Ukrainians register the deepening scandal around the alleged quid pro quo—U.S. President Donald Trump’s pressuring of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—as a sideshow to the mind-bending problem that has hung over their country since 2014: Should Ukraine reintegrate the territories of its eastern region, known as Donbas, that are controlled by Russia and its separatist clients? If so, when? And how?
The war is now in its fifth year. During this time, the Donbas has split in two. One part, centering on the industrial cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, is administered by separatists installed by the Kremlin. The other part remains under the administration of the Ukrainian government in Kyiv. Heavy fighting is confined to a narrow strip along the front, and thousands of people cross back and forth between Russia-controlled and government-controlled areas every day. But trade is extremely limited, because Kyiv imposed a blockade in 2017 when separatist authorities “nationalized” factories and mines.
The likelihood that either side will advance militarily is extremely low. Ukraine knows that the regular Russian army is barely concealed behind the separatist forces across the frontline, while Russia knows that any further seizure of territory would end its successful lobbying effort to soften international sanctions. But to break the stalemate requires a razor’s edge solution, in which each side concedes something but neither capitulates. The difficulty of finding that sweet spot has so far preserved the status quo.
A lasting settlement must address the growing chasm between the region’s two halves. When the war began, a significant number of residents of the areas of the Donbas that are currently under the control of the Ukrainian government favored the Russia-supported separatist project. But this enthusiasm has since waned, mostly due to the demonstrably miserable conditions in the isolated Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics.” Pro-Russian parties still handily win majorities in local and parliamentary elections, but the political scene is far more diverse than before the war and includes prominent voices in
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