Big Guns in East Ukraine Fall Silent: Will the Donbass See Peace or Surreptitious Moves by Putin?

Pictured above is a sniper from the Azov Battalion of the National Guard of Ukraine on the front line in the Donbass. The Azov Battalion is a far-right neo-Nazi all volunteer infantry unit, armed by Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. The vicious fighting seen in the Donbass, Putin’s record of moves elsewhere, and portrayals of him cast doubt that peace can be found in the region. However, the prospect for peace still exists.

According to a September 1, 2015 Reuters article entitled “Big Guns in East Ukraine Fall Silent, Two More Die from Wounds in Kiev,” a fragile ceasefire agreed to by the Ukrainian Government and pro-Russian separatists on August 26, 2015, appears to have held. The agreement appealed to the human side of the belligerents, required a halt in fighting in recognition of the start of the school year on September 1st. The Minsk Agreement, signed on February 12, 2015, was supposed to have established just such a ceasefire once signed. However, following its signing, a succession of violations reportedly occurred in both the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts—administrative divisions—in which artillery and other weapons were used. Both sides accused the other of violations in which Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian separatist fighters were killed. The September 1st ceasefire was arranged under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The three-party Contact Group, which includes representatives of the Ukrainian Government, the Russian Government, and pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk hammered out the document.

The Minsk Agreement represents the beginning of the real peace in the Donbass region. Its terms include: an immediate ceasefire; a buffer zone separating heavy weapons of both sides, with a minimum buffer zone of 50km for 100mm artillery and up to 140km for rockets; effective verification by the OSCE; amnesty and release of all hostages and illegally detained people; safe access, storage, delivery, and distribution of humanitarian aid to the needy; restoration of government pensions and other welfare payments for civilians in the east; the restoration of Ukrainian control of the banking system in areas affected by the conflict, pull out of all foreign military formations, military equipment, and mercenaries from Ukraine under OSCE monitoring; the disarmament of illegal groups; full Ukrainian control over the eastern border, after local elections under Ukrainian law and a constitutional deal on the future of Donetsk and Luhansk by the end of 2015. For now, the contested areas will remain “bricked in.” The direction which the region may turn will be determined either by the US, EU and Ukrainian Government, intent to keep all of the Donbass in Ukraine, albeit with part of its population reluctant to live under Kiev’s control and by Russia and pro-Russian separatists intent on establishing the region’s independence and aligning it more closely with Moscow. What nettles the US, EU and the Ukrainian Government, now committed to a westward orientation, is the considerable effort they say Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has invested in grabbing territory in the Donbass and eventually all of Ukraine as it sits in Russia’s “near abroad.” To them, Putin has created something from nothing that preexisted: contemptuous murmurs against Ukrainian identity, language, and national symbols suddenly became rebel yells for secession. They feel Putin now has additional space in Ukraine from which he can exert his influence in the region. (The US, EU and Ukraine claim Putin illegally swallowed up Crimea in 2014.) Conversely, Putin insists the administration of US President Barack Obama caused the conflict in the Donbass. He remarked after meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry on May 12, 2015, “They [the US] should not have supported the anti-constitutionalists’ armed coup that led to a violent confrontation in Ukraine, a civil war in fact.” He also views US efforts in Ukraine as part of an attempt to isolate Russia. Facinus quos inquinant aequat. (Guilt equates all who share in guilt.)

Members of Putin’s comitatus such as Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General Valery Gerasimov have reportedly expressed the same sentiment that Russia is only acting in response to Western behavior toward it. Now that the parties appear to be adhering to the Minsk Agreement’s terms, and after a year and half of extremely violent battles and firefights, Moscow would unlikely use the same “hybrid warfare” approach—the blend of unidentified troops, propaganda and economic pressure—seen in Crimea, or some other military approach to capture the remainder of Donetsk and Luhansk. Due to the Minsk Agreement, Putin is no longer encumbered by having to do everything in secret. Putin may engage in diplomatic moves and decisive action in the Donbass akin to that seen in Georgia to gain firmer grip on pro-Russian separatist held territory.

In 2008, pro-Russian separatists in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia, along with Russian Federation troops, fought a war for independence against the Georgian Government. Once peace was established between the warring parties by then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy, Russia occupied the two rebellious regions and continues to do so today. Russia also recognized their independence. There was little Georgia could do to recover the regions, yet it had the support of the US, and the EU. On March 3, 2015, a Russian-South Ossetian Treaty of Alliance and Integration was signed, effectively granting Moscow control of South Ossetia’s foreign policy, border, and security. In November 2014, Putin signed a similar accord with Abkhazia entitled the Russia-Abkhazian Agreement of Alliance and Strategic Partnership which meant in practice Moscow is responsible for the customs, defense, and security of the breakaway republic. When the Russian-South Ossetian agreement was revealed, the EU Foreign Policy Coordinator Federica Mogherini declared, “The agreement undermined efforts to strengthen security and stability in the region.” She further stated, “This ‘treaty’—which includes references to a transfer of powers in some areas—clearly violates Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Some observers believe the treaty set the region up for annexation by Russia. Most recently, pro-Russian separatist security forces moved border fences in the South Ossetia and Abkahzia further into Georgia’s territory.  By parsing out the events observed in South Ossetia alone, a possible approach Putin might use in the Donbass is revealed. Three main steps of that approach could include: 1) securing territorial gains via humanitarian assistance; 2) legitimizing independence and Russian influence via “diplomacy”; and, 3) quiet expansion.

Above is a satellite image of Russian Federation weapon systems being moved into Ukraine. The US, EU, and Ukrainian Government accuse Russia of arming pro-Russian separatist forces in the Donbass. Given the Minsk Agreement, Putin would unlikely use the “hybrid warfare” approach seen in Crimea. He will no longer need to do things in secret. Putin may engage in diplomatic moves and decisive action to gain a firmer grip on the Donbass.

Securing Territorial Gains via Humanitarian Assistance

Et genus et formam Regina Pecunia donat. (Money like a queen bestows both rank and beauty.) In addition to economic support provided by Kiev to Donetsk and Luhansk in the near term under the Minsk Agreement, Russia may provide a considerable amount of aid in Russian rubles to the Donbass, perhaps initially cloaked. It could also continue to provide humanitarian aid using truck convoys. Russia could provide financial support to pro-Russian separatist political organizations. To encourage ethnic-Russians to remain in Donbass, Russia may assist directly in the reconstruction of ethnic-Russian communities, focusing on the robust reconstruction of schools churches, community centers, and infrastructure projects that meet the needs of those communities. Comparable aid would likely fail to reach ethnic-Ukrainian and other communities not linked to, or falling within the territorial lines of, the pro-Russian separatist movement. Nations aligned with Russia could be encouraged to provide recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent regions. Russia could enable pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk to defend themselves even better with new Russian armaments and training from Russian military advisers acting covertly given that under the Minsk Agreement, the two regions remain the sovereign territory of Ukraine. (The US, the EU, and Kiev have already accused Russia of arming the separatists.) Russia would unlikely withdraw its forces bordering the Donbass and could possibly increase the measure of those forces to create the capability to rush into the region to secure the peace if fighting resumed between the opposing parties.

In a similar way, Russia had already invested 43 billion rubles in South Ossetia and Abkhazia over the past six years. The border between South Ossetia and Georgia was closed, precluding the Georgian Government from influencing events in its former territory. Russia had considerable influence in the pro-Russian separatist political organizations. Western observers view South Ossetia leadership a puppet government under Moscow’s control. The ethnic-Georgians in South Ossetia drifted off. With the border closed, those who wanted to return could not. The loss of South Ossetians opposed to independence eliminated meant there were no opposing political movements, and internal security and stability could be maintained more easily. The presence of Russian troops in South Ossetia has obviated the possibility that Georgia might retake its territory. Russian troops there have remained on a war-time footing and have not moved to prewar locations as Georgian forces have. Moscow had Nicaragua, Nauru, and Venezuela join it in recognizing the independence of South Ossetia as well as Abkhazia.

What nettles the US, EU, and the Ukrainian Government is the considerable effort they say Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has invested in grabbing territory in the Donbass. They feel Putin now has space in Ukraine, in addition to Crimea, from which he can exert his influence in the region. Conversely, Putin insists the administration of US President Barack Obama caused the conflict in the Donbass.

Legitimizing Independence and Russian Influence via “Diplomacy”

Et mihi res, non me rebus subjungere conor. (I suit life to myself, not myself to life.) Even under the best conditions created for Kiev as the terms of the Minsk Agreement are fulfilled, Putin may still move to establish treaties with both the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” giving Russia control over their economic activity. Residents in both oblasts would be provided with easier access to Russian citizenship. If the balance of the two regions’ populations were to swing more heavily in the pro-Russian separatists favor, or even if not, Russia may formally guarantee that salaries of government workers in the Donbass would be paid by Russia, “to kindly take the financial strain off of Kiev.” Despite the terms of the Minsk Agreement, both the Donestsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic governments would be directed by Russia to push hard to turn border control over to Russia through talks, also ostensibly to make things more convenient for Kiev. Russia could formally take charge of the military operations of the pro-separatist security forces in Donetsk and Luhansk. A joint security zone could be created between Russia and the two “governments.”

Analogously, the Russian-South Ossetian Treaty of Alliance and Integration allowed Russia to formally take charge of South-Ossetia’s economy and military. South Ossetia will receive 9 billion rubles ($147 million or €140 million) in aid over three years. Government salaries and pensions were raised to a level comparable with those received in Russia’s North Caucasus. Putin himself stated a joint defense and security zone would be created between the two countries. South Ossetian leader Leonid Timorov explained: “Russia could guarantee security from Western reaction.” Border crossings for customs agencies would also be integrated. That was made easier because the border crossings with Georgia were already closed.

By parsing out the events observed in South Ossetia following its 2008 war for independence against the Georgian Government, a possible approach Putin might use in the Donbass is revealed. Three main steps of that approach could include: 1) securing territorial gains via humanitarian assistance; 2) legitimizing independence and Russian influence via “diplomacy”; and, 3) quiet expansion.

Quiet Expansion

Alitur vitium vivitque tegendo. (Vice is nourished by being concealed.) After a few short years of the ceasefire and other urgent and important matters may capture Kiev’s attention, pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk may find opportunities to encroach into territory perhaps no longer vigilantly guarded by the Ukrainian Armed Forces or volunteer units. If Russia and the new “people’s republics” were to reach some defense and security treaty by that time, Russian Federation troops would be able to stand beside pro-Russian separatist forces in the expanded territory. Russia could also begin to provide economic and humanitarian aid to those segments of Ukrainian held territory of the Donbass the Kiev may not be able to support sufficiently. Freedom of movement may allow for inhabitants of the region who have applied for Russian citizenship, or possess it, to move into heavily damaged villages and abandoned areas, where Ukrainian combatants have withdrawn. They could resettle and begin reconstruction in them. Russia could declare its intention to defend its “compatriots” entering those areas. Russian and pro-Russian separatist flags would soon be seen further eastward in the Donbass. When possible the expansion of pro-Russian territory may also be aimed at encompassing important infrastructure facilities, particularly gas and energy related sites, and key roadways.

Likewise in South Ossetia, Russian backed security forces reportedly moved a border fence with Georgia, taking more territory for Russian control. Those same security forces armed with assault rifles were also seen crossing into Georgian controlled territory and tearing down a Georgian flag. As a result of pro-Russian separatists moving border fences deeper into Georgia, some villages have been cut in half by Russian separatist forces. Reportedly, people have gone to sleep Georgian and have awakened as members of a breakaway territory. By moving one fence, pro-Russian separatists managed to place 1.6 km of the Baku-Supsa pipeline in the pro-Russian separatist territory. One fence was moved far enough to grab 500 meters of Georgia’s E60 Highway, which is the main road linking the Black Sea to Azerbaijan.

Ukrainian Government faces an economic crisis and a variety of other domestic difficulties to include challenges from a far-right neo-Nazi movement. The Donbass is a net consumer of foreign imports, is dependent on Russian gas, and is a rustbelt requiring trillions of dollars in investment. Those realities along with seeing the effects of a few years of rain and wind on the ruins of cities and towns in the Donbass may make Kiev less eager to wrestle with Moscow for the hearts and minds of its inhabitants.

The Way Forward

Omni mutantur nos et mutamur in illis. (All things change, and we change with them.) For Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, it will be torturous enough to lead an emerging European nation that is facing an economic crisis, and a variety of other domestic difficulties to include challenges from a far-right neo-Nazi movement. Keeping all of the Donbass in Ukraine is the cause of honor now. Yet, after focusing on additional issues over time, numbness may develop toward the intractable situation in the region. New moves by pro-Russian separatist and Russia in the Donbass may no longer be alarming enough to pierce that numbness. The Donbass is a net consumer of foreign imports and is dependent on Russian gas. It is considered a rustbelt needing to be refitted at the cost of trillions of dollars Kiev does not have. Despite receiving economic aid from the West, Ukraine, itself, may never see an economic upturn. After seeing the effects of a few years of rain and wind on the ruins of cities and towns in the Donbass, Kiev may no longer be eager to wrestle with Moscow for the hearts and minds of the oblasts’ inhabitants. The Ukrainian Armed Forces are not a spent force, but they could hardly surmount a genuine threat posed by Russian Federation Armed Forces. US and EU efforts to train and equip the Ukrainian Armed Forces cannot change that. Further regarding the West, it is difficult to determine how much pressure it would be willing to exert against Russia over Ukraine through sanctions in the future.

It has been said that the cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The analysis presented in here may appear cynical. It imputes on Putin a lust for power and the intent to simply acquire greater territory and control in Russia’s near abroad. However, Putin has been portrayed that way here for the purpose of debate. There is value in the Minsk Agreement. That value is a ceasefire, lives saved, and ability of the region’s inhabitants to contemplate peace. Adherence to the terms of the Minsk Agreement by Russia and pro-Russian separatists nudged by Russia is not a notional idea; it is reality. The Minsk Agreement and the September 1st ceasefire represent positive change and a genuine restart to diplomatic activity over the Donbass. Much more is required of the agreement’s signatories. Through regular communication via the Contact Group and the good offices of the OSCE, perhaps peace will develop in the Donbass.

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