As readers of this blog are aware, I believe that Moscow’s Ukraine policy has been driven primarily by geopolitical concerns rather than fear of democratic contagion. Above all, the Kremlin has been, and remains, determined to keep Ukraine out of NATO. It is only slightly less determined to keep Ukraine out of the European Union and to prevent NATO from building up its eastern defenses. And it probably still hopes that Ukraine can eventually be persuaded, or forced, to cast its lot with Russia rather than with Europe and the Atlantic Alliance.
At the same time, the Kremlin has made clear that it will pursue its strategic objectives in Ukraine using all means at its disposal short of war with the West. It has also made clear that it has a high tolerance for risk.
What is not clear, however, is how the Kremlin’s strategic objectives and tactics are linked.
In Ukraine, for example, the Kremlin may be seeking one or more of the following.
- A formal agreement with Kyiv to secure some of Moscow’s strategic objectives (e.g., no NATO or EU accession, recognition of the annexation of Crimea, acceptance of a loss of sovereignty in eastern Ukraine).
- A change of government, or a change of regime, in Kyiv.
- The permanent weakening and destabilization of the country.
- A significant increase in the territory controlled by the separatists.
- The establishment of a land corridor to Crimea.
- The emergence of a stable frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine.
If the goal is the latter, it is not clear if Moscow is committed to either of the following.
- A relatively orderly and dependent “Novorossiya,” perhaps one that is defended by Russian “peacekeepers.”
- A relatively anarchic and autonomous “Novorossiya,” one that does not burden Moscow with the costs of establishing order and economic reconstruction.
Finally, and most importantly, it is not clear whether the primary target of Moscow’s Ukraine policy is Kyiv or Washington and Brussels. If the latter, it is not clear if the goal is to weaken or destroy NATO, the EU, or both, or if Moscow is seeking some kind of “Grand Bargain” with the West over Europe’s overall security architecture.
It is of course possible, as some have suggested, that the Kremlin does not actually have an end game in mind for Ukraine. Doubtless to a certain extent it is reacting as events unfold. But I suspect that Putin and his advisors have a plan, and that they are thinking one, two, or more years ahead.
The problem, then, is that just what that plan is is not clear. Even less clear is whether it is practicable.
Nonetheless, one thing that can be said at this point is that one possible outcomes of the conflict in eastern Ukraine – a truly “frozen” frozen conflict – is not going to help Moscow achieve its broader objectives. This was true of the annexation of Crimea, and it would be true of a self-declared “Novorossiya” in the Donbas.
Simply put, the problem for Moscow is that a stable “frozen conflict” would not make Kyiv any less intent on joining Europe. On the contrary, it would present Kyiv with an opportunity to get its political and economic house in order, and it would give the West the time and space needed to support Ukrainian integration into Europe. It would saddle Moscow with responsibility for helping rebuild the Donbas’s destroyed economy but do nothing to keep NATO from strengthening its eastern defenses. And most problematically for the Kremlin, it would put Ukraine, with Western support, in a position to rebuild its military and improve its ability to defend the ceasefire line.
In short, a new “Iron Curtain” that places Ukraine proper in the West and a “Novorossiya” in the east will be strategically disastrous for the Kremlin, and I am sure Putin and his advisors are well aware of this.
I believe it is this strategic factor that accounts for the latest escalation in Russian military support for the Donbas separatists. The Kremlin, I suspect, has concluded that a lasting ceasefire and a separation of forces in the Donbas is not in its strategic interest, and as a result it is taking measures to ensure that a genuine “freezing” of the conflict does not take place.
When the Minsk Protocol was signed on September 5, I believed there was very little chance that some of its provisions would be implemented, notably those that called for limited sovereignty for Kyiv in the area controlled by the separatists, monitoring or control of the border with Russia, and the withdrawal of “illegal armed groups, military equipment, as well as fighters and mercenaries.”
I did think, however, that there was at least a chance that a ceasefire could take hold and a line of control could be established that would be monitored by the OSCE. This became rather more likely after a September 19 follow-on agreement provided for the withdrawal of heavy weapons 15 km from the line of control by both sides. There were also reports that Ukrainian, Russian, and separatist military officials were meeting to work out a line of demarcation.
Nevertheless, it was also clear that establishing a stable line of control was going to be very difficult, even assuming all three parties actually wanted one. The line would be very long, with very little in the way of natural features to help with demarcation (to my knowledge, the only partial exception is the Kal’mius River in the south). Moreover, the Ukrainians were in control of at least two positions that I did not think the separatists could accept or that Kyiv would retreat from without a fight – the Donetsk airport and the Debaltseve salient. The separatists were also very disorganized, with limited unity of command and a hodge-podge of more-or-less autonomous irregular units, many of which wanted to keep fighting. It was also clear that Kyiv was going to be pressured by Ukrainian hawks to resume fighting, even as it struggled to restrain its volunteer battalions.
As it turned out, the ceasefire never took hold. The level of violence abated after September 5, and most Russian regular troops returned to Russia, but artillery and rocket exchanges, and fighting between ground troops, continued on a daily basis, particularly around the Donetsk airport, Debaltseve, the area north and west of Luhansk, and east and northeast of Mariupol. Nor was there any sign of significant progress in demarcating a line of control. Military supplies and irregulars continued to cross over from Russia. And little by little the Ukrainians lost territory, including a number of key checkpoints along the Bakhmutka highway to the west of Luhansk where Ukrainian troops suffered significant losses.
Other key provisions of the Minsk Protocol were also not being implemented. “Illegal armed groups” did not leave the conflict zone, there was no progress securing the border with Russia, and Kyiv was not allowed any writ on the territory controlled by the separatists. Notably, Kyiv’s law on temporary self-government for the separatist-controlled districts was effectively negated by elections organized by the separatists on November 2.
Those elections were then followed by another surge in Russian military support for the separatists, along with an intensification of combat. Numerous military convoys have come across the border over the past week, along with large armored columns. While Kyiv has not formally abrogated the Minsk Protocol, to all intents and purposes it is no longer constraining the warring parties.
What, then, is driving this latest surge? It is conceivable that the intent is to allow the separatists to take some important strategic objectives before winter sets in, particularly the Donetsk airport and the Debaltseve salient. It is also possible that the intent is to ensure that the separatists are sufficiently supplied before winter freezes make the roads unusable for heavy trucks and armor. And it is possible that Moscow was reacting to intelligence that Kyiv is planning a new offensive (although this strikes me as unlikely – Kyiv has been steadily reinforcing its side of the line of control, but I believe Ukrainian authorities realize that they are in no position to launch a new offensive and that ratcheting up the violence risks more losses of men, material, and territory).
My guess, however, is that the primary reason is that Moscow does not, in fact, want a stable ceasefire, for the reasons I outlined earlier. I also suspect that Moscow has concluded that its leverage over Kyiv, and hence indirectly over the West, is going to decline over time, particularly after this winter (the complex and dangerous dynamics of the coming “Winter War” will be the subject of my next blog post). That means that it needs to maximize pressure now.
In short, I think that the Kremlin is likely to enable and encourage the separatists to continue pressing along the line of control over the coming winter. If so, we are likely to see more of what we have seen since September 5. Fighting will continue, the separatists will push forward, and the Ukrainians will be hard pressed not to lose more territory.
That said, it is also possible that Moscow will move to establish a land corridor to Crimea in the coming months – supplying Crimea is going to be very difficult this winter. But I think that is quite unlikely, at least until the spring or summer. Winter conditions will make a major offensive difficult. Carving out a land corridor would also entail a very bloody campaign to take Mariupol, while defending an even longer line of control and administering even more territory. And it would mean new rounds of Western economic sanctions.
I likewise doubt that Moscow will unilaterally announce the introduction of a “peacekeeping force” into the conflict zone, although that too is possible. Doing so would increase the likelihood of a stabilized frozen conflict; it would increase Moscow’s commitment to improving humanitarian and economic conditions in the DNR and LHR; and it would burden the Kremlin with trying to introduce political order in the region. And it, too, would mean new Western sanctions.
If I am correct, and we see continued fighting along the front lines in the coming months and possibly well into next year and beyond, we are left with the question I posed earlier: What is the Kremlin’s end game?
One possibility is that the Kremlin hopes to simply grind Ukraine down until it capitulates. The plan would be to facilitate a prolonged military conflict that drives Ukrainian forces slowly backwards, until at some point Kyiv realizes that Ukraine has no choice but to sue for peace on the Kremlin’s terms (whatever those may be). However, I rather doubt that the Kremlin thinks that concessions from Kyiv actually matter to it very much at this point. Moreover, I suspect that the Kremlin knows that Kyiv will keep fighting for a very long time rather than capitulate.
Another possibility is that the primary target of the Kremlin’s pressure is not Kyiv but Washington and Brussels. Putin may believe that Western governments are prepared to enter into a deal that secures Ukrainian (and perhaps Georgian) neutrality, limits NATO force deployments, and lifts Western economic sanctions, perhaps in return for ending the fighting in eastern Ukraine and for cooperation in other arenas, such as the Middle East.
If so, I think this reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the preferences, and the freedom of action, of Western governments, particularly for the Obama Administration. Now that sanctions have been imposed, it will be extremely difficult politically for most Western governments, and above all for Washington, to lift them. This will be the case even if Russia ends its support for the Donbas separatists (which is itself highly unlikely). The stark fact is that Moscow is not going to reverse course on Crimea, and Western governments cannot accept Crimea. And I suspect that the Kremlin realizes this as well.
A final possibility, I fear, is the most likely. The Kremlin may be settling in for a very long geopolitical struggle with the West, with plans to apply maximum pressure not just on Kyiv but on the West, including military pressure (short of war), in the coming months and years. The goal would be to use support of the separatists in eastern Ukraine, and military and political brinksmanship elsewhere, to divide the West politically, weaken the EU, and weaken NATO. What makes this possibility so dangerous is that, while the effort is unlikely to succeed, it raises the risks of a military clash between Russia and the West, with all the attendant risks of escalation.