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After three days of heated discussion in parliament, last Thursday Ukraine passed a law declaring areas seized by pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east as being under “temporary occupation” by Russia. The “Donbass reintegration law” was submitted by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and adopted with the support of 280 lawmakers in the 450-seat body. According to the Kyiv Post, it ascribes Russia the title of “aggressor” state and outlines its legal responsibilities after it supported separatist forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, known as the Donbass region, four years ago. This includes giving Ukrainian citizens the right to sue Moscow for property damage.
In a statement on Facebook, Poroshenko gave assurances that the move was part of an ongoing process towards peace, saying “we will continue to pave the way for reintegration of the occupied Ukrainian lands through political and diplomatic steps”. This sentiment was supported and elaborated on by Ukrainian politician, Arseniy Yatseniuk, who said that the introduction of the law would establish a legal framework to “remove the Russia army from Ukrainian territory” through a United Nations sanctioned peacekeeping force. Russia on the other hand condemned the Donbass reintegration law, warning that it “risked dangerous escalation in Ukraine with unpredictable consequences for world peace and security”. “You cannot call this anything but preparation for a new war”, a statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry read.
The response to this move by the Ukrainian government has, for the most part, been negative. One of the most prominent reasons for this is concern as to how it may impact the Minsk Accords, brokered by France and Germany, and signed by Russia and Ukraine in 2015 in an effort to reduce the scope of hostilities in Donbass. Russian officials and leaders in the separatist movement have labelled the law as sabotaging or altogether violating its commitments under the agreement. Criticism also came from within Ukraine, with many seeming unimpressed by the fact that the law ultimately offers little in the way of concrete steps towards the realization of de-occupation.
The frustration is especially high considering the protracted nature of the conflict and how little progress has been made since pro-Russian separatists took over parts of Donbass back in 2014. According to the BBC, more than 10,000 people have died in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk region in what the outlet has described as “the most dangerous conflict to grip Europe since the wars in the former Yugoslavia”. The humanitarian toll has received less attention in the media but is no less significant considering 2,000 of the total causalities have been civilians and a further 1.7 million people have been displaced as a result of the ongoing fighting.
It is difficult to predict what, if any, consequences will arise as a result of the introduction of this new law by Ukraine. While its potential to jeopardize the Minsk Accords has been touted, the reality is that despite conflict having somewhat slowed there have still been sporadic clashes and periods of fighting within the contested region. The important matter of attempting to reach some sort of political settlement has stalled and, as was noted in a Financial Times report, “prospects for a near-term breakthrough appear distant”. For the time being at least it seems the role played by the Donbass reintegration law is largely symbolic, but hopefully one that will not come at the cost of further alienating the conflicting parties.