Ukraine's Donbass region is adopting Russian currency, schoolbooks and maybe soon, passports. Russia, which annexed the Crimean Peninsula last year, hasn't had to take any formal control to move the secession along.
It is often just a single letter that makes the difference. On the outskirts of Donetsk, separatists have removed a diacritical mark from the sign announcing the city's name - thus transforming a Ukrainian word into a Russian one. Separatists love to have their picture taken here. For the past several months, street and city signs with Ukrainian names have been replaced with signs written in Russian throughout the country's east.
"It's another country now," says Igor Martynov, who was named mayor of Donetsk by the separatists. Ukrainian flags and crests will continue to be removed from the public sphere as well.
During negotiations in Minsk, it was agreed that the 2-3 million residents of the regions surrounding Donetsk and Luhansk would receive more autonomy but remain part of Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande most recently reiterated those points during meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Paris this October.
Yet, exactly the opposite is taking place. Although guns have been silent since the beginning of September, the separation of the coal mining region Donbass from the rest of Ukraine, which was begun in the spring of 2014, is quietly continuing. Largely unnoticed by the world at large, facts are being created on the ground. This is happening without Russia having to formally take control of the region, or having to annex it like it did with the Crimean Peninsula.
The ruble as official currency
The separatists first introduced the Russian ruble alongside the Ukrainian hryvna months ago. Then, on September 1, the ruble was declared the official currency of the Luhansk Oblast. The separatists justified the move with claims that Ukraine no longer sends money to the province. The resumption of retirement and salary payments was agreed to in Minsk; however, the implementation thereof is nowhere in sight.
There have also been changes in education. According to media reports, "humanitarian convoys," as Moscow calls them, brought some 500 tons of schoolbooks to the separatist provinces. Students in Donetsk and Luhansk now learn from Russian textbooks, which are different from Ukrainian textbooks, especially in subject areas such as history. Russian curricula are also being widely adopted.
Control of separatist troops
Further, separatist troops are apparently increasingly under Russian control. Since the beginning of the conflict, Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of supporting the separatists with weapons and fighters. Something Russia denies.
Nonetheless, within the framework of the Minsk Protocol, Russia has officially sent military advisers into the rogue provinces. They are charged with overseeing the ceasefire. To that end, the Russian and rebel Ukrainian militaries are operating a shared headquarters. "The Russians have placed observers in every battalion and every larger unit," explained Alexander Chodakowski, security chief of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic," in mid-October. That is how Russia controls the troops.
Russian passports for Eastern Ukrainians in Rostov?
What many separatists desire most are Russian passports. Denis Pushilin, a separatist leader from Donetsk, does not rule out the possibility that residents of the "People's Republic" may soon be able to apply for Russian citizenship. Citing "well-informed interlocutors," the Russian government newspaper "Rossiyskaya Gazeta" reported on the issue by saying that Moscow has not yet given such instructions, but that could change in the future.
On Tuesday, a separatist-friendly online website reported that by the end of this year a government agency is to be installed in the southern Russian port city of Rostov-on-Don with the power to issue Russian passports to residents of the Eastern Ukrainian Donetsk and Luhansk provinces according to a "simplified process." The portal quoted a "high-ranking source" in the "Luhansk People's Republic" as saying that the Russian location was chosen so as not to create an outcry.
Experts: Putin doesn't want a frozen conflict
It certainly would not be a new approach. Moscow has acted similarly in other former Soviet republics once conflicts became frozen - in Georgia for instance, where Russian passports were also issued. Rebellious provinces such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia were later recognized as independent states.
Western observers like Winfried Schneider-Deters have come to the conclusion that the quiet rapprochement between Eastern Ukrainian separatists and Russia is in direct conflict with official Kremlin policy and the Minsk Protocol. The publisher and Ukraine expert believes that Moscow does not want to freeze the conflict. "Putin wants this entity within the Ukrainian state - with the intention of it being a permanent source of irritation," says the expert. If that cannot be successfully established, then Russia may initiate its "Plan B" for the Donbass: Irrevocable separation from Ukraine.