Putin Problems: Why Is Ukraine's Frozen War Heating Up Again?

February 20, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: UkraineLuhanskDonetskRussiaVolodymyr Zelensky

Putin Problems: Why Is Ukraine's Frozen War Heating Up Again?

A real 'forever war.'

It’s not uncommon to see the night sky light up with tracer fire, or the distant flash of exploding shells. That’s not to say, however, that sporadic fighting doesn’t go on during the daytime. Because it often does.

For Ukraine’s soldiers, their country’s ongoing war effort is meant to keep the Russian threat quarantined to the Donbas war zone. Many Ukrainian troops say that if they simply packed up and went home, then Moscow would continue its invasion behind them all the way to Kyiv.

For Moscow, the war in eastern Ukraine is a long-term gambit to slow Ukraine’s pro-Western pivot. By dialing up or down the level of violence in the Donbas, Moscow attempts to extract diplomatic concessions from Kyiv and delegitimize Ukraine’s pro-democratic ambitions.

Apart from the humanitarian crisis and the ongoing tragedy of soldiers continuously killed in combat, the war has certainly been a drain on Ukraine’s economy and a detractor from much-needed foreign investment. The war is also a continued roadblock in the way of Ukraine’s ambitions to join both the European Union and NATO one day.

Yet, if Moscow had hoped to use the war as a way to coerce Kyiv back into Russia’s so-called sphere of influence, then the Kremlin’s plan has been a resounding failure. 

Ukraine’s democracy is flourishing like never before due to the tireless efforts of grassroots, pro-democracy, civil-society groups. Many Ukrainians say their country is now firmly set on an irreversible, pro-Western trajectory. Moreover, the country has also undertaken a top-to-bottom cultural, economic, and political divorce from its former Soviet overlord. 

Today, Ukraine is a democratic success story in the making, despite Russia’s best efforts to the contrary.

There’s a long way to go, for sure, when it comes to fighting corruption. But Ukraine has made more progress in the past five years, and while fighting a war, toward ditching its authoritarian, Soviet past and becoming a liberal Western democracy than it achieved in all the years since achieving independence from Soviet rule in 1991.

New Blood

Five years after Minsk II went into effect, there has been a fresh injection of energy into finding a peaceful solution to the war in the Donbas.

In December, Zelenskyy and Putin met in Paris for peace talks. It was the first meeting in three years for the so-called Normandy Format—a negotiating framework that dates back to 2014 to end the war in eastern Ukraine.

The Paris peace talks were a significant step toward a negotiated peace, signaling that both sides were willing to consider a diplomatic solution to the war rather than victory through decisive military action. 

At a minimum, the talks reopened channels of communication between Kyiv and Moscow through which trust can be slowly rebuilt, allowing incremental steps forward in hashing out compromises on controversial sticking points, such as holding elections in the Donbas.

On Friday, Zelenskyy’s administration announced that the Ukrainian president had called Putin to discuss the possibility of another meeting of the Normandy Format leaders.

Tuesday’s spike in combat, however, underscores how easily reversible that progress toward peace may be.

“This latest incident is not isolated,” Edi Rama, OSCE chairman, said in a statement on Tuesday about the spike in combat in the Donbas. “Every day the ceasefire is violated, despite the undertakings set out in the Minsk agreements, and the explicit commitment to ‘a full and comprehensive implementation of the ceasefire’ agreed in Paris two months ago.”

After six years of war, and five years of the failed Minsk II cease-fire, many Ukrainians remain skeptical about the prospects for peace anytime soon. 

Spearheaded by war veterans opposed to Zelenskyy’s peace overtures to Moscow, a nationwide “anti-capitulation” movement has sprouted across Ukraine. Zelenskyy’s popularity has suffered in the process. A nationwide poll in January put Zelenskyy’s approval rating among Ukrainians at 49%—down from 73% in September.

Opponents of a negotiated peace with Russia are entrenched in their opposition to holding any elections in the Donbas until Ukrainian forces have regained full control of the embattled territory, and all Russian troops and its agents have departed.

Otherwise, according to Zelenskyy’s critics, elections in the Donbas will simply by a means by which Moscow can insert its own mouthpieces into Ukraine’s national parliament. 

It is now clear, however, that the lopsided hard-power advantage that Moscow once enjoyed over Kyiv has diminished since February of 2015. Ukraine now has more bargaining power against Moscow than it ever has. And that’s one key reason why many Ukrainian veterans are so staunchly opposed to making any concessions to Moscow for the sake of peace.


Since the war began in 2014, Ukraine has rebuilt its once infirm military—which had been dilapidated by widespread corruption in the post-Soviet years—into a much more modern, professional, and battle-hardened force.

“Yes, we want peace, but at the same time we are increasing funding for the army and are actively working to strengthen its defense capabilities,” Yermak said.

Since 2014, Russia has used Ukraine as a testing ground for both its modern conventional and hybrid warfare doctrines. Ukrainian troops, therefore, have more combat experience against the modern Russian military than any other country.

Ukraine’s military is currently in the midst of a crash-course modernization effort. Part of that transformation includes the adoption of NATO operating standards across the board—all in hopes of joining the Western alliance one day. 

To that end, Ukraine’s armed forces have ditched the strict, top-down hierarchy of the Soviet chain of command, which often left front-line troops hamstrung in the chaos of combat by requiring them to obey the orders of commanders ensconced at command posts safely distant from the front lines.

In place of the Soviet chain of command, Ukraine’s armed forces have adopted a command hierarchy modeled on the U.S. military in which junior officers and non-commissioned officers are more empowered to make decisions on their own, in the heat of combat, based on battlefield realities.

That shift in Ukraine’s military chain of command philosophy makes the country’s armed forces much more adaptable to the fluid realities of combat. It also allows them to be more effective against Russia’s hybrid warfare tactics.

‘Little Green Men’

An evolving threat that spans every combat domain, “hybrid” or “gray zone” warfare combines conventional military force with other so-called gray zone activities, such as cyberattacks and propaganda, both on the battlefield and deep behind the front lines. 

These tactics create battlefield confusion, primarily in the command and control process, clouding the situational awareness of both front-line troops and their commanders. Famously, when patchless Russian soldiers—the “little green men,” as they came to be known—showed up in Crimea in February of 2014, Ukrainian forces gave up without a fight.

In Crimea, Russia’s so-called little green men faced a shell-shocked Ukrainian military that was unwilling to fight back. However, Russia’s hybrid warfare operation in the Donbas didn’t go nearly as smoothly.

In its early months, Russia’s hybrid offensive was on the march, leapfrogging across the Donbas, taking town after town. Caught off guard at the outset, Ukrainians soon rallied to their country’s defense by launching a grassroots war effort. By that July, a ragtag coalition of Ukrainian government troops and civilian militias had gained the upper hand against combined Russian-separatist forces. 

By July of 2014, just three months into the conflict, Ukrainian forces had retaken 23 out of the 36 districts previously under combined Russian-separatist control. 

Then in August 2014, with its hybrid operation in shambles, Russia outright invaded eastern Ukraine with thousands of its own regular troops, subsequently routing the Ukrainians at the disastrous battle for Ilovaisk. 

By the end of August 2014, Russian forces were marching on the key port city of Mariupol. This correspondent was in Mariupol at that time, and the mood was apocalyptic.

Mariupol’s residents were, at the time, readying for street-to-street fighting. Names like “Grozny” and “Stalingrad” were frequently invoked to describe what the looming battle for the city would likely resemble.

Local militia leaders trained civilian boys and old men in guerrilla warfare basics. They practiced shooting small arms and bazookas, planting explosives, and building tank traps. 

Soldiers and civilians joined together to build tank barriers, trenches, barbed-wire barriers, and machine gun nests on the city’s perimeter. The sandy beaches on the Sea of Azov coastline looked like those of Normandy in June 1944.

During the first days of September 2015, you could easily hear the sounds of tank battles from downtown Mariupol. It seemed as if the end had come at last.

But the battle for Mariupol never happened.

Poroshenko and Putin met in Minsk in September 2014 to sign the war’s first cease-fire. That deal stalled the war and the Russian advance, thereby saving Mariupol, a city of 500,000 people, from disaster. 

The first Minsk cease-fire quickly collapsed. And subsequent fighting at the Donetsk airport became particularly brutal during the winter of 2014 to 2015. 

Close quarters fighting sometimes saw opposing troops holed up on different floors of the same building. There was hand-to-hand fighting at times, according to Ukrainian soldiers who fought at the Donetsk airport.