A Ukrainian soldier participates in target practice near the Donbas war front lines

No solution in Donbas

  • Bringing Ukrainian control back to the breakaway territories is unrealistic
  • The Kremlin is digging in and controls the escalation ladder
  • The West has limited strategic options for realizing its goals
  • The conflict will likely remain frozen, achieving Russian objectives

From time to time, events give rise to sudden spurts of optimism that a solution may after all be found to the crisis in Ukraine’s Donbas region. The latest, and to date most important, such event occurred in early September, when Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly proposed that United Nations peacekeepers might be deployed there.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said he was “surprised” but also “very glad” that the Russian side was ready to continue negotiating about demands it had previously rejected. Newly appointed United States Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker showed similar pleasant surprise, noting, “There’s more on the table now that we can work with.”

Such bursts of hopefulness reflect just how irrelevant the internationally agreed framework for seeking a diplomatic solution to the war in Donbas – the Minsk agreement and the Normandy format – has become.

UN deployment

A limited UN deployment along the line of confrontation might succeed in reducing the daily grind of killings. This would, of course, be very welcome. But it would achieve little beyond transforming the conflict in Donbas into a replica of what happened in Cyprus following the Turkish invasion – an unofficial partition that is de facto sanctioned and policed by the international community.

Progress toward a lasting solution would require the deployment of a much larger contingent of peacekeepers that could guarantee free and fair elections in the occupied territories, and the subsequent return of control over the Russia-Ukraine border to the legitimate Ukrainian authorities. This scenario can be dismissed out of hand.

A scenario of escalation could be developing, moving the conflict even further away from a lasting solution

Clearly, President Putin made his sudden announcement because the U.S. is finally about to up the ante by providing lethal weapons for Ukraine. This suggests an alternative scenario could be developing: escalation and a move even further away from a lasting solution.

Donbas proxy war

On September 18, the U.S. Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, authorizing $500 million of military aid to Ukraine, including lethal defensive weapons. The most likely item on the list would be the FGM-148 Javelin, a shoulder-mounted “fire-and-forget” infrared-guided anti-tank missile that can pierce up to 800-millimeter steel armor. The hope is that this weapon would deter Russia from any plans of further military advances inside Ukraine. But it is questionable just how effective this move would be.

The rebel forces do have older Soviet tank models that would stand no chance against the Javelin. But they also have the modern T-72B3Ms and T-90s that would present a different challenge. The latter are equipped with Relikt reactive armor that defeats armor-piercing missiles. As the Javelin has not been tested against such armor, it is unknown if it can take out the T-90s and T-72B3Ms.

Providing lethal defensive weapons is more of an emotional-political move than a military-strategic one. Some elements within the U.S. military may welcome an opportunity to find out how its weapons perform against modern Russian tanks, but turning Donbas into a theater for proxy war inside Europe would not bring the conflict closer to a resolution.

Downed MH-17

Another possible scenario of escalation is linked to the aftermath of the downing, on July 17, 2014, of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17, killing all 298 on board. The Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which includes the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine, has by now accumulated ample evidence of what happened, including names of units and individuals involved.

A missile is fired from a Russian Buk-M1 launcher
If it is proven that a missile fired from a Buk-M1 launcher like this one downed the MH-17 passenger aircraft, it would put many Western leaders in a tough spot (source: dpa)

According to Dutch Chief Prosecutor Fred Westerbeke, his office has identified 100 “persons of interest,” including those who oversaw the transport of a Buk-M1 self-propelled, medium-range surface-to-air missile launcher from Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade in Kursk to Ukraine and back to Russia.

Based on this evidence, the JIT has concluded that the missile that hit MH-17 was fired from territory in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russia separatists. On September 20, it was announced that its members are in full agreement that the suspects will be tried in a Dutch court and under Dutch law.

As Russia cannot be expected to extradite any servicemen who might be convicted, one should not expect that justice will be served. Tjibbe Joustra, who led the Dutch Safety Board investigation, has been quoted as saying, “I don’t see anybody going to jail quickly, but I think the truth will come out.”

If the truth does indeed come out, and if it entails evidence of a chain of command that leads all the way to the top, then the relationship between President Putin and his interlocutors in the West – most notably with German Chancellor Angel Merkel – will become completely untenable. It would be politically impossible to talk to, not to mention meet with, a man who is ultimately responsible for the tragedy and who has been doing everything possible to muddy the waters and deflect blame.

Given the political costs involved in allowing the prosecution to follow all the way through with its case, it will likely stop somewhere halfway up the ladder, at some mid-level military commander. Yet even if events play out that way, it may still serve to trigger a fourth and truly momentous scenario: simply calling a spade a spade.

Russia the aggressor

Petro Poroshenko was elected president of Ukraine in May 2015 with a mandate to seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis, ending the belligerent rhetoric that had been the hallmark of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s government. Consequently, the pushback he launched against the rebels was labeled an “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO).

Initially successful, by August the ATO was blocked by resolute intervention from regular Russian army units that inflicted heavy losses on the Ukrainian side. The outcome was to stabilize the front lines, and to create a territory under de facto Russian control. The subsequent stalemate not only pushed the U.S. Congress to decide to provide lethal military aid, it has also provoked increasing demands in Kiev that Russia finally be called an aggressor.

Just as Russia would find a major offensive in Ukraine too costly, Kiev will have to realize that the same applies to any ambition of routing the invaders

On October 6, a bill passed in a first reading in Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, did precisely that. Setting out the terms for a reintegration of the Donbas region, it referred to Article 51 of the UN charter regarding self-defense, and stated that, “The state of Ukraine is not responsible for the illegal actions of the Russian Federation as an aggressor state, its armed forces, other military formations and the occupation administration in the temporarily occupied territories in Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”

If the West were to accept this at face value, it would mean that the Kremlin could no longer keep up its pretense of non-involvement, effectively putting an end to the Normandy format. As in the case of prosecution of those responsible for the downing of MH-17, the political costs of going all out would be high, so there will likely be much evasive talk.

But the cat would still be out of the bag, and it would have the effect of hardening the resolve both of those in the West who plead for providing Ukraine with heavier weapons and for those in Ukraine who plead for an offensive to drive out the occupying forces. Just as Russia would find a major offensive in Ukraine too costly, Kiev and its sponsors will, however, have to realize that the same applies to any ambition of routing the invaders.

Normandy format doomed

Developments on the ground over the past year have clearly indicated that the Kremlin is digging in for the long haul, exposing as mere wishful thinking the oft-repeated Western claim that the rising costs of attrition will eventually cause Russia to seek a way out.

The buildup of hardware inside Donbas currently equals a full tank army. The local forces have also become organized into two army corps, the first in Donetsk and the second in Luhansk. Their combined force of nine brigades is commanded by Russian army officers, who in turn are under the command of the Southern Military District in Novocherkassk.

The Kremlin’s objective is to preserve a foothold in Donbas that will give it veto power over any further move by Ukraine toward NATO

As further evidence that the Kremlin is digging in, the Russian military command has organized three new divisions along its side of the border with Ukraine. As was the case under the Soviet order, these will not be fully manned – there is no manpower available to do so. The purpose of the “skeleton” units is to allow a rapid mobilization of reserves into the theater, should the need arise.

Mr. Volker has also noted that “The status quo is not good for anybody and I think Russia sees that.” The reality is that Russia is digging in precisely to preserve the status quo. It owns the local escalation ladder, and it projects the image of being ready for a major war. The obvious strategic objective is to preserve a foothold in Donbas that will allow the Kremlin veto power over any further move by Ukraine toward NATO. Despite the costs, this is clearly viewed as a winning strategy.

By accepting and clinging to a format for conflict resolution that was doomed from the outset, the European Union (mainly) has set the stage for a permanent freezing of the conflict, with all the implications that it will have for the future of sanctions and U.S.-Russia relations.

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