It has been my view since the Donbas war broke out last year that the least-worst outcome for all parties would be a stable frozen conflict with an agreed upon zone of separation monitored by the OSCE and patrolled by an armed international peacekeeping force – an arrangement that I referred to in earlier posts as the “Transnistria on the Donbas” solution.
More recently, I have been skeptical that the ceasefire and separation of forces provisions in Minsk II would come fully into effect because I didn’t think the Kremlin viewed a stable frozen conflict as in its geopolitical interest. Instead, I expected Moscow to seek to keep the conflict unstable, with at least low level fighting at various points along the line of contact in an effort to maintain pressure on Kyiv, and more importantly to sow divisions within Europe and between Europe and the United States.
I still think this “unstable frozen conflict” scenario is the least unlikely outcome. But I have changed my mind in at least one respect, which is that I think the likelihood of a stable frozen conflict emerging in eastern Ukraine has increased since the fall of Debaltseve.
My reasoning, which I will elaborate on in a longer post later this week, is as follows.
- The intensity of fighting has been diminishing.
- The line of contact has become more coherent and defensible.
- Neither side appears capable of taking considerable additional territory unless Moscow dramatically increases the scale and nature of its military involvement.
- The Kremlin appears to have concluded, correctly in my view, that an escalation of the war would do nothing to solve what it sees as its key security problem, which is NATO’s growing military presence near its borders. On the contrary, it would almost certainly make that problem much worse. I also suspect that the Kremlin has concluded, again correctly, that a major escalation of the fighting would lead to increased Western military assistance, including provision of lethal weapons, to Ukraine, and that would in turn risk a full blown war between Russian and Ukraine and even a direct military clash with NATO. This may have led the Kremlin to conclude in turn that it will be more effective at promoting Western disunity if it allows a lasting ceasefire to take effect while seeking to undermine Ukrainian political stability using more subtle methods.
- Finally, the most likely way for a stable frozen conflict to emerge in eastern Ukraine is not some kind of Minsk III agreement establishing a buffer zone patrolled by an international peacekeeping force. Rather, the more likely path is by means of military facts on the ground – that is, by virtue of both sides building up defensive positions along the line of contact, thereby establishing a de facto controlled border. The OSCE would continue to monitor the line and report on ceasefire violations and force dispositions, but there would be no armed peacekeepers and very little separation between the combatants. This, I should note, is more or less what we have had in Nagorno-Karabakh (albeit in very different terrain). With luck, violence would continue to diminish, and at some point a full ceasefire might take effect, but there will always be a risk that the ceasefire will break down (as in Nagorno-Karabakh today) – which is to say, this “Karabakh on the Donbas” outcome will be less stable than a “Transnistria on the Donbas” one.