Over the past few weeks, the war in Donbas between Ukrainian armed forces and DPR-LPR separatists has transformed into a mix of stagnant, almost frozen conflict and fluid hybrid warfare. Under the conditions of a shaky truce and the overall lack of respect of the Minsk 2 agreements, the war goes forth on a level of low intensity around the ceasefire line, at the border between territorial Ukraine and the Donetsk and Lugansk “People’s Republics”. Sporadic fighting and exchanges of fire have regularly been reported near the Donetsk airport, Shyrokyne, Maryinka, and Krasnohorivka, leaving dozens of soldiers killed and wounded as well as thousands of civilians displaced by the raging hostilities. In early June, Maryinka was at the center of a small yet bloody offensive by DPR separatist forces: the city, located a few kilometers southeast of Donetsk, is a key point of the Donetsk-Mariupol road. The attack could very well represent another attempt at testing the defense capabilities of the Ukrainian forces in case a large-scale offensive were to happen. The plasticity of the conflict still allows separatists to regroup, retrain, and reequip – helped by the permissiveness of the Minsk 2 ceasefire. Incapacitated by the opaqueness of the situation in Donbas, the OSCE-led Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) has not been able to fulfill its mission and account for the respect of the ceasefire on the contact line.
The presence of Russian forces on the ground within the separatist strongholds in Donbas is no longer deniable – even by the Kremlin – and was vividly documented by many reports and accounts, including the “Putin. War” document that late Boris Nemtsov was working on before his assassination. At the end of May 2015, the American think tank Atlantic Council released a detailed account of the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine. The report, called “Hiding in plain sight”, confirmed the movement of Russian units and the existence of camps and military equipment along the Ukrainian border. Ukrainian sources estimate the number of separatist forces between 42,000 and 55,000, including from 11,000 to 14,000 Russian troops in Donbas – although those numbers remain unconfirmed. In terms of military equipment, the OSCE SMM is reporting the growing presence of heavy weapons, artillery, and anti-aircraft systems along the contact line in the Donetsk region, thus confirming a constant military buildup on the separatist side – whether just to consolidate their positions or rationalize the front in preparation for a new offensive.
In this, Russia keeps putting a sufficient amount of pressure on Ukraine for the frontline to remain ambiguously fluid – yet increasingly frozen in terms of military positions – but not enough to trigger new and stronger reactions from the West. Limited offensives such as on Maryinka in June are likely to continue over the course of summer. This situation further proves that Moscow maintains escalation dominance in this war of attrition, at the expense of Ukraine’s failing economy, and that Russia can still influence political decisions in Kyiv through its military and political stranglehold on Donbas.
In Kyiv, the authorities are doing their best to keep up with the conflict and the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) approved a new national security strategy and defense planning until 2020 that was signed into law by President Petro Poroshenko in late May. On 21 May, the Rada voted the termination of five agreements on military cooperation with Russia, including Russian military transportation and transit through Ukraine. Dispositions concerning the martial law were also taken in case separatist forces went across the contact line in Donbas.
Within the diplomatic realm, the Minsk 2 agreements are a dead but useful document keeping the situation afloat without having to restart painful diplomatic rounds of talk. Since May 2015, the OSCE Trilateral Contact Group has been crippled by the creation of four “Working Groups” specialized on the military, political, economic, and humanitarian implementation of the February 2015 ceasefire. The Working Groups were put forth directly by Russia, with the approbation of the Normandy 4 members France and Germany, in an attempt to foster increased recognition of the Donbas authorities. Yet the Normandy Format meeting of June 11 ruled out the possibility of political representation of the “People’s Republics” within the Contact Group. In this, the organization of local elections in the DPR and LPR in October 2015, as conditioned by Minsk 2, could become an opening towards some level of recognition and a source of further diplomatic quarrel between Moscow and Kyiv, as holding elections in the separatist territories somewhat amounts to the political legitimation of the DPR-LPR. The polls will be formally organized under Ukrainian law but the Donbas authorities are seeking to restrict the number of registered candidates and extend voting to the Russian territory through refugees and displaced people. Furthermore, back in May 2015, the Donbass representatives had come forward with several proposals – in the form of constitutional amendments in Ukraine – concerning the organization of the local elections as well as the negotiation of a “special status” for the DPR-LPR providing them with the possibility to establish further cooperation with Russia.
In this game of hide and seek between legitimacy and recognition, Kyiv is quite clear on the preconditions needed before restoring any kind of official contact with the separatist entities, at least not until the October elections, provided they are recognized as free and fair. The government already announced it did not exclude holding a referendum on state governance and status within the territory of Ukraine during the local elections. The same goes for the restauration of economic ties, acknowledged only if Kyiv takes over the control of the Ukraine-Russia border.
Despite continued hostilities, the war in Eastern Ukraine is slowly being afflicted by rigor mortis and the Donbas transforming into a frozen conflict. The apparent termination of the Novorossiya project at the end of May 2015 could be another sign in this direction. Sadly enough, this might be the best-case scenario right now, especially since it is largely beneficial for most parties involved (but not for Kyiv…) and increasingly leaning towards some sort of diplomatic compromise over Ukraine.
The international community is showing less and less interest and engagement on the crisis in Ukraine. The Kerry-Putin meeting in Sochi on May 12 reiterated the commitment to Minsk 2 but did not provide any advances in the crisis – apart from confirming that the question of Crimea is long gone and forgotten. The latest G7 Summit in early June restated that Western sanctions would remain until the “complete implementation of the Minsk agreements and respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty” by Russia. International sanctions will no doubt be extended in July for another six months, conveniently matching with the end of the full political regulation of the Minsk 2 agreements at the end of 2015.
The level of fluidity on the contact line is in Moscow’s hands (and it has always been so) and the “People’s Republics” are moving away from Kyiv’s gravitational pull, while remaining voluntarily unattached to Russia. Neither in nor out, the separatist Donbas could experience a period of glaciation before moving closer to political association with Russia – following the recent trend of Gagauzia in Moldova and the secessionist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. If so, Russia will have definitively lost Ukraine but will have made sure that a significant portion of its territory is damaged enough to keep the West away from the country for some time.