WORLD AFFAIRS.  Before Ukraine can disengage from the occupied Donbas, it has to know just what disengagement means. Consider disengagement's opposite—engagement. If we are engaged, we are psychologically concerned about, ideologically committed to, and politically involved in some issue. Disengagement entails psychological indifference, ideological withdrawal, and political non-involvement with respect to that issue. 

Disengagement is especially useful with respect to issues that lie beyond the powers of the actor concerned. The war in the Donbas will continue as long as Vladimir Putin wants it to continue, and Ukraine—and the West—must accept that fact. Nothing, short of Ukraine's capitulation or collapse, will assuage Putin. Ukrainians will continue to die as long as he wants them to die.

While the unnecessary deaths will and should preoccupy Ukrainians, the occupied Donbas should not. They cannot change the status quo, and they have far more important things to do at home—such as reform. After all, reforming the economy and transforming Ukraine into a powerful state is the sine qua non of its ability to withstand Putin's current or future aggressions. Simply put, no reform, no Ukraine.

Seen in this light, the occupied Donbas has cost too much in wasted lives and time. Focusing on it psychologically, ideologically, and politically only diverts Ukrainian energies and resources from the only thing that matters—Ukraine's survival as a strong, democratic, prosperous, and consolidated state. Disengaging from the occupied Donbas psychologically, ideologically, and politically is, thus, imperative.

It is also difficult. Ukrainians need to stop thinking of the occupied territories as "theirs." They need to stop viewing them as vital to Ukraine's nation- and state-building efforts. They need to stop devoting so much of their politics to finding solutions to the war. They need, in sum, to think about the occupied enclave as a foreign entity, which, thanks to Putin, is exactly what it is rapidly becoming.

The longer the war lasts, the longer the Donbas enclave known as the DNR-LNR continues to exist, the more likely will Ukraine become divided, willy-nilly, into two distinct and separate entities. Putin already directs the region's political, military, and economic affairs. The enclave has become a de facto province of the Russian Federation. Ukraine must recognize and accept that fact—and do nothing to change it. Inasmuch as the Minsk accords cannot force Putin to hold fair and free elections in the enclave and surrender control of the Russo-Ukrainian border, their preprogrammed failure as a viable peace-making process is in Ukraine's best interests. 

The status quo in the Donbas is thus Ukraine's best-case scenario. The war is, despite the continued fighting and dying, for all purposes frozen. Ukraine should accept the frozen nature of the conflict, continue to support the Minsk process wholeheartedly, let Putin sustain the enclave on his own, and move on.

Ukrainians must let go of the Donbas enclave and concentrate on the priority that lies plainly ahead—its survival as a democratic and prosperous Western nation. Let the Donbas work itself out at another time—when Ukraine is strong, Putin Russia is weak, and the Donbas population realizes the dreadful mistake it made in siding with the Kremlin’s dictator.

Alexander J. Motyl

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Ukrayinska Dumka


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