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De-Facto-States: States That Do Not Exist – Or Do They?

De-Facto-States: States That Do Not Exist – Or Do They?

The tensed situation in Ukraine recently shed light to a phenomenon that is rarely in the headline of mainstream media – internationally unrecognized de-facto-states in the post-socialist space dependent on Russian patronage.



2 Districts of Donetsk & Luhansk, 36% of which are controlled by de-facto authorities
Languages: Mainly Russian, Ukrainian is language rarely used in everyday practice
Inhabitants: numbers vary between 1.6mio (Ukrainian Government) and 2.8mio (Donbas de-facto authorities)  

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The editing of this text was finalised before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022. Therefore, the resulting dynamics were not taken into account.

From the Very Beginning: What Are De-Facto-States?

In a formal-legal consideration, de-facto-states are unrecognized political entities of varying legitimacy. These entities mostly correspond to the requirements of the Montevideo-Convention on the Rights and Duties of States of 1933: to possess control over a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with the other states. Additionally, for de-facto-states some special criteria apply:

“They declared their actual sovereignty and obtained some important attributes of statehood (territory, government, armed forces and in some cases even a monetary system). Secondly, their sovereignty has no external recognition or at best, an extremely limited one. (…) Thirdly, they are always located in territory regarded by the international community as part of the territory of internationally recognized parental state.” (Markedonov, 2015)1
Oriented on scholars from the field, here the politically somehow rather neutral terms ‘base state’ and ‘patron state’ will be utilized. The first for defining the state the de-facto-state has seceded from, the latter for defining the state that “plays a pivotal role in supporting the de facto state”. 3

The Anomaly in the Westphalian System of States

As the de-facto-states’ claim of independence is violating the principle of territorial integrity under international public law,2 the endeavours are often considered to be a threat to national security by the base state.3 De-facto-states are hence an anomaly in the Westphalian system of states.4 Their emergence is a consequence from different causes – always a form of persisting conflict though,4 but also revolutions or even external foreign policy rivalries.1 Equally diverse are the emerging political systems – as de-facto-statehood does not equate with authoritarianism – and their typological shape as de-facto-states differentiate from self-proclaimed republics, partly-recognized states, puppet states or failed states.1,4 They are different from ‚mere‘ conflict though, because de-facto-states “can be concisely defined as entities that have achieved and maintained internal sovereignty [by establishing a basic state structures and delivering public services and utilities] over an area for an extended period, with a degree of internal legitimacy but only limited formal recognition at the international level, or none at all.”3

More Than Mere Conflict Regions: The Donbas Region

In Donbas, the two self-declared Luhansk Peoples Republic (LPR) and Donetsk Peoples Republic (DPR) have done that: they joined the ‚family‘ of post-soviet de-facto states as newest members. Both republics gave themselves democratic constitutions in May 2014, but it is widely acknowledged that the reality resembles dictatorships. Reports speak of arbitrary and brutal violence against the population, limited press-freedom and dysfunctional justice system.5 This fits the general tendencies of de-facto states to oscillate between democratisation and securitisation and to seek unity in the agreement of opinions, where diverging political or social perspectives are seen as a danger to the entities‘ survival6. The authorities of the self-declared Republics do have established a monopoly on violence, built institutions, are passing laws, do have a sanctioned welfare and education system, official environmental policies and symbols like flags, national holidays and national anthems and are now entering into official relations with de-jure-states, signing a treaty on ‚friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance‘ with Russia8, which invited the Russian army to now officially cross the border to de-jure Ukrainian territory.

Foreign Policy Priority: International Recognition

One of the most important key elements that separates de-facto-states from de-jure-states is the lack of broad international recognition expressed in sincere diplomatic relations. Principally, recognition is a political decision reflecting the balance of power of concerned states, rather than the de-facto-states’ empirical realization of sovereign statehood.3 The third article of the Montevideo-Convention clearly states that “[t]he political existence of the state is independent of recognition by the other states” – however, de-facto-states are often reduced to their role in conflict resolution processes only. Consequently,
“the aspirations of unrecognized republics have been supported by external forces in pursuit of their own interests […often u]nder conditions of direct military-political confrontation between a parent state and territories seeking secession, which can upset the balance of power and status quo in a given region” (Markedonov, 2015)1

This confrontation clearly unfolded between Ukraine and Russia after 2014, which is also the explanation why the Ukraine did always speak of Russia as a party of conflict and its enemy rather than the self-declared Republics‘ authorities, who they instead called ‚terrorists‘.

Patronage: (In-)Dependence?

De-facto-statehood is often closely linked to patronage relations with a powerful and geopolitically interested de-jure-state that go along with military strength and economic as well as financial resources.3 Consequently, a dilemma results due to the fact that the independence from the base state often demands a dependency on the patron state.3 This is expressed in the wish of the Donbas authorities to be regarded independent, but their heavy reliance on Russian funds for their state budget. Most of the trade was oriented to Russia (also due to prior Ukrainian and now western sanctions) and some political frameworks looked at becoming aligned with it, just like Ukraine did the same towards the EU after the association agreement. Some voices inside the secessionist areas openly demanded integration into the Russian Federation, conflicting with the aim of self-governance which was constitutive for the secession. Nevertheless,
“the level and type of interactions available to unrecognised states is highly dependent on their geographic location, post-conflict dynamics, the openness of borders, the presence of an established diaspora or ethnic kin abroad, the economic structure of the territory, the commitment and capabilities of their patron, and, finally, on the overarching goals of the political leadership of these territories.” (Ó Beacháin et al., 2016)3
The administrative recognition of DPR & LPR by Russia, their patron state, does not resolve the strive for independence of these two de-facto-states, nor does it turn them de-jure-states in the eyes of the broader international community. Ironically, as becoming obvious by the Russian ‚peace-forces‘ now officially deployed there, their independence might even have moved further away with an indirect annexation7. The dependence on the patron-state is deepening and the recognition by it was a logical step within this framework. This calculated cementation of the Donbas‘ status with escalating effects on the international dynamic is serving the patron-states‘ interest more than it does support the dreams of the de-facto-states.

This article was inspired by the research seminar on de-facto-statehood in the post-socialist space in the context of the MA program of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Marburg.


  1. Markedonov, S. (2015). De facto statehood in Eurasia: a political and security phenomenon. Caucasus Survey. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/De-facto-statehood-in-Eurasia%3A-a-political-and-Markedonov/d6beb1a51fc68f7da71323f9f66cf0b7eb03e201
  2. Meydan, V. (2018). A Paradox of International (Non)Recognition: The Relationship between De Facto States and Patron States. International Journal of Economics Politics Humanities and Social Sciences. https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/91050/1/MPRA_paper_91050.pdf
  3. Ó Beacháin, D., Comai, G., & Tsurtsumia-Zurabashvili, A. (2016). The secret lives of unrecognised states: Internal dynamics, external relations, and counter-recognition strategies. Small Wars & Insurgencies, 27(3), 440–466. https://doi.org/10.1080/09592318.2016.1151654
  4. Kopeček, V., Hoch, T., & Baar, V. (2016). De Facto States and Democracy: The Case of Abkhazia. Bulletin of Geography. Socio-Economic Series, 32(32), 85–104. https://doi.org/10.1515/bog-2016-0017
  5. Caspersen, N. (2012). Unrecognized states: The struggle for sovereignty in the modern international system. Polity.
  6. Fischer, S. (2019). The Donbas conflict: Opposing interests and narratives, difficult peace process. SWP Research Paper. https://doi.org/10.18449/2019RP05
  7. Sasse, G. (2022) in tagesschau.de. Eine indirekte Annexion. Retrieved online [URL] https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/europa/russland-ukraine-181.html, last accessed 23.03.2022
  8. TASS (2022). DPR’s parliament ratifies treaty on friendship, cooperation with Russia. Retrieved online [URL] https://tass.com/politics/1407949, last accessed 23.02.2022

Lena & Marian

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