What You Need to Know About Ukraine’s Separatist Regions

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday recognized the independence of Moscow-backed rebel regions in eastern Ukraine, a move that will further fuel tensions with the West.

Putin’s move follows days of heightened tensions in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, where Ukrainian forces are locked in a nearly eight-year conflict with Russia-backed separatists that has left more than 14,000 people dead.

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This is an overview of the rebel-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine.

Separatist Rebellion at the East

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When Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly president was driven from office by mass protests in February 2014, Russia responded by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. The Russian government then supported an insurgency within the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

In April 2014, Russia-backed rebels seized government buildings in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, proclaimed the creation of “people’s republics” and battled Ukrainian troops and volunteer battalions.

The West and Ukraine accused Russia of supporting rebels with weapons and troops. Moscow denies that and said any Russians involved in fighting there were volunteers.

On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed over Eastern Ukraine, killing 298 of its passengers. A probe by international experts concluded that the missile supplied from Russia to the rebel-controlled territories in Ukraine caused the downing of the passenger plane. Moscow denied involvement.

For the eastern Ukraine, peace agreements

Following a huge defeat by Ukrainian troops in August 2014 in Kiev, representatives from Kyiv and rebels along with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) signed an agreement in Minsk, Belarus, in September 2014.

This document envisaged an OSCE-observed ceasefire, the pullback of foreign fighters, an exchanging of hostages and prisoners, and an amnesty to rebels. It also promised that any separatist areas could enjoy some degree of autonomy.

The agreement collapsed rapidly and massive fighting resumed. This led to another defeat for Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve, January-February 2015.

France and Germany were able to broker a second peace deal, signed at Minsk by the representatives of Russia, Ukraine and rebels in February 2015. This agreement contemplated a new ceasefire, the pullback of heavy weaponry and several steps towards a political resolution. The leaders of Russia and Ukraine signed a declaration supporting the agreement.

The Ukraine is in a frozen conflict

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The implementation of the law has been blocked by many Ukrainians who see it as a breach of national interest.

While the Minsk Document helped stop full-scale fighting however, the situation remains tense. Regular skirmishes continue.

With the Minsk deal stalled, Moscow’s hope to use rebel regions to directly influence Ukraine’s politics has failed but the frozen conflict has drained Kyiv’s resources and effectively stymied its goal of joining NATO — which is enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution.

Moscow helped to ensure its grip on rebel territories by giving more than 720,000 Russian passports out to approximately one-fifth the population, which is about 3.6million. While it provided financial and economic aid to the separatist regions, this was insufficient to reduce the enormous damage from the fighting and to stabilize the economy. The Donbas region accounted for about 16% of Ukraine’s GDP before the conflict.

There are efforts to revive the peace agreement

France and Germany made renewed efforts to ensure compliance with 2015 agreements in an effort to defuse tensions surrounding the Russian troop presence near Ukraine.

Facing calls from Berlin and Paris for its implementation, Ukrainian officials have strengthened their criticism of the Minsk deal and warned that it could lead to the country’s demise. The talks between the presidential envoys of Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany in Paris and Berlin have failed to produce any progress.

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The lower house of the Russian parliament, meanwhile, urged Putin last week to recognize the independence of Ukraine’s rebel regions.

Putin recognizes rebel regions’ independence

Putin’s recognition of the rebel-held territories’ independence effectively shatters the Minsk peace agreements and will further fuel tensions with the West. Moscow will sign friendship agreements with rebel territories. This could open the door for Russia’s support with weapons and troops.

This move comes after several days’ worth of shelling along the Luhansk/Donetsk contact line. Russia and Ukraine both accused Moscow for inflaming tensions as a pretext of an invasion. Russia countered by accusing Ukraine of trying forcefully to retake rebel-held areas, a claim Kyiv vigorously rejected.

On Friday, separatist leaders released video statements announcing the evacuation of civilians in the face of what they described as a Ukrainian “aggression.” The data embedded in the video indicated that their statements had been pre-recorded two days earlier when the situation was still relatively calm, suggesting a deliberate plan to try to sever the regions from Ukraine.

The rebel chiefs put out new video statements Monday urging Putin to recognize their regions’ independence and the Russian leader responded quickly by convening a carefully orchestrated meeting of his Security Council and then signing the recognition decrees in a televised ceremony.

— Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.


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