The strategic situation in eastern Ukraine is little changed from where it was on September 5 when the “ceasefire” was announced. A line of control has yet to be agreed to, and while the level of violence is much lower than it was over the summer, fighting continues, particularly in Schastiya (north of Luhansk), Debaltseve (a strategic crossroads between Luhansk and Donetsk), and in and around the international airport in Donetsk.
The obstacles to a stabilization of the conflict and a real ceasefire likewise remain the same. They include the following.
- Moscow’s determination to prevent Kyiv from reestablishing sovereignty over the territory currently controlled by the separatists, and its willingness to ratchet up Russian military assistance as needed to ensure that Ukraine does not resume successful offensive operations.
- An unwillingness on the part of the separatists to accept the current disposition of forces, particularly Ukrainian control of Donetsk airport, the Debaltseve salient, and to a lesser extent Schastiya.
- Kyiv’s unwillingness to cede control of those same sites and order its forces to retreat further, an unwillingness that is reinforced by widespread public opposition to a policy that would effectively institutionalize Ukraine’s loss of control of much of the Donbas.
- A lack of command unity and coherent political authority on the part of the separatists, which makes it much more likely that some, and perhaps most, of the separatists would refuse to stop fighting should Kyiv reach an agreement with Moscow or separatist representatives on the details of the 30 km-wide demilitarized zone agreed to on September 20. Indeed, given the extent of the disunity, it is rather misleading to use the term “Novorossiya” to refer to anything other than the territory currently controlled by the separatists. The authorities of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic have yet to overcome their differences, and there is no reason to believe that they will do so soon, if ever. Just today the DPR announced that it would hold legislative elections in November, but no such announcement was made for the LPR. Moreover, the political leaderships of the two entities have only limited authority even in the territory controlled by the forces that are putatively loyal to them. And there has been occasional fighting among separatist combat units themselves.
- The likelihood that some of Ukraine’s “volunteer battalions” would also refuse to accept a permanent ceasefire, a zone of separation, and the consolidation of a de facto independent but de jure unrecognized breakaway region of “Novorossiya.”
Nevertheless, it is also true that the consolidation of a frozen conflict on the territory of “Novorossiya” is more likely than a month ago. While Ukrainian officials continue to insist that some Russian regulars continue to take part in the fighting, it is clear that most have been withdrawn. As a result, it seems unlikely that the separatists will be able to drive the Ukrainians much farther back from where they are now. The separatists may take Donetsk airport and Debaltseve – although that is far from clear – but even if they do, it is unlikely that they will be able to extend their lines very far without the direct involvement of Russian regulars. The separatists, it should be remembered, were rapidly losing territory before the Russian surge in August. The ability of the Ukrainian military to maintain control of the Donetsk airport and Debaltseve is also a reminder that it is extremely difficult to dislodge determined defenders from urban environments.
Yet another factor making a frozen conflict more likely was the announcement today that Putin has ordered some 17,600 Russian regulars who had been conducting military exercises in Rostov oblast to return to their permanent bases. The implication is that, at least for now, Moscow has decided to reduce military pressure on Kyiv and is not planning to use regulars to inflict further defeats on the Ukrainians or establish a land corridor to Crimea. Additionally, Poroshenko announced today that he would meet with Putin in Milan on October 17th, where it is at least possible that they will agree to additional force dispositions that make a genuine and lasting ceasefire possible.
Finally, there has been progress toward increasing the size and capabilities of the OSCE monitoring mission in the conflict zone. As a result, the mission may have the capacity to effectively monitor a separation of forces agreement once a demilitarized zone is established. Poroshenko announced today that the size of the mission is to increase from its current 270 monitors to 1500. The monitoring mission has also been slowly acquiring drones, which will make its efforts more effective and less dangerous.
As I wrote in an earlier post, I believe the establishment of an unrecognized, incoherent, and militarized state in the Donbas is a terrible outcome for all parties. Nonetheless, I also believe that it is the least-worst outcome, particularly for Ukraine. Continued fighting is not going to restore Ukrainian sovereignty over the region, and it will make it all the more difficult for Ukraine to stabilize economically and politically.
That said, it is by no means certain that we will get a stable ceasefire and a separation of forces agreement. If not, we will likely see a continuation of fighting into the winter and possibly beyond. Poroshenko may decide that he cannot afford politically to agree to an institutionalization of a breakaway state; the separatists may decide that it is much more fun to continue fighting than to govern a devastated region; and Moscow may decide to punish Ukraine with another surge or to openly invade to minimize what is going to be an extremely difficult, and costly, problem of supplying Crimea over the winter.
Finally, it is important to remember that the annexation of Crimea and the establishment of a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine does not solve Russia’s strategic problem, which is Ukraine’s external orientation, EU expansion, and NATO’s efforts to reinforce its eastern defenses. A consolidation of a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine does not mean a reduction of the very dangerous military tensions between Russia and the West.