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U.S. should support free, fair special-status elections in Ukraine’s Donbass region

It is a gamble, and this situation may fail to end the conflict, but the United States needs to assess what it will fight for with American lives. Ukraine is not one of them.

Servicemembers of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic
Servicemembers of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic ride armored personnel carriers at the 5th anniversary of creation of armed forces, at the airfield in Luhansk, Ukraine, on October 6, 2019.
REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

The continuing saga of impeachment politics has unfolded against the backdrop of an ongoing crisis in Eastern Ukraine that has generated the worst Russian-American relations since early in the first Reagan administration.

For some background, Ukraine has been embroiled in conflict with Russia since 2014. In February of that year, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an EU association agreement after being pressured by Moscow not to, a move they claimed would have negative economic consequences. In response, protesters took to the streets and ousted Yanukovych. In March of the same year, Russia annexed Crimea with a display of military and logistical competency that revealed to the world Moscow had moved past its clumsy 2008 Georgian War.

Isaac Russell
Isaac Russell
The next month, conflict broke out in an area many Americans (or really anyone) can’t point to on a map, the Donbass. Two provinces, Luhansk and Donetsk, constitute this region and border Russia. Separatists declared “people’s republics” in each province and received arms, funding, and sometimes actual Russian military soldiers to combat the Ukrainian military. To date, 14,000 people have lost their lives. In response, the United States hit Russia with “I swear it’ll work this time” sanctions.

Fast forward to today. The situation has settled into a World-War-I-like trench warfare front. Peace talks that generated Minsk II, a framework designed to resolve the crisis brokered by European states like Germany, have failed thus far. However, there may be a way to end the crisis. The so-called “Steinmeier formula” would allow a vote in Luhansk and Donetsk that would give them special status, or a level of autonomy, in exchange for their return to Ukraine. Provided these elections are free and fair (insert 2016 joke), Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy may be able to fulfill a campaign promise by ending conflict with Russia.

For its part, Russia sees this crisis as a long continuation of U.S.-led Western institutions encroaching on their borders. NATO particularly gets the Russians riled up, no doubt in part because of their inability to stop its previous expansion and their claim the alliance is a tool of American foreign policy against Moscow. In 2008, the United States wanted to fast-track Ukraine’s membership in NATO over allies’ protests. No doubt, Russia’s geopolitical calculus has no solution where the alliance rests on its Ukrainian border.

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 The United States should support a free and fair vote in Luhansk and Donetsk for special status. It is a gamble, and this situation may fail to end the conflict, but the United States needs to assess what it will fight for with American lives. Ukraine is not one of them.

There are four reasons the United States should support free and fair elections. First, attempting to include Ukraine into Western institutions has proven tricky, and adept handling of complicated international issues is not an American strength at the moment. Russia will never treat Ukraine like there is nothing to see; it is the route three invasions (Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Hitler) have used. If need be, Moscow will risk Russian lives. Furthermore, Russia has never stopped seeing this region as its area of influence. That logic may offend people, but I see their disgust and raise them the Monroe Doctrine.

Second, 14,000 lives have been lost and the Donbass needs economic revitalization, and a stable region helps European relations overall. Third, instead of expending energy on the Donbass, Zelenskiy can continue his much-needed campaign against corruption, in which a victory is paramount regardless of any future Ukrainian membership in anything.

Lastly, this could lead to the possible improvement of relations with Russia, which have reached a nadir. Washington and Moscow do not have to be friends, but there are areas of cooperation, like terrorism and China, that could yield fruitful endeavors. Improving relations between two countries with nuclear arsenals capable of destroying the world several times over is something to stop and see.

Isaac Russell is a Master of Public Policy student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and a Minnesota DFL Senate staffer.


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