Frozen Conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas Becoming More Likely

Neither Kiev nor the separatists are in a position to decisively end the war in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Ukrainian armored personnel carrier
An armored personnel carrier takes part in a military exercise in Yavoriv, Ukraine, October 21, 2014 (Government of Ukraine)

As the war in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region seems to be fizzling out, another conflict on Russia’s borders could soon be frozen.

Although a truce negotiated by the leaders of France and Germany last month is still tenuous and although Russia has yet to fully back down, the civil war it instigated in the largely Russian-speaking frontier region of its former Soviet republic is losing intensity.

Edward W. Walker, a comparative political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, believes a frozen conflict is now more likely. Neither the separatists, who are supported by Russia, nor the authorities in Kiev are in a position to decisively end the war, he argues.

Russia also appears to have concluded that an escalation of the war “would do nothing to solve what it sees as its key security problem,” according to Walker, “which is NATO’s growing military presence near its borders.”

If anything, Russia’s meddling in Ukraine has strengthened NATO’s resolve and aggravated the threat Russia believes it poses to its security. In the wake of Russia’s occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine last year, the Western military alliance for the first time deployed forces in the former East Bloc states that freed themselves from Moscow after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Walker suggests this may have led Russia to conclude “that it will be more effective at promoting Western disunity if it allows a lasting ceasefire to take effect while seeking to undermine Ukrainian political stability using more subtle methods.”

Perhaps this would not be the worst outcome for the rest of Ukraine. The crowdsourced consultancy Wikistrat argues that cutting away the self-declared people’s republics in Donetsk and Luhansk “offers perverse advantages.”

The rump Ukraine that remains could gain a new cohesion through the shared experience of struggle while the West — eager to teach Moscow a lesson — would both require and support the often-painful processes of political and economic reform the country so desperately needs.

Russia too would be better served by reversing its stated objectives. Suffering a serious economic crisis due to falling oil prices and Western sanctions — enacted after it took the Crimea — the country could find itself in an even worse position if it needs to continue to arm, guard, feed and support a puppet fiefdom in Ukraine. It would be better off forcing the rebellious regions back into Ukraine, according to Wikistrat — “like a rusty nail to poison the country’s bloodstream.”

That might not be politically feasible. President Vladimir Putin has staked his popularity on taking a “tough” stance against what Russians see as Western encroachment on their traditional sphere of influence. Retreating from Ukraine could be interpreted by the Russian public as weakness and threaten Putin’s hold on power.

The author is a contributing analyst for Wikistrat.