A half-frozen low-intensity conflict in Eastern Ukraine?

by Mathieu BOULEGUE on 9/21/2015

Caught in a “no war, no peace” situation, Eastern Ukraine is slowly but relentlessly diving into a low-intensity conflict. From the onset of the crisis, barely two years ago, Ukraine has been at war with Russia over the territorial integrity of Crimea and separatist Donbas – two fronts Kyiv has to deal with simultaneously. Through massive, nationwide military efforts, a “war mentality” has slowly been implemented across the Ukrainian society: after six successive waves of mobilization, about 87,000 Ukrainian combatants are now mobilized, ranging from servicemen to paramilitary troops, in the Anti-Terrorist Operations (ATO) on the contact line in Donbas. On the other side of the ATO zone, Ukrainian military sources cite the presence of 33,000 separatist fighters helped by about 8,000 Russian soldiers directly in the “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Furthermore, 53,000 Russian troops would potentially be stationed on the Russian border. From the sheer number, Ukraine feels like a nation under siege. This holds particularly true when considering fears of Russian-backed separatism directly on Ukrainian territory, such as in Zakarpattia, on Moscow-engineered territories such as Novorossiya (though abandoned) and Bessarabia, as well as in neighboring countries like Moldova, with Transnistria and the autonomous region of Gagauzia. On top of this, Kyiv denounces an encirclement by pro-Russian elements that could be, if activated, detrimental to national territorial integrity. These elements are echoed by the prejudice the conflict has brought upon Ukraine: the conflict officially left 8,000 dead (though unofficial reports place this number at 20,000) and 1.4 million people are considered internally-displaced. The very fabric of the Ukrainian society will thus have to cope with the logic of victimization the war has created.

 

Hence the question of how can the conflict in Eastern Ukraine be defined. Probably somewhere a frozen conflict in the making and a lingering low-intensity conflict, with deadly exchanges of fire, military incursions, and reconnaissance missions carried out the warring parties across the ceasefire line. If military positions have been steadily frozen since the Minsk 2 agreements were stricken in February 2015, the contact line remains fluid and in motion. Moscow keeps escalation dominance over Ukraine, keeping the front in a state of constant yet calibrated military tension and continuous violence.

Destabilization actions fomented by separatist forces and encouraged by Moscow on the contact line can be explained by several reasons: on top of keeping pressure on Ukraine’s already strained military and probing the front, Russia actually creates a situation where it can blame Ukraine and respond in kind. Furthermore, keeping pressure on the military aspect of the conflict diverts Kyiv’s attention from enacting reforms on the home front. Finally, a lingering conflict tends to create what could be called “Ukraine fatigue” among Western countries, pushing them to make concessions to Russia over the fate of Ukraine.

Yet fears of a new massive separatist military offensive towards the Dnieper (to grab most of Eastern Ukraine) or towards Mariupol (with the aim to connect Crimea with a “land bridge”) seem to have been alleviated since summer. In this regard, Russia is seeking to push Kyiv into a war of attrition, thinking that time is on the Kremlin’s side and that freezing the conflict might be an acceptable bargain.

 

Cracks have started to appear in the ceasefire agreement and in the micro-management of the conflict. Political and security conditions are supposed to be fulfilled by the end of 2015, such as the bilateral withdrawal of heavy weapons, the creation of a special status in Donbas, decentralization in Ukraine, border control, etc. None of these conditions will ever be ready, and by far, within 3 months. Furthermore, Minsk 2 has been burdened by the creation of three different formats dealing with the same issues: the Normandy format (at the ministerial level between Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany), the OSCE-led Minsk Contact Group, and its offshoots, the four Working Groups tackling technical aspects of the crisis.

On top of the existing formats, an invisible yet powerful thread was tied over the course of summer between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and her Russian counterpart Grigory Karasin: this backchannel has been calling the shots in most decisions concerning Ukraine by putting more pressure on Kyiv to make concessions at the benefice of Moscow. The concessions encompass the implementation of the “special status” in Donbas (which would give full-fledged legitimacy and legality to the separatist entities in Donetsk and Luhansk) and the organization of local elections in Donbas out of Ukrainian electoral law (which goes against the Minsk 2 agreements). On top of this predicament, some in Kyiv fear that the enactment of the “special status” could, with the sufficient amount of Russian clout, talk some regions into demanding more autonomy. Local polls will be carried out in the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” on October 18 and November 1 respectively – obviously without the consent of Kyiv and the international community, but the fact remains that it will represent a strong symbol for the acknowledgement of the DPR-LPR as de facto entities.

In link with “Ukraine fatigue”, support from the West seems to be tilting towards the wrong side of the board, leaving Ukraine warry that the efforts made to keep the country together would amount to nothing. Whatever the outcome, dark times are still ahead in Ukraine.


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– author of 16 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

A Sciences Po and King’s College London alumnus, Mathieu Boulègue is an analyst in the field of Russia/CIS security and geostrategic issues. He currently works as a project manager for a risk management consulting firm. He is also a founding member of Sogdiane, a strategic think-tank on Eurasian affairs.

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