I have been traveling in Europe for the past several weeks, which has made it difficult to keep up with developments in Ukraine in any detail, but my sense is that violence in eastern Ukraine has peaked and that Kyiv has managed to contain the uprising to parts of the Donbas. Moreover, it appears likely that relatively free and fair elections will take place on Sunday, that Poroshenko will win handily, and that voting will take place in the east and even in much of the Donbas. And finally, Moscow continues to assert that it has no intention of invading and that it has ordered its forces currently deployed on Ukraine’s borders to return to their permanent bases. All of this lowers the probability of a Russian invasion, which in my view peaked several weeks ago at around 55 percent and has been falling since to around 25 percent.
One thing certainly seems clearer now, which is that Putin and his decision-making team did not, and do not, intend to invade if they aren’t compelled to – if the intention had been to invade, I think the go button would have been pressed after the Odesa tragedy and well before the Sunday presidential elections.
It also seems more likely than it did two weeks ago that Kyiv will preserve at least a measure of sovereignty in the Donbas without provoking violence that gets us past the “civil war” threshold, which political scientists typically set at 1,000 combat deaths. The so-called “anti-terrorist operation” by the Ukrainian military has been appropriately cautious – it has had some modest success against the anti-Maidan forces while avoiding many civilian casualties, which was by no means certain when the operation was launched. The great risk was excessive force leading to significant civilian deaths. The Odesa tragedy, it should be recalled, was not caused by Ukrainian security forces but by street clashes between pro-Maidan and anti-Maidan civilians. The stabilization of Mariupol, which at least in part was thanks to the mobilization of Rinat Akhmetov’s steelworkers, is also good news for Kyiv.
For all these reasons, my take is that the odds of a restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty in the Donbas and the more-or-less peaceful passing into history of “The People’s Republic of the Donbas” by the end of the year have gone up to roughly 30 percent. The odds of a continuation of some kind of unrecognized Donbas republic into next year that does not provoke civil war I would put at 25 percent. That means that the risk of a full-blown civil war has fallen to 20 percent.
The good news, then, is that this has been the first significant period since the fall of Yanukovich when the risk of Russia and NATO getting involved in a proxy war in Ukraine or even of an outright military confrontation has diminished rather than increased. On the other hand, the situation is still very volatile – there are reports today that eleven Ukrainian troops were killed and thirty were wounded at a checkpoint in eastern Donetsk. The outcome of the election on Sunday is also unclear – suffice it to say that it will be very helpful to Kyiv if we see reasonable turnout and reasonably high returns for Poroshenko in the east. In general, the sharper the east-west divide in the returns, the worse for the political stabilization of Ukraine.
To sum up, I think, and hope, we are entering into a rather less dangerous period in Ukraine. If so, and the situation on the ground stabilizes, Washington and its NATO allies will still have to come up with a long-term response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The nature of that response, I am convinced, is going to be highly consequential, and as I intend to argue in a future post, I continue to think that it is both wise and very likely that the West eventually enter into negotiations with Moscow over a new security arrangement for Europe that entails carrots as well as sticks.