Pulling Russia and Ukraine Back from the Brink of War

The West needs to proactively broker an agreement.

The simmering fighting in Ukraine has led to a false sense of complacency in the West that this conflict might be drifting into a frozen state. It is far from intractable, but the past several months have imposed a fog of cognitive dissonance that will be rudely pulled back, either when Moscow loses patience, or perhaps worse, control. If the West does not return its attention to Ukraine and take an active role in managing the conflict, a resumption of the war is likely. Prognosticating when and where is less important than understanding why this is inevitable.


A dangerous game


The first instinct would be to point to recent fighting in Eastern Ukraine, but this escalation is more in the realm of information war than actual war. Artillery exchanges intensified, though evidence of a separatist ground attack remains elusive. It seems on August 10th Ukraine launched a limited, but successful, offensive operation against a small separatist unit in the town of Novolaspa. The 72nd mechanized brigade with auxiliary support assaulted the town, forced out the separatists, and then retreated to occupy nearby strategic heights.


This action was a minor victory for a military that usually finds itself on the defensive (although the casualties are unknown). It represents a calculated risk by Kiev that Russia will choose not to retaliate disproportionately and restrain the separatists to artillery fire. In response, separatist forces have gone on alert and are mobilizing. Both sides are taking out heavy artillery and MLRS systems in preparation for an artillery duel. Russia's ability to control the separatist forces will be tested in the coming weeks. Ukraine's intentions behind this action are unclear; domestic politics might be at work, the military might be seeking to test its capabilities, or Ukraine might be trying to regain the West's drifting attention. The victory is certainly a morale booster, but the consequences could prove costly.


Origins of an unsustainable situation


Where this incident takes Ukraine is difficult to foresee, but the arc is clearly bending towards war and has been since March. Russia appeared to have attained what it wanted in the Minsk II agreement, except that no political clause of that deal has been implemented since. Fighting had died down to a low boil, with occasional flare ups, but the political process has gone nowhere. Instead, Ukraine has severed the occupied portion of the Donbas, installed an economic blockade, and the new de facto international border is the current line of control between the separatists and Ukrainian forces. Russia's intention to have this territory become a strategic hook in Ukraine was predicated on the notion that ultimately Kiev would want it back, and could be pressured to reintegrate it. Those assumptions proved incorrect.


The mechanism for returning the Donbas was to be elections, but Ukraine's Rada effectively abrogated this component of the Minsk deal back in March, stating that said elections will only be held once Russia withdraws and capitulates. Subsequent meetings in Minsk have been fruitless, and an irrelevant sideshow to the conflict. Behind Ukraine's stubbornness lies a policy that has been thought through, but one that leaves Russia with few non-military options. Ukraine has little interest in seeing the occupied half of the Donbas returned. That may not be official policy but it is apparent reality to even a casual observer of this conflict. Even if Russia withdrew today, the tattered land is economically ruinous to reintegrate, and Ukraine is already in dire financial straits.


Now cut off, the only natural course for the Donbas is to become a part of Russia in everything but name. Russia's currency is already taking it over. Unlike Transnistria, which is geographically distant, there is no way for Russia to keep the Donbas away. The best case scenario is that it becomes a large and expensive Abkhazia, but even this is optimistic. Not only does the current scenario fail to achieve Russia's objectives, but its natural trajectory is intolerable for Moscow. It is only a matter of time before Russia imposes a course correction. Vladimir Putin has consistently doubled down and used force.


There is no alternative plan


If local elections are held across Ukraine on October 25th, excluding the occupied regions, that could prove a trigger for the resumption of combat. The West has been sleepwalking on this path, chained to events as the clock on the Minsk deal steadily runs out. The United States and EU have no alternative to Minsk prepared. Ukraine falsely hopes that there is another option, a Plan B once Minsk is certified as a dead end. A scenario where it achieves a freezing of the conflict without paying a substantial political price for it. This is unlikely. There is no alternative Western plan for settling this conflict, and therefore the agreement will not be officially declared as "failed" even if fighting resumes. In the event of military escalation, all parties will call for a return to the Minsk framework, and Kiev will find itself having walked a painful path only to arrive at the point of origin.


The problem with the plan to sever and contain the Donbas, as tantalizing as it may seem, is that Russia's army can change the facts on the ground in Ukraine. Moscow's direct costs have steadily declined during each offensive. Russia has been turning the separatists into a miniature version of its army, with enough conventional firepower that even fewer of its soldiers are likely to be needed in the future.