Whither the Donbas war after Debaltseve?

Yesterday, Ukrainian President Poroshenko read a brief statement at the Kyiv airport in which he announced that the Ukrainian forces in and around Debaltseve, whose main line of retreat to the north, the M03, had come under the control of the separatists a week or so earlier, had been ordered to break out and make it back to Ukrainian controlled territory. Continue reading

Ukraine’s hostage crisis

My impression is that the ceasefire called for in last week’s Minsk II agreement is being implemented along most of the line of contact. The principle exception is in the Debaltseve pocket, although there has also been some artillery/rocket exchanges in the south, in and around Donetsk/Horlivka, and near Luhansk. But with the possible exception of a Russian/separatist push to reverse the gains made by Ukraine’s Azov battalion last week in the south, I doubt that either side is pressing, for the immediate future, to make significant territorial gains. Continue reading

What to make of Minsk 2?

I do not believe there is any chance that yesterday’s Minsk agreement will be implemented in full. I am almost, but not quite, as skeptical that it will lead to a stable ceasefire and separation of forces.

In what follows I will make four general points about the agreement and then focus on its two key provisions: Provision 1 on a ceasefire and Provision 2 on a separation of forces. Continue reading

The Ukraine crisis at a turning point

I believe that the odds of a full-blown proxy war in Ukraine between the United States and Russia are now better than even and getting higher. Moscow believes it is already in a proxy war with the West, but it is wrong, at least in the following sense. Whereas Russian has been deeply involved in the violence in eastern Ukraine from its inception, Western military assistance to Kyiv has so far been minimal. That is likely to change if a stable ceasefire is not arranged in the next several weeks. Continue reading

Why Kyiv and the West should be pressing for a stable frozen conflict in the Donbas

When the Minsk Protocol and its follow-on Memorandum were signed last September, I believed there was almost no chance that they would be fully implemented. Full implementation is even less likely now. There is, however, at least some chance that a ceasefire could take hold that would allow for a genuine “freezing” of the conflict.

However, for reasons I outlined in earlier posts (see, for example, “Why a frozen conflict in the Donbas is unlikely”), I believe that a lasting ceasefire will require at least the following: (1) Ukrainian withdrawal from beyond artillery range of Donetsk and Horlivka and northward from the Debaltseve salient; (2) agreement on a new line of demarcation; (3) agreement on the withdrawal of all forces, including but not only heavy weapons, from a buffer zone (presumably 30km wide, as per the September 19 agreement); and (4) the establishment of a peacekeeping force – for example, a joint Ukrainian/Russian/OSCE force – to patrol and monitor the buffer zone. Continue reading

The battle for the Donetsk airport takes an unexpected turn (and why alarm bells should be going off in Western capitals)

Twenty-four hours ago, it appeared that the Donbas separatists were about to take full control of the Donetsk airport after months of often intense fighting. There was also increasing separatist pressure on Ukrainian forces all along the line of contact, particularly in the northern part of the conflict zone, as shown below on yesterday’s map from the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council’s press center. I have not been following military developments in the conflict zone very carefully recently, but my guess was that the separatists, with material and intelligence support from Moscow, were setting up to launch a major offensive against Ukrainian forces in the Debaltseve salient after taking the airport. I also thought there was a chance that Ukrainian forces would again be trapped in the salient, just as they had been in August in Ilovai’sk, and that they would again suffer heavy losses.

While information from the conflict zone is confused, it seems clear that the Ukrainian military launched a surprise counteroffensive yesterday and that it has managed to retake at least part of the airport. Continue reading

The Ukraine crisis in 2015

The Ukraine crisis is a complex drama with multiple dimensions, theaters and actors, which makes tracking, explaining, and predicting where it is headed particularly difficult. Its various parts are, however, interrelated, so while each dimension is important in its own right, it also impacts, and is impacted by, the others.

In what follows, I disaggregate the crisis to five dimensions and offer my take on what is likely to happen in each in 2015. In doing so, I will try to take into account the crisis’ “systemic” properties – that is, how the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone. Continue reading