Geopolitical scenarios of the Donbas referendum

Donbas map
Map of the Donbas region of Ukraine, from 2015 to the outbreak of 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine (Credits: Goran_tek-en, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The possibility that Donbas will soon hold a referendum to join the Russian Federation might significantly influence the Eurasian geopolitical chessboard by exacerbating the confrontation between Moscow and the West and, therefore, impacting regional and international political and socioeconomic dynamics.

The leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) and the pro-Russian military-civilian administration (VGA) of the Kherson and Zaporizhye regions announced the holding of referendums on joining Russia on September 23-27, 2022. The leadership of these administrative entities declared that joining Russia as soon as possible would guarantee their security from external threats (Vedomosti).

Before today’s appeal by the leaders of DPR and LPR and Kherson and Zaporizhye VGA, the date of the referendum was November 4th, 2022. Since the situation in Ukraine has changed due to the counter-offensive of Kyiv’s military forces to reconquer the territories in eastern Ukraine, Donbas leaders urged to organise the referendum. On the same day, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the partial military mobilisation to “protect and secure the Russian sovereignty against external threats” (SpecialEurasia).

Why does it matter?

Donbas’ referendum might finalise the annexation process of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics and Kherson and Zaporizhye regions in the Russian Federation. Therefore, although Western countries declared that they would not recognise the referendum, any Ukrainian military operation and offensive in this area will become an attack against the Russian sovereign territory, allowing the Kremlins to declare the total military mobilisation of its troops. Whereas the Russian Federation has the world’s fifth-largest military in active-duty personnel, with at least 2 million reserve personnel, the total mobilisation might significantly change the military balance and situation in the Ukraine conflict.

In the worst scenario, considering that the Russian Federation is a member state of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Moscow might invoke Art.4 of the organisation, which requires that other member states provide military aid to restore the country’s territorial integrity. In this context, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan would be faced with the difficult choice of supporting Russia militarily against Ukraine and, therefore, Europe or abstaining and creating a political crisis with Moscow.

The possibility that CSTO member states would join the Russian army in the fight against the Ukrainian troops might consequently force the European Union to extend its sanctions against them, creating diplomatic problems and thus hindering Brussels’ strategy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Since its establishment, only in January 2022, the CSTO military supported one of its members, Kazakhstan, to defend the country from an “external threat, terrorist organisations and foreign agents”. The organisation recently failed to support Armenia from the Azerbaiaìjani military aggression that started on September 13th, 2022. Indeed, the Armenian-Azerbaijani escalation divided the CSTO considering the strategic relations that Central Asian countries have with Baku, especially Kazakhstan.

Although last weekend Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, paid an official visit to Yerevan, demonstrating Washington’s commitment to stabilise the South Caucasus, Armenia still wholly relies on the Russian Federation. Therefore, the Armenian support to the Russian Federation in the framework of the CSTO could be probable if Moscow will put more significant efforts into countering Baku’s territorial aims on the scales.

On the other hand, Central Asian republics’ reaction could raise problems about their relations with Moscow. Indeed, Kazakhstan might be less inclined to support the Russian Federation and lose its economic and trade partnerships with the European Union and, thus, its logistic role as a “bridge” between Europe and Asia. Indeed, since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, Kazakhstan has often disappointed the Russian public opinion by taking distance from Moscow due to the Western sanctions.

Considering its position between Europe and Asia and the recent domestic crisis due to the pandemic and socioeconomic problems which pushed part of the Kazakh population to join the January protests, Kazakhstan needs economic relations with the European Union to transform the country into a logistic hub linked with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. As the Kazakh President has often stated, Kazakhistan seeks regional stabilisation and promotes itself as an East-West connector.

On the other hand, Kazakhstan cannot continue to disappoint the Kremlin, which helped Tokaev in January 2022 to face domestic political protests and crises, because the Central Asian republic heavily depends on the Russian Federation. Furthermore, since around 18% of the Kazakh population is Russian or Russophone, exacerbating relations with Moscow might threaten political stability and the upcoming presidential elections, which Tokayev called to confirm his leadership and decrease former president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s legacy in the country.

Both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan highly depend on the Russian economy. In addition, the Russian Federation holds military bases in the Central Asian republics, and Moscow has signed several defence agreements with Bishkek and Dushanbe to guarantee regional stability and security.

Especially for Tajikistan, Moscow-Dushanbe’s partnership is fundamental to maintaining border control with neighbouring Afghanistan. Since August 2021, when the Taliban took power in Kabul after the U.S. troops’ withdrawal, Afghanistan has experienced a rise in terrorist attacks. Furthermore, Moscow has often worked as a mediator between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan regarding their border issues which recently registered a military escalation that caused more than 100 victims, including civilians.

In this scenario, even though Bishkek and Dushanbe need to manage domestic problems and border issues, it is possible that they symbolically would support the Russian Federation to avoid severe consequences for their economy and internal political order.

One of the principal consequences of the Donbas referendum would be the annexation of Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zhaporizhye into the Russian Federation’s sovereign territory, a possibility which might change the sort of the Ukraine conflict and also the Kremlin’s narrative of the war among the Russian citizens.

On the other hand, the West should also consider Russia’s strong influence in its blizhnee zarubezhe (near abroad), particularly in Central Asian republics, since most of them are members of the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and depend differently on Moscow’s support and alliance. The risk is that Moscow will put post-Soviet space in front of a tricky final decision between Russia and the West, whose consequence might be a significant fracture between CSTO or EAEU member states and the European Union or the United States.

In what could be the worst geopolitical scenario, the European Union might lose contact with strategic energy and commercial partners in the post-Soviet space in a period characterised by energy and economic crisis and Brussels’ attempt to diversify its natural gas imports by exploiting Caucasian and Central Asian republics for their logistic role or energy resources.

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