In the end, there is no question that Kyiv will have to find a way forward with Moscow, either through both sides implementing their commitments in the Minsk agreements (in whatever order they can agree to) or some new deal that covers much of the same ground. Any plausible settlement will involve the withdrawal of Russian troops, some level of autonomy for eastern Ukraine and the reunification of Ukraine with its east. Although Moscow remains the main address for peace talks, there nonetheless are good reasons for Kyiv to do more to rebuild relations with its eastern population. First, it needs to do so if it ever hopes to reintegrate those areas into the Ukrainian body politic. Secondly, the growing divides among Moscow, the original separatists and Donbas’s population mean that Moscow’s ability to negotiate on behalf of any of these other groups is limited. Russia’s proxies now in power in the D/LPR would likely have to agree to whatever Russia promised on their behalf, but they might face substantial discontent from an already suspicious population, including among separatists who might hesitate to lay down their arms, undermining any deal.

In other words, if a deal with the Kremlin is essential for peace in Donbas, in itself it may not be enough. Improved relations between Kyiv and the Donbas population might not bring along the most hardened separatists, but they will make armed resistance to reintegration less likely. And the more supportive the local population is of reintegration, the more likely they are to influence separatist neighbours. In addition, better relations with the Donbas population might strengthen Kyiv’s hand in negotiations with Moscow.

The Ukrainian government could attempt to build a constituency for reintegration among eastern Ukraine’s population. This constituency might even include people who favoured separatism but who, disillusioned with Moscow, might now be convinced otherwise, particularly if they feel that their safety and that of their families is assured. New local leaders have emerged as the regions have changed over the last seven years, including some women. Key to such engagement is building their confidence that Kyiv can protect their interests. As a starting point, the Ukrainian government could encourage contact between Ukrainians in government-controlled parts of the country with those on the other side of the line of separation. Such channels of communication might allow Ukrainians to reach out to their compatriots in these territories as a starting point to convincing them that their security and their livelihoods matter to Kyiv.

Removing barriers put in place over the last seven years is essential. For example, Ukraine  could ease or lift the economic blockade that now isolates the D/LPR.  It would enable economic links that, in turn, might help rebuild relationships across the front line. In line with the recent decision of its Supreme Court, Kyiv should take steps to enable residents of the D/LPR to receive their pensions by delinking pensions from provable status as internally displaced persons. Kyiv might also consider easing its language laws, which now significantly limit the use of Russian in public life. Such steps would signal to the local population that Kyiv is ready to engage and that it values them as citizens, a prerequisite for any constructive political dialogue.

If Ukraine is to reunify its east, the Ukrainian government will have to define and forge consensus among Ukrainian parties and within society on what special status, autonomy and/or federalisation could entail. It will need to consider options for amnesties and security guarantees and prepare to address opposition from all sides, including Ukrainian nationalists and former separatists who fear reprisals in the event of reintegration. The challenges are substantial. But improved relations with the people of the east will make solutions to these problems better informed, more responsive to their needs and thus more feasible.

If the Ukrainian government wants to peacefully reunify with the rebel-held territories, it cannot avoid engaging the alienated east. Its task in this regard is difficult. But Kyiv would benefit from an approach that serves the interests of all Ukrainian citizens, wherever they live. Over time, such policies could bring a population in the east that feels abandoned by both Russia and Kyiv back into the Ukrainian fold.

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