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 support of the government in Kyiv.

In the Kremlin-backed breakaway region, administrators have consolidated control over civil society. The most outspoken pro-Ukrainians have gone silent or left, though on social media, grumbling about unpaid wages and dysfunctional local government sometimes bubbles to the surface. The authorities in the separatist areas pronounce cultural and political fealty to Russia on every corner—but, at Moscow’s insistence, they have recently begun talking of the need to return to Ukraine and reset its supposedly disastrous course.

Zelensky promised in his campaign a year ago to bring peace to the Donbas. Now he is pushing for a comprehensive political settlement to the conflict. But the prospect of a resolution has stimulated intense debate inside Ukraine over which of two competing visions should govern the Donbas’s near future: one in which the breakaway regions reintegrate into Ukraine, whatever the social and political repercussions, or one in which the frontline hardens into a border, and Ukraine tries to lure the residents of the separatist region back to the mainland by economic means.

The Horns of the Dilemma

Ukrainians consistently poll in favor of a negotiated settlement that leads to the reintegration of Donbas under Kyiv’s authority. But to understand what residents of the Russian-controlled territories really want has proved more difficult, and perhaps ultimately more consequential. The Center for East European and International Studies (ZOIS) conducted a phone survey in September that found that 23.5 percent of residents in the breakaway region favor return to Ukraine without conditions, and 31 percent prefer return with “special status.” Just two months later, however, a rival set of figures emerged: the newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnia and the Ukrainian Institute for the Future (UIF) conducted a face-to-face survey showing 4.1 percent and 13.4 percent, respectively, for the same options, with more residents hoping for the region to integrate into Russia.

The ZOIS poll encouraged optimism among those favoring reintegration. President Zelensky, propelled by such a vision, is even now discussing holding OSCE-monitored elections in the Russian-controlled territories. The elections are one step stipulated in the “Steinmeier formula,” put forward by Germany’s former foreign minister, and if they are certified as free and fair, then the next step will be for Ukraine to provide the region with “special status.” Former separatists could not be prosecuted under this arrangement; the population would have the right to use the Russian language for official purposes and to maintain local militias; and the region would continue economic and cultural cooperation with Russia. The Steinmeier formula has met with protests across Ukraine, where nationalists and pro-Europe liberals (the same combination of forces that led the Euromaidan revolution in 2014) gathered under the slogan “No to capitulation!” (Ni kapitulyatsii!). The protests drew only a minority of Ukrainians, but they still inspired Zelensky to slow his reintegration initiative. He assured Ukrainians that he would not allow elections “under the barrel of a [Russian] gun.”

Among natives of the Donbas, the reintegration plan has drawn mixed reactions.

Among natives of the Donbas, the reintegration plan has drawn mixed reactions. I asked two journalists from Luhansk for their views on “special status.” Serhiy Sakadinsky and Kostiantin Reutsky both spent time in separatist basement prisons but came out of the experience with starkly opposing views. Sakadinsky came to support the new “republican” authorities. He told me that if autonomy had been provided to the region earlier, “it could have prevented the events of 2014.” Now, he said, the republics require special status in order to protect their residents from retribution by Kyiv. Reutsky, who crossed the frontline after his captivity, established a pro-Ukrainian NGO, and ran for Ukrainian parliament, described special status as “a Russian construct being foisted on Ukraine.” Under its terms, Russia could continue manipulating the territories, he argued. Paraphrasing Konrad Adenauer, he urged that Ukraine “choose freedom over unity” until it is strong enough to reunite on its own terms.

The alternatives to reintegration bear their own risks and complexities. UIF, the influential Kyiv think tank behind the more pessimistic survey of attitudes toward reintegration in the Russian-held territories, has argued for “freezing the conflict,” which means reinforcing and patrolling the line of contact and acknowledging the breakaway territories as Russian-occupied. At the same time, UIF endorses loosening the trade blockade and attracting residents to move to the government-controlled territories. This position has appealed to Ukrainian liberals, including Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, a legendary rocker and member of parliament who called for delaying attempts to reintegrate.

UIF founder Yuriy Romanenko told me that Ukraine should strengthen its economy and make the territories as burdensome as possible for their Russian occupiers by “doing everything we can to pump out the demographic resource from that side.” Interest-free housing loans and guaranteed jobs at new enterprises established by foreign investors could help entice residents of Russian-controlled territories to move across the frontline. Adding an element of social engineering, he suggested giving soldiers posted along the frozen border incentives to stay when their service is done, thereby shifting the local demographics “like the Turks did in Kurdistan.”

Frozen Conflict, Economic Thaw

UIF’s freeze scenario requires that Ukraine lower the trade restrictions it imposed on the Russian-controlled Donbas. The separatist “nationalization” of mines and factories and Kyiv’s blockade sped the economic integration of these highly industrialized territories into Russia, and in so doing undermined the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of workers. That is because Russia’s economy can absorb or launder for re-export only a portion of what the region produces. For lack of access to global markets via Ukraine, many once functioning mines are slowly flooding and factories rusting. A tipping point approaches when these economic assets can no longer be revived.

For a successful economic approach to frozen conflict, Ukraine need look no farther than its neighbor, Moldova. After a short, bloody war in 1992, a region called Transnistria in Moldova’s east broke away with Russian help, taking most of the country’s industrial capacity with it. To this day, the internationally unrecognized Transnistrian republic remains fervently pro-Russian—even pro-Soviet. But 70 percent of its exports go to the EU.

For a successful economic approach to frozen conflict, Ukraine need look no farther than its neighbor, Moldova.

These surprising trade flows are not an accident. They result from Chisinau’s 25-year effort to reintegrate Transnistria into Moldovan customs space, according to Alexandru Flenchea, who headed Moldova’s Bureau of Reintegration and was recently promoted to deputy prime minister on reintegration. If they met certain requirements, Transnistrian companies were granted the right to export their goods as though they were Moldovan. This allowed the breakaway region to sell its steel and textiles to the EU under Moldova’s preferred trading partner status. Brussels and Chisinau have even quietly negotiated with Transnistria to ensure that the region’s goods will not be locked out of the deep and comprehensive free trade agreement Moldova enjoys with Europe. Without these provisions, the agreement would have crashed the breakaway region’s economy. Flenchea sees economic reintegration as a lever that can ultimately be used to achieve political reintegration as well: the economic policy will slowly and subtly stitch Transnistria back into Moldova’s fabric.

Despite a stated commitment to full reunification, Moldova’s authorities have mostly avoided direct political efforts and have instead allowed the economic relationship to lead. Ukraine’s leaders can learn from this approach, but they should also note that a long-term political freeze carries a price. Transnistrians frequently travel to Moldova, but many Moldovans have never set foot in the region that broke away 27 years ago. A generation of frozen conflict has saddled residents of Moldova and the Transnistria region with ideological baggage that can make the mere 70 kilometers between their capitals feel wider than it is. Ukraine’s divide is much fresher, but forcefully struck: while the Transnistria war cost 1000 lives, the conflict in Ukraine has cost 13,000 to date and more every day. I spoke to a humanitarian activist who works with children from families who have grown up in the Russian-controlled territories. “The mental distance between them and kids who spent the last five years in Ukraine is significant and growing,” he told me. “It’s only going to get much, much harder to bring them back into Ukrainian society.”

Politics in the Balance

A rarely spoken motivation for opposing reintegration is the fear that the sudden return of several million residents of the Russian-controlled Donbas could upend Ukraine’s political balance, empowering the country’s pro-Russian political bloc. But had the residents of these territories participated in the last parliamentary election, they could at most have increased the pro-Russian vote by 50 to 75 percent, a boost that would have given that bloc just a third of the seats in parliament.

The residents of the Kremlin-backed “republics” make up only a part of Ukraine’s pro-Russian electorate, which declined after the start of the war but still extends well into the country’s east and south. Political commentator and Donetsk native Enrique Menendez told me, “Even without the return of voters from the other side of the frontline, we still have to reconcile many people within our country to Ukraine.”

Moreover, if the Donbas voters are excluded from Ukraine’s political life, they may grow all the more alienated. But the danger of including them, as UIF’s Romanenko puts it, is that the oil-and-water combination of radicalized Donbas voters and Ukrainian nationalists would plunge the parliament into an endless culture war. Such theatrics would prevent Ukraine from addressing existential problems, such as shoring up its economy before the next global recession. “We shouldn’t make decisions on behalf of three million Ukrainians that put 35 million at risk,” Romanenko told me.

For the moment, President Zelensky continues his cautious push for reintegration. In late November he made a small step toward reintegrating the economy of the Russian-controlled Donbas by lifting of restrictions on movement of Ukrainian goods across the frontline. And despite the “No to capitulation!” protests, the president has pushed for a meeting of the Normandy Four—Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and France—to discuss a political resolution. He may even meet one-on-one with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

If Zelensky holds to his current course, Ukrainian society could be forced in the near future to conclusively decide the fundamental political question at the country’s ragged eastern edge: Put off reunification indefinitely and focus on reforming the core, or push on to reintegration while something common still remains?

CORRECTION APPENDED (December 5, 2019)

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of one of the founders of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future. He is Yuriy Romanenko, not Ihor Romanenko.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • BRIAN MILAKOVSKY is an independent commentator on the Donbas conflict who lives in Severodonetsk, Ukraine.
  • More By Brian Milakovsky