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Five scenarios of Ukraine’s territorial future

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Various scenarios are circulating with different probabilities for shaping the future territory of Ukraine. They differ primarily in the distance that the Russian border will move to the west.

by Alexei Tokarev

The first scenario corresponds to Ukraine’s demand for a return to the state of February 23, 2022. The Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics remain formally Ukrainian territories, the Normandy format negotiations are sluggish and Russia continues to demand a diplomatic solution. Due to the structure of Russian foreign policy, however, there will probably not be a return to the starting point. Under the current conditions, the recognition of the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics as sovereigns over their respective territories will not be shaken.

The second, the minimal scenario, assumes that the Russian troops will end their advance right on the borders of the former Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. We know from publicly available sources that responsibility for these areas within the presidential administration has been transferred from the Office for Cross-Border Cooperation to the Office for Internal Policy and Public Projects. The curator for all Russian domestic policy, Sergei Kiriyenko, together with his colleagues Andrei Jarin and Sergei Novikov, has already visited the Donbass and the Russian-controlled southern Ukrainian regions of Zaporozhye and Kherson.

It is likely that the areas of the formally independent Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics will join Russia by referendum decision. If the referendum takes place, such a decision is likely to be made: our long-term sociology in Donbass shows that among the alternatives “handover to Russia”, “remaining within Ukrainian borders” and “consolidation of the status quo in the gray area”, the former variant has always been the most popular and more than outperforms the other two. The “70-70” formula (the percentage of those who went to the polls and voted for the election) will work.

However, this scenario has a major drawback: the sad fate of the population remaining in the Ukrainian territories from which Russian forces are withdrawing. Some of the Ukrainian security forces consider the civilians in the towns and villages abandoned by the Russian units as collaborators. The withdrawal of the Russian army and Donbass militias from the Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporozhye would endanger the civilian population.

The third, middle scenario assumes that the Zaporozhye and Cherson regions will also secede from Ukraine. The question is how to legalize the presence of Russian troops in these areas. The creation of new “people’s republics”, ie the freezing of the conflict by creating a constitutional gray area, would be received extremely negatively by the population.

Over the years, the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics have not become a “showcase of the Russian world” and have lost out to the Kyiv-controlled areas of Donbass in the organization of everyday life, public services and the economy. Therefore, they are not a magnet for the Ukrainian population. They will have to choose between two alternatives: become part of Russia or remain part of Ukraine.

The Zaporozhye and Kherson regions are already converting their currency to the ruble, while all institutions of the Russian government (presidential administration, federal government, parliament, security services) are gradually beginning to integrate certain economic and bureaucratic processes into their own state space. Russian officials (including Deputy Prime Minister Marat Chuznullin, Deputy Speaker of the Federation Council Andrei Turchak, and Prime Minister of the Republic of Crimea Sergei Aksyonov) have repeatedly stated that “Russia will never leave”.

It is difficult to imagine that the activities of Chuznullin, who oversees the construction complex, infrastructure, transport, spatial development, Kaliningrad and Crimea and promises to include the Zaporozhye and Kherson regions in the “Russian family”, are just passionate amateur activities . However, the decision on the new areas, if made, has not yet been made public, despite the active presence in the media of high-level advocates of this scenario.

The last referendum on Ukrainian territory was held on May 11, 2014. On September 11, 2022 there will be another unified election day in Russia. The Crimean model can be used for all new areas to be incorporated into Russia. The region detached itself from Ukraine for at least a day (in the case of the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics it was eight years) and applied for admission to the Russian Federation as a sovereign state.

The fourth scenario, the maximum scenario, envisages that all southern regions of Ukraine, including Odessa, Nikolayev and Kharkov, will be included in Russia’s borders. Their status would depend on the situation in the theater of operations. However, the definite downside would be the transformation of the cities, which have been turned into resistance strongholds by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the National Guard and Territorial Defense, into a new Mariupol. But no one can want a repeat of the Mariupol scenario for Zaporozhye and Kharkov if there is no turning point after the creation of several pockets on the western borders of the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics.

The fifth scenario is the most negative for the state of Ukraine. Its implementation would require the active involvement of new actors in the conflict, notably Poland and Hungary. A new European war over Ukrainian heritage would complete the state disintegration that began in 2014. In this case, the accession of the Kharkov and Dnepropetrovsk regions to Russia would be realistic.

The first scenario is hardly possible, the second and fifth unlikely. If the situation in the theater of war develops successfully for Russia and the city of Zaporozhye does not turn into a new Mariupol, then the third scenario seems the most realistic.

The future Ukraine (if statehood is preserved around the current institutions and Kyiv as the capital) will likely have a non-nuclear status, renounce NATO accession, stay on course towards the EU and have Crimea and the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics as parts of Russia (or at least these will not be subject to security guarantees for Ukraine).

In addition, Ukraine will no longer have control over the Zaporozhye and Kherson regions, possibly also Odessa, Nikolayev and Kharkov. It will repeal laws, discriminate against the Russian language without making it the second state language, lose the army as a structure capable of conducting offensive operations and military exercises coordinated with its security guarantee states. Russian diplomacy is open to talks on peace building.

Translated from the Russian.

Alexei Tokarev is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations at the Russian diplomatic school Moscow State Institute for International Relations.


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