Wednesday, March 29, 2023

2022: Donetsk & Lugansk People's Republics Stop Claiming Independence

Most of our readers will already have heard of this story last year, but because PolGeoNow is committed to providing a record of all changes to the world's list of countries, and because this aspect of the story hasn't been much discussed, we're still publishing an article about it now. Parts of this article are adapted from our story on Recognition of the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics from one year ago.

Map of territorial control within the claimed borders of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Lugansk People's Republic (LPR) as of September 26, 2022, a week before they stopped claiming independence after their claimed merger with Russia (annexation). Map shows that all of the LPR, otherwise known as Ukraine's Luhansk province, was under the control of Russian and LPR forces, while Russian and DPR forces controlled over half of the DPR, or Ukraine's Donetsk province, including the major central and southern cities of Donetsk, Horlivka, Makiyivka, and Mariupol. Colorblind accessible.
Actual military/administrative control within the DPR and LPR's claimed borders just before their governments' agreed merger into Russia. This was also roughly their greatest extent of control during the period they claimed to be independent countries, if including territory held by their close ally the Russian military. This map was originally published as part of our subscriber-exclusive September 2022 Ukraine control map report.

Partial Recognition

For eight years, from 2014 to 2022, the so-called Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Lugansk People's Republic (LPR) said they were independent countries, despite most of the world considering them to be parts of Ukraine. Then late last year, they stopped claiming independence, instead saying they had now become part of Russia, after Russia controversially agreed to take them in. Read on for the full story, explained in plain English...

2014-2022: Unrecognized Independence

Flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR). Three plain horizontal bars of colors (from top to bottom) black, dark blue, and red. Proclaimed Country Name (2014-2022): 
• Donetsk People's Republic (English)
• Donetskaya Narodnaya Respublika (Russian)
Capital: Donetsk
Recognized by: Russia, Syria, North Korea
Status According to Others: Province of Ukraine

In April 2014, the month after Russia-backed separatists in the peninsula of Crimea declared their independence from Ukraine, Russia-backed rebels in Ukraine's eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk also announced that they were forming independent countries: the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Lugansk People's Republic (LPR). ("Luhansk" is the Ukrainian-language spelling of the place name, while "Lugansk" is the Russian-language version.)

Most of the world's countries rejected these claims, if taking them seriously at all. And it was debatable whether the supposed governments of both republics were realistically governing their land like real countries. But they did have clear military control of large parts of their proclaimed territories - something that can't be said of most other separatist movements.

Early on, the DPR and LPR also said they were joining together to form one bigger country called "Novorossiya", though they never went through with the merger in practical terms, and the plan was soon abandoned.

Crimea, which had already been fully secured by Russia's military, was quickly absorbed into Russia with the permission of its own supposed independent government. But the DPR and LPR, in contrast, would remain "unrecognized" for the next eight years - not officially treated as independent by any other country, even Russia. (That is, unless you count them "recognizing" each other, or being recognized by fellow Russia-backed South Ossetia, which claims independence from Georgia but is also barely considered independent by any other countries.)

See Also: Crimea gives up claimed independence to join Russia

Flag of the self-proclaimed Lugansk (Luhansk) People's Republic (LPR). Three plain horizontal bars of colors (from top to bottom) light blue, dark blue, and red. Proclaimed Country Name (2014-2022): 
• Lugansk People's Republic (English)
• Luganskaya Narodnaya Respublika (Russian)
Capital: Luhansk (Lugansk)
Recognized by: Russia, Syria, North Korea
Status According to Others: Province of Ukraine

Early 2022: Partial Recognition

While the rest of the world's countries continued to consider Donetsk and Luhansk part of Ukraine, Russia officially recognized the DPR and LPR as independent countries in February 2022, just ahead of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This technically elevated both of them from the category of "completely unrecognized" (by any UN member country) to "partially recognized". 

Being officially considered independent by exactly one UN member country actually wasn't a unique situation. The same applies to Northern Cyprus, which is recognized as independent only by Türkiye (formerly Turkey). And Northern Cyprus, more so than the DPR and LPR, was already widely considered a "de facto state" - a place that's governed independently, for better or worse, even if it's not generally accepted as one of the world's countries ("state" is a technical term for a country, and "de facto" is a Latin phrase meaning "in actual fact").

Soon after Russia's big endorsement, the DPR and LPR were also recognized by the government of Abkhazia, another barely-recognized de facto state claiming independence from Georgia. Months later, they finally were endorsed by more UN member countries: First in June by Syria (ruled by the Russia-allied Bashar al-Assad government), then in July by world maverick North Korea. This brought the total number of UN member countries treating them as independent up to three (about 1.5% of all the world's countries), more than the single country recognizing Northern Cyprus, but still fewer than the several countries recognizing Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

Late 2022: Independence Claims Withdrawn

The partial recognition of independence for Donetsk and Lugansk came to an end later in the year. On September 30, after their residents supposedly voted for it, the self-proclaimed independent DPR and LPR governments signed treaties to merge with Russia - alongside the Russia-installed governments of Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine's neighboring Zaporizhzhia and Kherson provinces.

The legal formalities to absorb these four areas into Russia (according to Russian law) were completed five days later, on October 5, 2022, ending any claims to independence for the DPR and LPR, and implying that Russia, Syria, and North Korea's recognition of that independence was no longer in effect. Their claims to being independent countries had lasted eight years, and their "partially-recognized" status had ended after just seven months.

Flag of Russia. Three plain horizontal bars of colors (from top to bottom) white, dark blue, and red. Country Short Name:  
• Russia (English)
• Rossiya (Russian)
Full Official Name: 
• Russian Federation (English)
• Rossiyskaya Federatsiya (Russian)
Capital: Moscow

This claimed move of the Russian border to encompass Donetsk, Luhansk, and at least parts of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson was controversial, to say the least. It's been widely called a Russian "annexation" of parts of eastern Ukraine - technical lingo for when one country absorbs new land without getting permission first, which is generally considered to be illegal in modern international law.

Not only that, but absorbing such a large part of another UN-recognized country into your own without that country's permission is almost unheard of in post-World War II history - the closest comparison is Iraq's 1990 annexation of Kuwait, which was roundly rejected by the world's countries, and quickly reversed by force. Other major takeovers, like the US-led invasion of Iraq, have relied on assumptions that they wouldn't try to actually make the other country part of their own. 

And indeed, in a UN vote after Russia absorbed the DPR and LPR, almost three quarters of the world's countries voted to condemn the move, with most of the rest choosing to stay out of it rather than side with Russia.

But in the areas still controlled by the Russian military - as lots of Donetsk and almost all of Luhansk are - there's not much that any other countries can do to prevent the newly-absorbed areas from being treated as part of Russia. In fact, the self-proclaimed governments of the DPR and LPR had always been very close to Russia, with their critics often accusing them of already being ruled as part of that country for years.

As far as PolGeoNow has been able to tell, the two regions' governments still call themselves the Donetsk People's Republic and Lugansk People's Republic. But they now consider themselves non-independent republics within Russia, similar to many other parts of Russia that are also called republics (though not "people's republics"). Their military forces have also officially joined the Russian army.

See Also: Map of Russian control in the Ukraine war (February 2023)

Were Donetsk and Lugansk really independent countries?

Three UN member countries said they considered Donetsk and Lugansk to be independent before they joined Russia - so does that mean they were actually real countries? We mentioned that most of the world's governments say "no" out of principle - but what if we're just being realistic?

Flag of Ukraine. Two plain horizontal bars, the top one blue and the bottom one yellow. Full Country Name:  
• Ukraine (English)
• Ukrayina (Ukrainian)
Capital: Kyiv

There's an argument to made for either side. On the one hand, the DPR and LPR did have governments of their own, with military forces and at least some government services, especially later on, which were definitely not controlled by Ukraine. But on the other hand, they also were heavily reliant on Russia, and increasingly integrated with it. So some people might argue that they were already de facto ("in actual fact") parts of Russia, for better or worse, rather than de facto independent countries.

Beyond official declarations and diplomatic recognition, independence is a bit of a fuzzy concept, so in the end it depends on your interpretation. There's not necessarily one correct answer, and in reality the world is more complicated than the simple categories we invent.

For a full list of the world's partially and completely unrecognized countries, check out our "How many countries are there in the world" explainer, which has been updated for 2023.


Graphics of the Ukrainian flag (source), DPR flag (source), LPR flag (source), and Russian flag (source) are in the public domain.