Putin's Trap

Why Ukraine Should Withdraw from Russian-Held Donbas

Figurines of former pro-Russian separatist commander Igor Strelkov from the collection entitled "Toy Soldiers of Novorossiya."
Figurines of former pro-Russian separatist commander Igor Strelkov from the collection entitled "Toy Soldiers of Novorossiya" on display at a workshop in Moscow, August 29, 2014. (Sergei Karpukhin / Courtesy Reuters)

By now, most observers of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine assume that Russian President Vladimir Putin aims to annex the Donbas region of Ukraine and, possibly, other parts of the country’s southeast, which his regime has taken to calling “New Russia.” But that leaves open two questions: First, why didn’t Putin invade Ukraine immediately after he seized Crimea in early March; and second, why, if he intends to hold the Donbas, would he allow his proxies to shell cities, kill civilians, and destroy mines, plants, schools, and other infrastructure?

In a recent interview with Marat Gelman, a political commentator for the liberal Russian publication Novoye Vremya, Vladimir Lukin, a veteran policymaker who served as Putin’s human rights commissioner from February 2004 to March 2014 and who represented Russia in the West’s negotiations with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the democratic opposition on February 20, offered some answers.

According to Lukin, the Donbas isn’t the goal at all: “No one in the Kremlin needs the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Luhansk People’s Republic [the self-styled secessionist entities in the Donbas], or New Russia,” he said. Indeed, “to win the Donbas and to lose Ukraine would be a defeat for the Kremlin.” When pressed further about the purpose of the Kremlin’s agitation in the region, Lukin responded that one should “forget the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. The goal is to demonstrate to [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko that he cannot win.” Russia, he said, would “introduce as many [troops] as necessary to persuade Poroshenko that he must negotiate with whomever Putin chooses.” In his commentary about the interview, Gelman went on to explain that, according to Lukin, both Donetsk and Luhansk will serve “as guarantees of [Ukraine’s] nonmembership in NATO.” After all, “any referendum on joining any bloc would have to take place in every region, and if only one were against, then the country could not join.” The Kremlin’s ideal outcome, according to Lukin, is that “everything should go back to as it was under Yanukovych, but without Yanukovych.”

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