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Unsustainable Status Quo or a Costly Stability? The Increasing Risks of the Unresolved Conflict in Donbas

Unsustainable Status Quo or a Costly Stability? The Increasing Risks of the Unresolved Conflict in Donbas

Since the conclusion of the Minsk II agreement in February 2015, the situation in eastern Ukraine has evolved into a seemingly permanent yet highly volatile state of “no peace, no war.” Set in the context of more fractious relations between Russia and the West, more entrenched divisions in Ukraine, and almost daily ceasefire violations, the conflict could yet again spiral out of control and prompt a resumption of high-intensity fighting in Ukraine or full-fledged military hostilities with Russia.

As in other post-Soviet conflicts to which it is often compared, such as those in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria, the conflict in the Donbas pits the government in Kyiv against separatist rebels, with the former enjoying Western support while the latter are backed by Russia. Joined at the hip to their external partners, they are locked in a zero-sum game in which Minsk II has become unimplementable, and the continuing nonimplementation justifies each side’s uncompromising stance. Expecting more violent confrontation in the future, the parties to the conflict use the “no peace, no war” situation to try to consolidate their military positions while increasing their institutional and ideological hold on the territory they control.

Key to this has been a surge in military expenditures and production. According to official data, Ukraine’s military expenses grew to 5 percent of GDP in 2018, and the Ukrainian army’s troop strength has increased to 250,000. Matching those actions, the self-declared republics have also expanded military production and enlarged their fighting forces, in part through conscription into the “republican” armed forces.

The “no peace, no war situation” has driven a consolidation of positions in nonmilitary spheres as well. For Ukraine, it is critically important to strengthen state institutions and firm up its alliances with its Western partners. As one of the experts whom we interviewed suggested, “The reintegration of Donbas under Ukraine’s current weak institutions would likely lead to further disintegration of the country.”

For Russia, the challenges are similar. The status quo guarantees that the Kremlin has at least some degree of control over parts of Ukraine and prevents the country as a whole from drifting completely into the orbit of the West. This control, in turn, facilitates a certain “state-building” in the breakaway republics and the strengthening of links with Russia. The Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin, one of the ideologues of the Russian World (Russkiy mir) concept, explained the underlying logic of this: “The DPR and LPR are a trap through which Russia keeps Ukraine in its orbit. If we tear out the DPR and LPR, Ukraine will drift in another direction . . . and we will not [be] able to keep it under our influence.” Russian control, whether directly exercised over the breakaway republics or indirectly through them over Kyiv, is a central part of this geopolitical strategy.

The “no peace, no war situation” in eastern Ukraine thus has important implications, first and foremost for the national security of Ukraine. Short of further military escalation, the utility of the conflict in the Donbas as a lever that Russia can use to destabilize Ukraine has significantly decreased as a result of Kyiv’s policy of complete isolation of the rebel-controlled territories and minimizing their influence on the political and socioeconomic life of the rest of Ukraine. This has also created important breathing space for reformers in Kyiv to strengthen domestic institutions, reaffirm their pro-Western geopolitical orientation, and build up links with key allies, such as NATO and the EU.

The unavoidable flip side of isolation, however, is that it contributes to the alienation of people living in Donetsk and Luhansk from “mainland” Ukraine and vice versa, thereby magnifying the difficulties of any future reintegration. The downside of isolation is further compounded by the void left in the wake of Kyiv’s decision to cut off any interaction with the separatist areas: in the absence of any alternative, people and elites in the self-declared republics will become even more dependent on Russia, a trajectory reinforced by the disruption of economic ties with the rest of Ukraine and the restricted mobility of people into and out of the self-declared republics. In other words, reintegration becomes both less likely and more costly.

This domestic logic of no peace, no war locks Russia and the West into a similar zero-sum game. With each side competing for influence in Ukraine and fearing that any concession or compromise equates to a loss that results in an equivalent gain for the respective opponent, the current status quo is each side’s second-best, and currently only achievable, outcome. Thus there is little likelihood of restoring the full sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine in the near future.

The nonimplementation of Minsk II will lead either to a protracted but more stable status quo situation, as has been the case with Transnistria in Moldova, or, eventually, to the recognition of the self-declared republics, as in the cases of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. For the moment, recognition appears unlikely: the continued existence of the self-proclaimed people’s republics in eastern Ukraine gives Moscow some leverage over Kyiv. Moscow can still ensure a level of instability that limits the domestic and foreign policy choices of the Ukrainian government. Equally, there is still some prospect of the breakaway areas’ reintegration on terms favorable to long-term Russian influence in the country, so this volatile status quo still offers some benefits to Russia.

A more stable status quo, however, also seems a long way away. The first signs of renewed and escalating confrontation between Russia and Ukraine and between Russia and the West are already visible: Putin’s presentation of new and more sophisticated weapons, U.S. missile sales to Ukraine, NATO’s proclamation of Ukraine as an “aspirant country,” Russia’s suspension of contracted gas supplies to Ukraine, and the West’s willingness to impose new sanctions and dismiss diplomats following the alleged Russian assassination attempt in the UK are all ominous signs that the conflict in Ukraine is rapidly regaining an international dimension while becoming more dangerous domestically.

As Russia and the West pursue their own interests in a Cold War–like struggle in which Ukraine is a pawn rather than a player, grave and increasing social, economic, and political costs will be imposed on the country and its people.

Photo by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more