While the ceasefire in Ukraine has been gradually eroding over the last several weeks, are we on the verge of seeing full-scale hostilities resume? While the position of the major European powers remains preservation of the Minsk peace process at all costs, even to the extent of studiously ignoring the recent flare-ups that make a mockery of the very idea of a cease-fire, both sides in the conflict—Russia and the separatists on one side, and the Ukrainian government on the other—have considerable incentives to stoke up the conflict at this particular point in time in the hopes of delivering a knockout blow that could change the current facts on the ground.
For Ukraine, every day that the Moscow-backed entities in Donetsk and Lugansk continue to exist diminishes the possibility of reunifying Ukraine under Kyiv’s terms. As we have seen in other conflicts in the greater Eurasian space, temporary cease-fire lines have a way of becoming more permanent lines of control. In addition, the government in Kyiv is coming under greater pressure to do more in terms of improving the standard of living of the Ukrainian people, as well as moving more aggressively and rapidly on a series of reforms desired by Ukraine’s Western partners. The presidential administration of Petro Poroshenko and the cabinet of Arseniy Yatsenyuk are watching their approval ratings tank, while both the official armed forces and the militia units that have been holding the line in the east are expressing growing frustration with how the government is conducting military operations. At the same time, even as the cease-fire crumbles, Ukraine has not been able to break through continued opposition in many Western countries to providing it with weaponry.
For its part, Russia’s timetable is now under significant pressure. The slowdown of China’s economy and the expected emergence of large amounts of Iranian oil into global markets presages another major drop in oil prices. Moscow’s ability to sustain the separatist entities and continue to weather sanctions under such conditions will not improve with time. Yet the status quo is also unfavorable from Russia’s perspective, as the separatist entities have not acquired a more permanent, definitive status and remain vulnerable to sudden extinction.
Under the quieter conditions of even an ineffective cease-fire, the Ukrainian government’s problems with implementing a reform agenda could receive greater attention. Should open, large-scale fighting resume in the east, national-security considerations will once again take center stage—with the possibility that Western donors and creditors can be persuaded to give Kyiv more time and greater leeway. There is also the possibility that the complete collapse of the Minsk process will help to rally popular support in Ukraine behind the government.
At the same time, if Moscow’s long-term goal is to get recognition of the staying power and essential permanence of the separatist entities—as has essentially occurred for South Ossetia and Abkhazia vis-à-vis Georgia—then Ukraine must be disabused of any hope that it can press for reunification of the country on its terms. This means crushing the Ukrainian forces in a decisive action so that even the prospect of greater Western support for training and equipping Ukraine’s military would no longer hold open the prospect for a Croatian-style Operation Storm at some point in the near future. Luring the Ukrainians into a major pitched battle while Russian-backed and -supplied forces still hold the advantage might also persuade Kyiv that it has no choice but to accept the reality of a permanent frozen conflict.
There is a second timetable at work. Given the six-month cycle for reapproval of European sanctions, Moscow must act within a narrow window. If it has any hope of seeing a partial reduction in the sanctions regime, any alteration in the military balance must occur now and be over and done so that by November, when the talks among the twenty-eight states of the European Union are underway, things are once again quiet on the eastern front and the lines have been stabilized. Any major flare-up that lasts for, say, ten days in August will by mid-November be “ancient history,” especially if there is a third iteration of the Minsk accords in play.
The Iran deal is taking up most of the energy and attention of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. But Washington—along with America’s European allies—must be prepared for the likelihood that there could be a full-scale resumption of hostilities. If fighting resumes, there is no excuse for the West to be taken by surprise. Just as there are tremors registered before a major earthquake occurs, the increased frequency of clashes and the deployment of equipment and personnel are clear warning signs that things could heat up very quickly very soon.
Nikolas Gvosdev is a contributing editor at The National Interest and co-author of Russian Foreign Policy: Vectors, Sectors and Interests (CQ Press, 2013). The views expressed here are his own.
Image: Flickr/Dmitry Terekhov