The Donbas war: Why a stable frozen conflict is becoming more likely (short version)

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.

  1. The intensity of fighting has been diminishing.
  2. The line of contact has become more coherent and defensible.
  3. Neither side appears capable of taking considerable additional territory unless Moscow dramatically increases the scale and nature of its military involvement.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

EWW interview with The New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen

The full text can be found here.

Q: What are your expectations from the EU summit on March 19? Will the EU extend sanctions on Russia, or are the majority of member states inclined to give Russia more time to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine?

Walker: It’s very likely that the EU will decide on the 19th to kick the can down the road and neither increase sanctions or agree to lift any or all of them. The EU is involved in an extremely difficult and complex political game over sanctions, particularly because the sanctions in place now have term limits and renewal requires unanimous approval by all member states. It does not want to undermine whatever chance the Minsk II agreement has of being implemented; members such as Hungary and especially Greece want to use their veto rights over sanctions as leverage on other matters, including of course for Greece over austerity and debt; and other members, notably the Baltic States, Poland, and the United Kingdom, want to maintain maximum pressure on Moscow.

There is another very important dimension to the sanctions question for the EU, which is its relationship with the United States. Most member states do not want to see the Ukraine crisis lead to a division within the Atlantic alliance, and they therefore have to worry about what would happen if the EU went in one direction and the United States another on sanctions. A split on sanctions could be extremely divisive. Moreover, the EU, Germany in particular, is very aware that the Obama administration is under growing domestic pressure to increase military assistance to Ukraine, and they have to worry that if they break with Washington over sanctions, the United States will break with European doves on arming Ukraine and otherwise ramping up its military response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. That, too, might provoke a crisis in European relations with the United States, where there is already growing resentment in policy circles that Europe spends so much less on defense than the United States, and where most NATO members spend less than NATO’s two percent of GDP target. Continue reading

Update on the crisis: a skeptic’s take on Putin’s call for a postponement of the Donbas referendum

The big news today is that Putin has called for the postponement of a referendum on what amounts to “sovereignty” for the Donbas on May 11 that had been demanded by the pro-Russian separatists and has announced that Russian troops are pulling back from the border. I am very skeptical, however, that the Kremlin genuinely wants a significant de-escalation at this point.

Continue reading

The uprisings in Eastern Ukraine and Kyiv’s strategic dilemmas

The political situation in eastern Ukraine continues to deteriorate, and at this point there appear to be three possible outcomes: (1) a successful effort by Kyiv to suppress the pro-Russian forces in the east; (2) civil war – that is, large-scale and sustained violence that last months and possibly years; or (3) a Russian military intervention. In my view, the least likely outcome is the first Continue reading

Talking points on the Ukraine Crisis, April 12, 2014

What are Russia’s objectives in Ukraine?

Russia’s objectives are multiple and include domestic as well as geopolitical factors, but in my view national security concerns and geopolitical considerations are paramount. Basically, Moscow has drawn a line in the sand against any further expansion of NATO to countries on its borders, above all Ukraine. The Russians have opposed NATO expansion since its inception, but what has changed is that Moscow now has the power to block the accession of Ukraine, or indeed of any other former Soviet republic that is not already a member of the alliance. Continue reading

Carrots and sticks: a strategic response to the Ukraine crisis

EWW Talk at the Institute of Governmental Studies panel on Ukraine, University of California, Berkeley, April 11, 2014

I continue to believe that the crisis in Ukraine is extremely dangerous and that the odds of a Russian invasion before the presidential elections on May 25 are significant. Continue reading