What future for the territories occupied by Russia?

Three months after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moscow now controls a corridor from the Donbass to Kherson and Crimea, after the port city of Mariupol fell on May 20. The areas that will be at the center of negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow if they resume, with several possible scenarios: full association with Russia, recognition of an autonomous region or reoccupation of Ukraine.

Could this be a sign of a future association with the occupier? As the war in Ukraine enters its fourth month, new pro-Russian authorities in Ukraine’s Kherson region announced on Monday (May 23) that the Russian currency, the ruble, will become the official currency of this part of southern Ukraine. Ukraine, parallel to the Ukrainian hryvnia.

The pro-Russian Civil and Military Administration of this region announced in a statement that “the region is turning into a two-currency area: the ruble will be traded in the same way as the hryvnia. Companies and businessmen can display prices in both currencies.” on his Telegram account.

Having announced on Friday May 20 that it had taken complete control of the port city of Mariupol, Russia has practically succeeded in asserting its authority over a corridor stretching from the Donbass to the city of Kherson. Despite this, “Russian forces have made only tiny gains in eastern Ukraine” in recent days, the American Institute for the Study of War (ISW) qualified Monday.

Map showing the location of the military forces in Ukraine based on data for Tuesday, May 24, 2022

If negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow have been halted since the end of April, these Russian-occupied territories may be at the center of their final recovery.

“We have at least three possible ways out of the crisis, with regard to these territories,” explains to France24 Cyril Brett, a specialist in international relations at the Jacques Delors Institute. “The first would be a Crimea-type scenario with unilateral engagement on the part of Russia; then a scenario on the model of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in which the region will declare its independence and be recognized by Russia; or Kyiv will restore these regions.”

Annexation, like Crimea in 2014

Since the capture of the Kherson region, the first major Russian invasion on March 3, local and Russian officials have raised the possibility that the entire region will eventually become part of Russia. A scenario can be confirmed by the adoption of the ruble in this region: at the end of April, a local official already confirmed that the ruble and the hryvnia can trade during a transitional period, before the complete transition to the Russian currency. The pro-Russian regional administration did not raise that possibility on Monday.

“It seems that the pro-Russian authorities did exactly the same in Donbass [qu’elles contrôlent en partie depuis 2014, NDLR]Michael Boqueurcu, a researcher in international relations at the Atlantic Council, explains. Although it is difficult to really know the situation on the ground, it seems that the pro-Russian forces are doing their best to eliminate any sign of belonging to Ukraine. This includes coins, statues, flags or even school curriculum: once this changes, it is very difficult to go back,” continues the expert.

Local workers replace Ukrainian road signs with purely Russian ones, on May 5, 2022, on the outskirts of the port city of Mariupol, in a photo taken by pro-Russian authorities. © Ministry of Transport of the Donetsk People’s Republic, AFP

Full annexation – as Russia did with Crimea in 2014 – would be a risky bet at the international level: “New sanctions against Moscow will follow, and Kyiv will not recognize this Russian extension to the world.” West of course,” according to Cyril Brett.

“I’m not sure that Russia really wants to annex the conquered territories,” said Michael Bokyurkyo. “First of all, massive damage was caused to infrastructure and industries. Then, in 70% of the Donbass lands that escaped from the control of pro-Russian separatists before this war, citizens became increasingly pro-Ukrainian: there will be a very violent resistance against the Russians. ”

Moscow recognized independence

The currently occupied territories can unilaterally declare their independence, with Russia immediately recognizing the latter. This option, similar to what happened to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, is the most reasonable scenario according to specialists interviewed by France 24.

In the aftermath of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, Russia recognized the independence of these two breakaway regions of Georgia and established military bases there. However, it seems that the Ossetian authorities want to take a new step: on May 13 they announced the organization of a referendum on the incorporation of these lands into Russia.

For Moscow, “the Ossetian option would be a way to keep Ukraine in a weak position by dismantling part of its territory,” Cyril Brett repeats. But there again, according to the expert, Russia will act alone at the international level: the European Union, in particular, “cannot accept the creation of a state with arms: this goes against its principles.”

“In February, shortly before the war, Russia had already formally recognized the separatists’ authority over the Donbass: it would probably do the same for other occupied territories,” says Andrew Wilson.

If this hypothesis remains plausible, he adds, “it will not be won in advance: Ukraine has already declared that it will not accept any territorial concessions.”

Kyiv victory and recapture

A territorial unit dear to Kyiv, for which “Ukrainian military capabilities should not be underestimated,” notes Cyril Brett, who evokes a third scenario: “Kyiv’s restoration of these lands is possible.”

Nuance Andrew Wilson “But for this, Ukraine must take an offensive position, while still being on the defensive.” “The situation on the ground is very unstable and could change at any time.” Especially since the Ukrainians “militarily, they are doing a better and better job, with more and more Western equipment, including drones,” adds Michael Busiorki.

Russia and Ukraine could have agreed earlier on “a special status for Donbass, but it is too late for that,” according to Cyril Brett. He insists that “after what happened in Bucha in particular, Ukraine is not ready to make concessions with a country accusing it of ‘genocide’ or war crimes.”

A Russian soldier enters the base of the Ukrainian Azov Regiment in Yuryvka, near Mariupol, in an area now under the control of pro-Russian forces, on May 18, 2022.
A Russian soldier enters the base of the Ukrainian Azov Regiment in Yuryvka, near Mariupol, in an area now under the control of pro-Russian forces, on May 18, 2022. © AP

All or nothing: Attitudes are becoming more and more radical

“Western capitals – Paris, Berlin and Rome at the fore – will certainly increase pressure in the coming days on the Ukrainians to resume negotiations with the Russians,” explains Michael Bokyurkyo. “But Ukraine will not agree to cede territory to Russia or any special neutral status, especially when the Russians are known to be violating previous agreements,” he added.

According to Andrew Wilson, “There will be no discussion about Donbass unless Kyiv gets sufficient guarantees about its security and feels protected. But for now, Ukraine is talking about returning to the border before February 24, and will not accept a ‘tie’: it wants to take back all occupied territories.” .

“No diplomatic way out is possible at the moment, it’s all or nothing,” Michael Boqueurcu sums up. Cyril Brett continued: “Negotiations are necessary and should happen soon, but at the moment neither side is ready for that. Wars tend to radicalize each other’s positions.”

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