, and violence increases.  The secretariat of the OSCE must be on high alert.

A crisis can at times be a moment to reconsider the possibilities and to seek a more long-lasting agreement.  At the start of the Ukraine conflict in April 2014, the Association of World Citizens had proposed the creation of a Ukrainian confederation with decentralization, respect for cultural autonomy,  economic cooperation among the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and the European Union.  Some of the ideas are reflected in the Minsk agreement, but distrust is so high that no practical steps have been taken.

The current crisis may serve as a reminder of how dangerous a disintegrating Donbas can be.  An alternative would be to study seriously the possibilities of a con-federal Ukraine.

The Association of World Citizens has a long-standing interest in developing appropriate constitutional structures for States facing the possibilities of prolonged or intensified armed conflicts.  In the recent past, we have proposed con-federal structures to deal with conflict situations in Mali, Ukraine, Myanmar, Libya and Cyprus as well as Kurdistan which involves both the structure of Iraq as well as positive cooperation among Kurds living in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.

Con-federation and autonomy are broad concepts, capable of covering a multitude of visions extending from very limited local initiatives to complete control over everything other than foreign policy.  Autonomy can therefore incorporate all situations between nearly total subordination to the center to nearly total independence.  The ways in which the elements and patterns of autonomy are put together requires political imagination, far-sighted political leadership, a willingness to compromise, and constant dialogue.

In none of the six situations on which we have made proposals have we found much of a climate for meaningful negotiations although there have been formal negotiation processes carried out in the Ukraine case by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSDE) and on Cyprus by the United Nations.

Negotiations means a joint undertaking by disputants with the aim of settling their disputes on the basis of mutual compromise.  Negotiation is a basic political decision-making process, a way of finding common interests, to facilitate compromise without loss of what each considers to be essential objectives.  For the parties in a conflict to seek a compromise requires a certain climate - an informed public opinion that will accept the compromise and build better future relations on the agreement.

The challenges posed by the conflicts in Mali, Ukraine, Myanmar, Libya, Cyprus and Kurdistan need to be measured against the broad concept of security.  Barry Buzan of the University of Copenhagen sets out four types of security. "Political security concerns the organizational stability of states, systems of government, and the ideologies that give them legitimacy. Economic security concerns access to the resources, finances and markets necessary to sustain acceptable levels of welfare.  Societal security concerns the sustainability within acceptable conditions of the evolution of traditional patterns of language, culture, religions and customs. Environmental security concerns the maintenance of the local and the planetary biosphere as the essential support system on which all other human enterprises depend." 

One of the difficulties in each situation is what I would call "the frozen image of the other". In each case, the group or groups demanding new State structures are seen in the minds of the current government authorities as being the same people with the same aspirations as when the demands were first made: the Karen of Myanmar today are the same as the Karen of the Union of Burma in 1947; the Tuareg of north Mali today are the same as those calling for the creation of an independent State in 1940 when the withdrawal of French troops to Dakar had left a political vacuum.

However, there have been evolutions in policy proposals and in the level of education and experience of new leadership of those demanding autonomy. Yet "frozen images" exist and need to be overcome within all decision-makers involved. The modification of "frozen images" is one of the tasks of non-governmental organizations and Track II diplomatic efforts.

Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Citizens for Global Solutions.

Related Campaign

Women and children are often the earliest victims of mass atrocities. Support a code of conduct limiting use of the veto against early intervention in these situations.

Support Our Work

We have a proven track record in making a difference. But we can't build the peaceful future we envision without your support. Become a donor now!