Geopolitical Futures (GPF) forecasts that the frozen conflict in Ukraine will be formalised in some way in 2017. The increased fighting in Ukraine, since 29 January, poses a potential challenge to this forecast and therefore warrants a closer look. At the end of January 2017, Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, cut short his visit to Germany amid news of heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine, near the town of Avdiivka.
Both sides — the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists — accuse each other of starting the most recent fighting. To understand why this is happening now, it is first necessary to understand what is happening and then to take a step back and to understand the strategic position of each of the major players. This line of analysis leads to the conclusion that at present, the forecast remains on track.
It’s not unusual for Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists to shell each other in Donbas, but in terms of casualties and the number of attacks, the events at the end of January represented a significant uptake. Shelling has been ongoing in Avdiivka, north of Donetsk, since 29 January, peaking on 2 and 3 February.
Attacks on the Oktyabr coal mine and the city’s coke chemical plant cut the energy supply for local residents (power has since been mostly restored). Donetsk Filter Station stopped operating due to the destruction of the electricity infrastructure. Since the first of February, a water pipeline leak near Avdiivka has disrupted the water supply to residents of Mariupol. On the night of the fourth of February, more shelling damaged the electricity infrastructure for the city of Horlivka. Hostilities also escalated further in Luhansk and Mariupol. Over 33 people have been killed and dozens more injured since the violence began to escalate last month.
Both Ukraine and Russia have increased their military presence along the contact line. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine has confirmed that Ukraine increased its defences with more troops and large-calibre artillery, including battle tanks, were seen moving toward Donetsk and Mariupol. Since 31 January, these have been the main fighting locations. On 4-5 February, armoured combat vehicles were spotted near Donetsk, Mariupol and Luhansk.
Russian media reported that two Tochka-U missile systems were moved to the area of the Avdiivka coke plant, and six more of those systems were delivered to a railway station in the village of Novobakhmutovka, near Yasynuvata. On 25 January, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence warned that Russia was building up its defence along the Ukrainian border, in the Rostov region as well, increasing the number of troops and artillery units and creating combat and logistical support units for a new division, as well as their encampments.
Seeing a big picture
Fighting appears to be tapering off, but it is important to understand why it intensified in the first place. If you listen to reports from both sides, they devolve into a “he said-she said” situation. A more effective way of understanding what is going on is to step back and think about the strategic positions of Russia, the United States and Ukraine, and what each currently needs.
Russia has no interest in a flare-up in the fighting in eastern Ukraine right now. The Russian economy is struggling, and there are signs of internal political shuffling that suggest President Vladimir Putin may feel a need to consolidate his rule. Besides these domestic issues, Russia does not have the requisite manpower necessary to take Ukraine by force.
Russia wants a formalisation of the status quo, which would require both sides to admit that neither can make the other do what it wants. If that is accompanied by a removal of economic sanctions it would be a bonus, but what Russia cannot tolerate is a Western-backed and armed government in Kyiv that is hostile to Russian interests. Russia knows it cannot change the situation in Kyiv, but an agreement that preserves the status quo, and that limits the amount of military assistance the West offers Kyiv, would give Russia time to deal with its internal issues and to develop its forces while playing the long game in Kyiv.
The US also does not want the situation in Ukraine to get worse. The administration of President Donald Trump has made crushing the Islamic State a top priority and is interested in exploring a limited cooperation with Russia towards achieving that end. The US has what it wants in Ukraine: a pro-Western government in Kyiv. The US does not have the will nor the ability to intervene in pushing pro-Russian forces out of the country’s east, and at this point exacerbating instability in the region has reached a point of diminishing returns. The status of a few regions in eastern Ukraine is not a pressing concern and, if anything, obstructs the US’ goals. An increase in fighting between Ukrainian and pro-
Russian forces is exactly what the new US administration does not want right now.
The outlier here is Ukraine, which undoubtedly hears some of the statements Trump has made on Russia and is terrified by them. For Ukraine, a formalisation of the status quo is already a loss, but the notion that the US and Russia might cooperate in Syria, and that this understanding might extend to concessions in Ukraine, is a very real threat.
To make matters worse, from a Ukrainian perspective, Kyiv’s EU allies are not in a position to help, either. They, too, have an interest in formalising the frozen conflict. The Europeans perceive the removal of sanctions as an economic opportunity. Furthermore, both Germany and France have elections this year, and their leaders are focused on internal problems, which means they have less bandwidth for an interminable conflict in the east.
Reports have increased since last September of Ukrainian army incursions into the “grey zone,” the area between the government and separatist forces along the contact line, which the two sides have fought over since the signing of the first failed peace agreement in September 2014. Reports on separatist incursions have been appearing since last November. The timing of such movements around the potential, and then reality, of a Trump presidency is more than likely not coincidental.
Ukraine wants to make it clear to the new administration that Russia is the enemy and that Ukraine needs US support. Ukraine’s position is helped then, if a small crisis between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces in the east emerges, especially one that demonstrates to the world that Russia is hostile toward Ukraine and that Ukraine needs Western security assurances now more than ever.
None of this means that Ukraine started the most recent round of fighting. It just means that from a strategic perspective, Ukraine is the only actor in the conflict that currently benefits from an upscale in fighting. Whether or not it was the pro-Ukrainian forces that fired first, once the fighting began, it was in Ukraine’s interest to publicise it and to condemn the pro-Russian forces, as loudly as possible.
US and Russian perspectives
The problem for Ukraine is that its interests are not the same as US interests. Ukraine wants to reunify the country and expel Russia from its territory. The US is primarily interested in weakening Russia, and the fate of Donetsk and Luhansk is immaterial to that goal. The US is not going to abandon Ukraine, but that is an easy thing to say and a much harder thing to be sure of if you are in Kyiv reading American newspapers and following various White House statements.
The key thing to keep in mind is this: The US is not ready for — nor does it desire — a fight in Ukraine. Russia is similarly ill-prepared and not spoiling for a fight. If anything, Russia hopes to keep things quiet so it can reach an understanding with the US and European countries. As long as this is the case, a small flare-up in eastern Ukraine will be of limited significance and eventually will fade away. The Ukrainians will loudly trumpet the conflict to any willing to listen.
But as long as the major powers are not interested in all -out war or conflict, and as long as the conflict in the east stays relatively small, it will remain frozen. If either the US or Russian position changes, or if forces on either side escalate the fighting far more seriously than what has been observed even in the past week, GPF’s forecast will require revision. However, the current fighting is well within the bounds of our expectations.
The editorial was originally published on Geopolitical Futures. Reprinted, here, with permission.