February 21, 2022
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow has cultivated close ties with pro-Russian separatists controlling swathes of the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine but denies being a party to their nearly eight-year war with Ukrainian government forces.
President Vladimir Putin told his Security Council on Monday that Russia should consider recognising the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic in Donbass as independent.
Putin said a decision would be made on Monday but stopped short of saying what it would be.
The comments come amid mounting Western fears that Russia, which has massed an estimated 150,000 troops near Ukraine’s border, is poised to invade.
Moscow denies any such plans, but may send in its forces to secure the breakaway regions if and when it recognises their independence.
Russia’s State Duma, the lower house of parliament, has already asked Putin to recognise the independence of the two regions, which are overwhelmingly Russian speaking.
Senior officials, including the defence minister, also urged Putin to act on Monday. The head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) said the security situation in the Donbass was worsening and some 70,000 people had been evacuated from the region to Russia.
Here are some examples of how the two separatist-controlled areas have grown closer to Russia since the conflict began in 2014.
Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said on Monday that Moscow had issued 800,000 Russian passports to Donbass residents since President Vladimir Putin signed an order in April 2019 allowing them to apply for citizenship under an expedited procedure.
The European Union at the time said the measure was an attack on Ukrainian sovereignty, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called for more sanctions against Moscow.
In May 2021, Zelenskiy described Moscow’s initiative as a first step towards annexation of the region.
A former senior official from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic told Reuters in 2016 that Russia directly finances pensions and public sector salaries in eastern Ukraine’s two separatist regions.
After war broke out, Kyiv stopped paying public sector wages to people registered as living in separatist-controlled areas. Much of the heavy industry on which the Donbass depends for revenue has stopped operating.
Moscow says it does not bankroll the separatist administrations.
RUSSIAN ROUBLE, SCHOOLING
Both separatist regions have abandoned the Ukrainian hryvnia in favour of the Russian rouble as their official currencies.
Local schools now follow the Russian national curriculum instead of that taught in Ukraine.
In 2021, the Donetsk People’s Republic marked Russia Day on June 12, which is a national holiday in Russia to commemorate Russia’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union.
In late 2021, Putin ordered the Russian government to lift curbs on exports and imports of goods between Russia and parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Russian authorities said the move was designed to compensate for the economic blockage between those regions and the rest of Ukraine.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry said Putin’s decree amounted to “gross interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine” and sent a protest to the Russian foreign ministry.
SUPPORTING RULING PARTY AT THE POLLS
United Russia, the ruling party that supports Putin, campaigned in eastern Ukraine on territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists before a parliamentary election in September 2021.
While Kyiv cast the initiative as a form of “Russification”, Moscow said there was nothing unusual about people with dual Russian and Ukrainian nationality voting in a Russian election.
The Russian electorate in Donbass overwhelmingly supports the ruling party.
Local authorities in Donetsk said in January 2021 that Russia had begun supplying its Sputnik V vaccine against COVID-19 to separatist-controlled Donetsk despite a ban by Kyiv.
Ukraine, which prohibits the use of Russia’s Sputnik, said at the time it had been expecting a shipment of Western-made vaccines.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which markets the Sputnik vaccine abroad, said it did not supply the Donetsk or Lugansk breakaway regions.
Zelenskiy has said he does not exclude holding a referendum on the future status of war-torn eastern Ukraine and the Crimea peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
Zelenskiy did not say when and how such a referendum could be held.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the initiative was solely a Ukrainian internal affair.
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Mark Trevelyan, Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones)