War in Donbass: Is the End in Sight?

Starting in 2014, Ukraine’s civil war is now the most deadly 21st century conflict on European soil.[1] Despite numerous attempts at resolution, through both force and diplomatic negotiation, the war shows little sign of stopping. Now into its fifth year, a stalemate runs across Eastern Ukraine, splitting the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics from Western Ukraine. 

This op-ed sets out various alternative endings for the Ukraine war. This is not an exhaustive list, nor are the outcomes likely to emerge in the short-term. However, the first step to ending a conflict is to visualise the various outcomes. In this spirit, I have set out the three most likely ends to the Ukraine war. For clarity, I assume that the principle actors in the Ukraine war are Russia and Ukraine.

A negotiated settlement

A negotiated settlement is already in sight. Both Russia and Ukraine publicly agreed to the 13-point plan set out by the Minsk II protocols in early 2015, setting out the political steps to end the war. The protocols have had successes. A moderately stable ceasefire exists, neither Ukraine nor Russia has attempted to alter the frontline, OSCE members now carry out monitoring missions across the conflict area, and, since the Minsk II implementation, civilian casualties have fallen.[2]

However, the Minsk II protocols have failed to end the conflict. Donetsk has not held local elections, Ukraine’s sovereignty has not been restored and Ukraine’s constitution has not been changed to award Donetsk ‘special status’ within Ukraine.[3] These are not just small points, but fundamental features of the Minsk II protocols and crucial to any future peace treaty.

The likelihood of the Minsk II protocols, or a similar negotiated settlement, successfully ending the conflict is small. Neither Ukraine nor Russia see an incentive to implement the necessary measures for a successful de-escalation in the near future and until the balance of power shifts either in Ukraine or Russia’s favour, neither side will consider a negotiated settlement as in their interests. Yet the means to end the war through negotiated settlement exists, as outgoing OSCE chairperson stated “the military-technical part of this conflict could end within hours.”[4]

Ukraine reclaims Donetsk with NATO’s help

The prospect of a NATO or Western backed alliance aiding Ukraine’s recapture of Donetsk is not necessarily farfetched. US troops are training Ukrainian Special Forces, the US air force carries out reconnaissance missions in Ukrainian airspace and current head of NATO, General Jens Stoltenberg, stated that NATO was “supporting Ukraine to improve its naval capabilities, logistics and cyberdefense.”[5] Ukraine has much to offer NATO in return for Western support, air bases near Russia’s southern border and naval ports across the Black Sea are all incentives for NATO’s support.

However, it is unlikely that NATO or any other Western backed alliance would be willing to provide extensive support for a Ukrainian military offensive, fearing an escalation of a regional war to an international conflict. Russia’s current commitment to the Ukraine war, despite a recent fall in defence spending,[6] underlines its willingness to use hard power whereas Western NATO members consistently respond to Russia’s hard power with economic sanctions and rhetoric.[7]

Macedonia’s expected NATO membership shows that NATO is willing to expand its presence in Eastern Europe. But Ukraine is different; the war means that the stakes are too high for NATO to risk either increased military support or Ukrainian NATO membership. We should expect NATO condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and some limited technical and logistical support, but the political and economic cost of a NATO-backed offensive, particularly for Western members, and the risk of an international conflict with Russia means this option cannot seriously be considered.

Russia successfully negotiates a semi-autonomous republic with close links to Moscow

Russia has supported breakaway semi-autonomous states before. South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria are all states kept alive by Russian cooperation and involvement.

Could Russia subsume Donetsk in a similar way? The EU has already added Donetsk to its list of “grey zones” alongside South Ossetia and Transnistria, thereby stating that Donetsk has no legal recognition in the international sphere and relies on Russia’s support for its survival.[8]

However, it is unlikely that Russia could pull off the same trick again and successfully subsume Donetsk. Other semi-autonomous states are significantly smaller than Donetsk and play a less important role in their original sovereign nation’s economy. For Russia to manage Donetsk would require huge logistical expertise, leading to an even greater strain on Russia’s already stretched budget. The stakes in the Ukraine war are also higher: Russia, France and Germany are all signatories of the Minsk agreement, whilst international observers and attention means that any attempt to permanently control Donetsk could rapidly escalate into an international crisis.

Conclusion

Which of these outcomes is most likely? Russia does not want a regional war, but nor does Russia want to lose its influence over Ukrainian politics to the West. Ukraine cannot forcefully reclaim Donetsk without NATO’s help, yet NATO will not risk being dragged into a costly and potentially devastating war with Russia. Stuck between these two points, a resolution seems unlikely in the short-term. But in the long-term, of the three discussed, a negotiated settlement is the most likely outcome.

Right now, both sides benefit more from popular fear of the opposing force than negotiated settlement. Top contenders in Ukraine’s presidential election all have an anti-Russian slant, with the incumbent Poroshenko going for a pro-military, no surrender approach.[9] Meanwhile Putin’s anti-West, pro-Russia stance relies on the Ukraine war. Western sanctions provide political cover for Russia’s stagnating economy and allow Putin to pass blame for Russia’s internal issues onto external forces.

However, there is a possibility that political interests will change, making a negotiated settlement more likely. Volodymyr Zelensky, a populist contender in Ukraine’s presidential election, offers a controversial solution to the war: let Ukrainian voters have the final word on a compromise with Russian President Vladimir Putin[10]. Whilst this is both dangerous and unlikely, a member of Ukraine’s political elite gaining popular support with a pro-negotiation stance is encouraging. From Putin’s perspective, the economic burden of supporting Donetsk and the potential benefits of de-freezing Western investment into Russia are both key incentives to realign towards a pro-negotiation stance.[11] Whether either side will see incentives outweigh the political advantages of the status-quo remains to be seen.

Frederick Michell is a first-year Msc student in Russia in Global Systems at King’s College London. His research interests include contemporary affairs in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Endnotes

[1]Michael Ray. “8 Deadliest wars of the 21st Century”, Encyclopaedia Britannia, (N.d) accessed at <https://www.britannica.com/list/8-deadliest-wars-of-the-21st-century>.

[2] United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine 16 November 2016 to 15 February 2017. (U.N high commission, Geneva, 15th February 2017.) P.6

[3] Steven Pifer. “Minsk II at two years”, Brookings Institute, (February 2017.) accessed at <https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2017/02/15/minsk-ii-at-two-years/>.

[4] Anon. “OSCE monitor: Political will could end eastern Ukraine conflict quickly”, UNIAN, (October 2018), accessed at <https://www.unian.info/war/10308381-osce-monitor-political-will-could-end-eastern-ukraine-conflict-quickly-media.html>.

[5] Anon. “NATO Pledges Support for Ukraine over Sea Of Azov Incident”, Radio Free Europe, (December 2018), accessed at <https://www.rferl.org/a/nato-pledges-support-ukraine-azov-sea-incident/29654701.html>.

[6] Daniel Dickson. “Russian military spending falls, could affect operations”, Reuters, accessed at <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-military-spending/russian-military-spending-falls-could-affect-operations-think-tank-idUSKBN1I24H8>.

[7] Elizabeth Wood, et al. Roots of Russia’s War in Ukraine. (Columbia University Press, 2016) P.37

[8] Sophia Pugsley and Fredrik Wesslau. “Life in the Grey Zones”, European Council on Foreign Relations, (N.d) accessed at <https://www.ecfr.eu/wider/specials/life_in_the_grey_zones>.

[9] Leonid Berishidsky. “This Comedy Star wants to be Ukraine’s Donald Trump”, Bloomberg opinion, (January 2019) accessed at <https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-01-10/volodymyr-zelensky-comedy-star-and-ukraine-s-donald-trump-wannabe>

[10] Ibid.

[11] Kenneth Rapoza. “Who profits from the broken Russia-Ukraine Peace Deal?”, Forbes, (January 2018) accessed at <https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2018/01/26/who-profits-from-the-broken-russia-ukraine-peace-deal/#4fb8024e37d4>

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