Leonid Androv, an electrician from Kiev, was drafted into the Ukrainian Army and spent a year fighting Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine after the conflict broke out in 2014. Now, like many other Ukrainians, he is ready to accept that those lands are lost.
“The Russians are in charge there and they are methodically erasing everything Ukrainian. So why should I and impoverished Ukraine pay for the occupation?” said Mr. Androv.
Long unthinkable after years of fighting and about 10,000 deaths, Ukrainians increasingly are coming around to the idea of at least temporarily abandoning the region known as the Donbass, considering it to be de facto occupied by Russia.
This would effectively kill the Minsk peace agreement brokered by Germany and France, which aims to preserve a united Ukraine. The Minsk agreement is still firmly supported both by the West and Russia, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin affirmed at their meeting this week.
The 2015 agreement, which Ukraine signed as its troops were being driven back, has greatly reduced but not stopped the fighting, while attempts to fulfill its provisions for a political settlement have failed.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko still stands by Minsk. In recent months, however, his government has moved to isolate the east by blocking trade and shutting off supplies of electricity and gas, demonstrating that it now considers the industrial region to be Moscow’s problem.
Several factions in the Ukrainian parliament have introduced legislation that would designate those territories outside of Kiev’s control as “occupied.”
“We should call a spade a spade and recognize the Russian occupation of Donbass,” said Yuriy Bereza, a co-author of the legislation. Bereza, who commanded one of the volunteer battalions that fought in the east, called it necessary to preserve the state.
The likelihood of the legislation coming up for a vote is low, given the government’s reluctance to formally acknowledge the loss of these territories.
Almost half of Ukrainians, however, favor declaring the separatist-controlled areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to be occupied, according to a poll conducted by the Razumkov Center.
Under Minsk, the two regions are to remain part of Ukraine but with “special status.” They would have the right to hold their own elections. Those who fought against the Ukrainian army would receive amnesty.
These provisions have little popular support. The poll found that only 22 percent of Ukrainians were ready to grant the Donbass this “special status,” while 31 percent of respondents said they found it difficult to answer. The poll, conducted in January among 2,018 people across Ukraine, had a margin of error of 2.3 percentage points.
“It is obvious that Ukrainian society supports the isolation and blockade of the Donbass. And this is exactly what is dictating President Poroshenko’s behavior,” said Razumkov Center sociologist Andrei Bychenko. “If Poroshenko plans to seek a second term, he has to think about the mood of society, not about the expectations of the West.”
Poroshenko was elected after mass protests led to the ouster of Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president in early 2014 and put the country on a path toward closer integration with the West.
While still speaking about a united Ukraine, Poroshenko’s government last month shut off electricity supplies to Luhansk over unpaid debts. Kiev already had stopped supplying gas to both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and in March, Poroshenko imposed a trade blockade on the regions beyond Kiev’s control.
Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters this was “one more step by Ukraine to rid itself of these territories.”
Although Russia quickly annexed the Crimean Peninsula at the start of the conflict, Putin has made clear he has no interest in annexing eastern Ukraine.
“The Kremlin has tried to push this cancerous tumor back into Ukraine, using Donetsk and Lugansk as a Trojan horse to manipulate Kiev,” said Russian political scientist Andrei Piontkovsky. “But the Ukrainian government has had enough sense not to let it happen.”
Putin, speaking to journalists Tuesday after talks with Ms. Merkel, responded angrily to a suggestion that perhaps it was time for a new peace agreement since the Donbass already had de facto separated from Ukraine.
“No one has severed these territories. They were severed by the Ukrainian government itself through all sorts of blockades,” Putin said. Russia was forced to support Donbass, he added, noting that it was “still supplying a significant amount of goods, including power, and providing coke for Ukrainian metallurgical plants.”
Putin and Merkel both said that despite the problems they saw no alternative to the Minsk agreement.
Sergei Garmash is among the 2 million people who have left their homes in eastern Ukraine. He said there is almost nothing Ukrainian left in Donetsk, which now uses Russian rubles, receives only Russian television and survives thanks to Russian subsidies.
“Ukrainian politicians need to be brave and legally recognize this territory as occupied by Russia. This will force Moscow to pick up the bill. And the more expensive this adventure will be for the Kremlin, the sooner it will walk away,” said Mr. Garmash, who now lives in Kiev.
Moscow sends humanitarian convoys to the Donbass every month and pays the salaries and pensions of people who live there. Russia also supports the separatist military operations, although the Kremlin continues to deny that it sends arms and troops.
Russia has been hurt economically by sanctions imposed by the West over the annexation of Crimea and support for the separatists.
“Public opinion has swung sharply toward the isolation of Donbass, and for the Kiev government it is an opportune time to shift all the expenses of the ‘frozen conflict’ to Moscow,” said Vladimir Fesenko, head of the Penta Center of Political Studies in Ukraine.
“Of course the war in Donbass was incited by Russia to slow Ukraine’s move toward Europe,” Mr. Fesenko said. “But no Ukrainian politician can publicly give up on Crimea and Donbass and recognize them as part of Russia.”
Androv, the Kiev electrician, said the problem is that no one knows what to do with Donbass.
Likening it to a suitcase with no handle, he said: “It’s too heavy to carry, but it’s a shame to throw it away.”