Russian President Vladimir Putin’s undeclared war on once-fraternal Ukraine has destroyed Moscow’s influence on Kiev, forged genuine Ukrainian identity in resistance and ended in a roughly stable stalemate in the eastern 3% of Ukraine that Russia now controls. However bitter that stalemate is to Putin, to Ukraine, and to the West, the least bad option may now be to prolong gridlock while diminishing casualties in Ukraine’s Donbas coal region.
This could lock into place Putin’s tacit admission of the rising costs of his misadventure, Kiev’s tacit cession of half of Donbas to Moscow and the West’s tacit adaptation of twentieth-century containment of the Soviet Union to twenty-first-century containment of revisionist post-Soviet Russia.
All three players have sought to limit the conflict on their own terms. Ukrainians have always had the inherently limited goal of defence. Putin started his war of choice confident that – in a theatre where Russia enjoys escalation dominance – he could restore the historical predominance of Russians over their Ukrainian ‘younger brothers’ in an operation that would be limited by the quick triumph of his own strong will over the hesitant West’s war fatigue. The West, which has scant geopolitical interest in Ukraine, has given Kiev moral support but has conspicuously restricted its military aid to a minimum in order to avert retaliatory Russian escalation up the chain to, as Putin has threatened, potential use of nuclear weapons.
At the same time, all the players have established their red lines. A year ago, when Ukraine’s ragtag army and start-up militias gathered strength and came close to defeating Putin’s proxy separatists in Donbas, Putin sent Russian airborne troops into battle (while denying that any Russian soldiers were there). They broke the Ukrainian siege in a matter of days and signalled that Putin would not allow his local proxies to lose. Kiev understood the message and initiated the first Minsk truce, but maintained its own red line in keeping Donbas de jure part of Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel set out the West’s red line that Russia’s violation of international law and seven decades of peace in the European heartland was unacceptable. NATO mounted modest military exercises in the member states Putin was threatening – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland – and announced plans to preposition heavy weapons there. Yet in Ukraine itself the West skirted the risk of triggering Russian escalation by avoiding direct military engagement and instead imposing financial sanctions on Russia to raise the long-term costs of Moscow’s forcible land grabs.
Stalemate in Donbas is now testing these red lines. Harbingers suggest that President Putin may be the actor who feels the most pressure in finally beginning to admit to himself the damage to Russia from his misjudgements in Ukraine.
He first squandered his initial total influence over Ukraine by prodding his protégé, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, to rout pro-European demonstrators at ‘Euromaidan’ by violence that turned protesters into martyrs. He annexed Crimea, believing that German businessmen were too dependent on Russian oil and trade for Europe to resist this breach of international law. He then proclaimed a crusade to take over the eastern third of today’s Ukraine, expecting Russian speakers there to rise up against Kiev and expecting the paltry Ukrainian armed forces to disintegrate before Russia’s military behemoth.
He miscalculated. Chancellor Merkel led Germany and the whole European Union to join the US in imposing the sanctions that, together with low oil prices, are already pushing Russia into a major recession this year. Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine never rebelled en masse. The Ukrainian army and militias, despite being vastly outgunned, proved to be formidable fighters and raised the spectre for Moscow of the quagmire of a long guerrilla war. And Putin’s war resuscitated NATO and turned ever wider circles of apolitical Ukrainians against Russia.
In the face of these serial tactical defeats Putin is now displaying less ardour for the fight in Ukraine. Lately he has seemed bored with Donbas and exasperated by the feuding criminals and mercenaries who are his separatist proxies there. He is conspicuously not moving to annex that war-ravaged rustbelt. He no longer speaks of ‘Novorossiya’, Catherine the Great’s term for the part of Ukraine he was claiming. He reportedly sent his top Ukraine adviser, Vladislav Surkov, to the Donbas last month to tell the separatists to stop murdering each other and to cool their zeal for launching a new offensive. He has not repeated recently his earlier threats to escalate confrontation up to the nuclear level. He has been at great pains to hide the deaths of the Russian soldiers he swears are not in Ukraine from their wives and mothers.
By now there are rumblings of Russian military overstretch, concerns about a revival of anti-Russian rebellion in the North Caucasus through veterans returning from Ukraine, and worry about illegal weapons flowing into Russia across the Donbas border. And despite Western fears of an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine this summer, the 50,000-plus Russian troops massed on and over Ukraine’s eastern border have so far done little more than join in the relatively low-level shelling across the Donbas truce line.
Does Putin’s softer line hide from the West Moscow’s preparation for a new assault in Ukraine? Or do Putin’s build-up of troops on Ukraine’s borders and menacing military exercises with nuclear-capable aircraft in the region hide from rabid Russian nationalists (as they suspect) a quiet retreat from belligerence by the Russian president? It’s hard to tell.
Enshrining stalemate in a formal or informal agreement would by no means ensure a lasting peace in Ukraine. But it could at least reduce casualties and provide some measure of whether the strategic patience Chancellor Merkel has counselled from the beginning is finally dulling Putin’s hubris. And it could give Kiev the space to get on with its Sisyphean efforts to rescue the moribund economy, reduce corruption, sideline Ukraine’s nastier oligarchs, and harness the private militias that have saved the country.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author. She has contributed several articles to Survival, most recently ‘Serbia Reinvents Itself’, in Survival, vol. 55, no. 4, August–September 2013, pp. 7–30.