The conflict that will not freeze

Continuous military confrontation in Eastern Ukraine has grave implications for Europe as well as for Ukraine.

On 5 September 2014, the Ukrainian government signed a 12-point agreement (including a ceasefire) with Russia. But the fighting in the Donbass has not stopped. Russia has recently sent military reinforcements to the Donbass and provided the rebels with more heavy weapons systems. These actions have increased the military pressure on Kyiv and rendered the agreement worthless. Moscow seems to be waiting for Ukraine to make a “mistake” that Russia can use as a pretext for further escalation. In the longer term, constant military threats and escalation serve the Russian strategy of spoiling the Ukrainian reform agenda and blocking Ukraine’s further Westernisation.

Preparations for further military escalation

Since 5 November, reports have been mounting that Russia is supplying reinforcements to rebel forces in Ukraine. Materiel furnished by Russia includes main battle tanks, multiple launch rocket systems, gun artillery, and large quantities of ammunition. These systems would be of particular use if the rebels were planning offensive actions. In August, by deliberately targeting Ukraine’s highly motivated but poorly equipped voluntary battalions with armoured and artillery attacks, Russia was able to rout Ukrainian military forces and turn the tide of the “Anti Terrorist Operation” (ATO, as Kyiv designated the military operations against pro-Russian rebels).

Moscow seems to be waiting for Ukraine to make a “mistake” that Russia can use as a pretext for further escalation.

The Russian army has assembled around seven army brigades on the Russian side of the Donbass. This force is large enough to crush the Ukrainian army, and given Russia’s air superiority, it would be capable of penetrating quickly and deeply into Ukraine. However, the picture looks slightly better for Kyiv than it did when Russia built up its troops on the border in March. Back then, the areas that Russia chose for assembling its troops were selected with an all-out offence on Ukraine in mind. And furthermore, a large part of the Russian forces deployed at that time were troops of the ministry of the interior – the forces that would be needed to suppress Ukrainian opposition and to run an occupation regime. This time, those troops are not there, which suggests that Russian goals are more limited now. Moscow does not seem to have plans to push too far into Ukrainian territory, since it has no fifth-column organisations on which it could rely to administer an occupation.

The fighting in the Donbass continues around critical economic infrastructure, such as Donetsk airport, and along the major roads that connect rebel-held territories. This indicates that the rebels want to capture some of the important strategic infrastructure taken by Ukraine’s army during the summer, to gain the economic underpinnings needed for a permanent split from Ukraine. However, given the fact that European eyes are on Moscow, the Kremlin seems to be waiting for a major incident to provide a pretext for further military aggression. Last week’s skirmishes were particularly designed to provoke the Ukrainian army and to try to lure artillery fire into populated areas (for example, by sniping at Ukrainian servicemen from these areas). However, so far, Ukraine has not over-reacted, although the government’s harsh comments on the staged rebel elections might have created hopes in Moscow that Ukraine would go too far.

The situation on the ground remains fragile and extremely dangerous. Decisions made by local commanders or troops could have strategic consequences for Ukraine. And from the outside, these decisions are very difficult to predict. Further Russian provocations – both military and political – are to be expected. Therefore, Europe should pay close attention to what is happening on the ground.

The situation on the ground remains fragile and extremely dangerous.

Destabilising Ukraine in the long term

Russian behaviour is not only aimed at realising its immediate military goals in the Donbass, which, if achieved, would “freeze” the conflict. Constant military threat and escalation is a means to undermine Ukraine as a state. Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko vowed to end the rebellion in a matter of days in May, but it is clear to Ukraine that the conflict will go on for a long time. Moreover, the continuous fighting has revealed strains and signs of attrition within the Ukrainian army. Underfunded for years and at a low rate of preparedness, the Ukrainian armed forces have great difficulties maintaining adequate numbers of soldiers and materiel in the Donbass as well as on the borders with Russia. Russia, on the other hand, has the capacity to rotate its troops on the Ukrainian border (as well as the formations fighting within the Donbass), constantly posing a latent military threat to Ukraine’s very existence. The winter will probably worsen the readiness and morale of Ukrainian troops, especially if they are forced to be deployed in the field over longer periods.

The constant military confrontation – or latent confrontation – costs money that drains Ukraine’s limited resources. It draws attention away from the Ukrainian reform agenda and creates an atmosphere of insecurity both in Ukrainian society as well as among the political class. And it scares off international investors who could otherwise help to restart the Ukrainian economy. In the long run, Moscow hopes that Ukraine will give in to the pressure from Russia. Moscow anticipates that, disillusioned by the European Union and faced with both ongoing military conflict and a deteriorating economy, Kyiv will abandon the “Maidan adventure” and settle for a “Belorussian solution”: integrate with the Eurasian Union with the Kremlin’s choice of kleptocrat at the head of the government.

Constant military threat and escalation is a means to undermine Ukraine as a state.

The political consequences for Europe

The Minsk Accord has been breached many times and it is increasingly obvious that Russia has no intention of helping to implement it. The pro-Russian rebels have clearly set up parallel institutions outside any Ukrainian framework. The ceasefire has not been kept. Russia is not stopping the flow of arms to the rebels – on the contrary, it is sending more materiel. Russian actions are reminiscent of its behaviour in the 1990s, when it supported numerous United Nations resolutions on the Balkans calling for an immediate ceasefire and the opening of negotiations, but never tried to restrain Serbia and thus create a fait accompli on the ground. However, in the 1990s, this strategy backfired when NATO, disillusioned with Belgrade’s repeated breaches of UN resolutions and spoiling of the Vance-Owen peace plan, decided to intervene and enforce peace. But Moscow seems confident that NATO will not dare to make similar moves in Ukraine.

On the other hand, Europe can hardly afford to allow Russia to sign an agreement and immediately walk away from it. That would represent the formal end of even the memory of the European security order. The sanctions imposed by the EU are a warning shot across the Russian bows. But the punitive measures are not strong enough to change Russian behaviour in the short term.

The sanctions imposed by the EU are a warning shot across the Russian bows.

Even so, EU sanctions could have disastrous consequences for the Russian economy in the long run. Therefore, Russia’s defiance reinforces the impression that the Kremlin’s decisions are now being driven by military or security personnel, and that economic (sometimes called liberal) technocrats have lost their influence. If this is the case, it is hard to believe that further economic sanctions will change Moscow’s calculus. Instead, Europe will have to speak in the language that Russia’s inner power circle understands: that of military power.

Part of the answer would be increased NATO manoeuvres and an expansion of the Alliance’s readiness force, as NATO General Hans-Lothar Domröse has suggested. But the EU could also announce that it will step up its efforts to train and equip Ukraine’s army if Russia does not ease its military threat towards Ukraine. These measures would not cost much, but they would signal to Russia that Europe is not afraid of military issues and will not tolerate Russia’s unilateral militarisation of the conflict in Ukraine.

Furthermore, the EU should continue to push the reform and integration agenda in Ukraine. This would serve as a signal that neither Europe nor Ukraine will be blackmailed by military force. The shift to a western-leaning economy will certainly cause transformative shocks and hardship for Ukraine – but major restructuring must take place sooner or later in areas such as the natural gas sector, public administration, and heavy industry. And a society under military threat is much more likely to endure this hardship than a society at peace, in which every restructuring would be immediately politicised. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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