My view is that Ukraine has lost sovereignty over at least part of the Donbas for the foreseeable future. Its forces are retreating from multiple battlegrounds, including the Luhansk airport, and they appear to be on the verge of losing control of the Donetsk airport. It is still possible that Russia will decide to launch a full-scale assault on the Ukrainian military in an effort to destroy its war fighting capabilities (the shock and awe option), but I think that is unlikely. It is also possible that the Russians/pro-Russians will press forward in the south, along the Sea of Azov, in an effort to establish a land corridor to Crimea. But at the least it is clear that the offensive is directed at driving the Ukrainians back from the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk roughly to the defensive line suggested by the Ukraine@War blog discussed earlier, and perhaps beyond.
If this is correct, then we are headed toward the “Transnistria in the Donbas” outcome – that is, a (probably not-recognized, even by Russia) breakaway “Novorossiya” region that becomes a protectorate of the Kremlin. Unlike Transnistria, however, the Donbas borders on Russia, which has at least two important consequences: (1) it will be logistically and strategically easier for Russia to access the region; and (2) the lawlessness, instability, violence and economic problems that are almost certainly going to plague the region for the foreseeable future are going to be difficult to keep from spilling across the border into Russia itself.
At any rate, the key question remains: Where will the Russian/pro-Russian military offensive stop?
There is one possibility that I did not mention in my last post, which is the establishment of a Donbas protectorate that extends down from the Donbas proper to the Sea of Azov but that does not include Mariupol, the reasoning being that seizing Mariupol would be very costly in lives and would take some time to effect. Making the Novoazovsk area part of Novorossiya would also mean a buffer between Ukrainian and Russian forces along the current international border. The “line of control” in this scenario, then, would look something like this.
This, I suspect, is the territorial “program minimum” for Russia. That said, it is still a very large chunk of territory that will be difficult to pacify and defend and to rebuild economically – a huge cost added to the already considerable cost of absorbing Crimea. It would include (I’m guessing here) around 3 million people, and the line of control separating Novorossiya forces from Ukrainian forces would be over 500 km long, much longer than the border separating the conflicting parties in Transnistria. Moreover, unlike in Transnistria, where the Dniester River helps separate the former combatants, and for that matter unlike the other frozen conflict zones in the very mountainous regions like Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, there are no significant rivers or mountains to help demarcate the line of control or keep the parties separated.
The land corridor option to Crimea, in contrast, might look something like this.
Obviously, this is an even longer and more vulnerable line of control, with even more territory to administer, even more citizens to be responsible for, and even more economic costs to absorb. The distance here is almost 900 km, and the population probably more like 4 million.
No matter where the offensive stops, however, at some point the contending parties are going to come under pressure to reach agreements on (1) a ceasefire; (2) a line of control; and (3) a possible peacekeeping force (PKF) of some kind. The Kremlin, in the military driver’s seat and still presumably denying it is a party to the conflict, will likely insist that any PKF must come from the CSTO and consist mainly of its own servicemen, as in Transnistria.
This, of course, will be extraordinarily difficult for Kyiv and most Ukrainians outside the Donbas to swallow. Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan have all been forced to accept, in the wake of battlefield defeats, ceasefires that have institutionalized a loss of sovereignty over the breakaway regions of Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Karabakh. Kyiv, I suspect, is going to find it even more difficult to accept such an outcome for the Donbas. Instead, it may try to keep up miitary pressure along the border while supporting partisan war in the occupied area.
If so, we are still a long way away from a stable military standoff, let alone a political solution to the conflict.