War on the Fringes: The Changing Fortunes of Eastern Ukraine

(Photo: BBC News)

By Joel Moffat – Regular Contributor

The eastern regions of Ukraine, known collectively as the Donbas, have suffered from seven years of unbroken conflict. Hundreds of miles of trenches snake through abandoned farmland, barely moving since the conflict’s inception. Yet in that time, nearly 14,000 have died, with many more being displaced permanently. Putin knows such pressure in the Donbas can only continue if Ukraine remains absent from NATO. But with membership becoming an increasing possibility, Russia may be forced to act. Recent military mobilisation behind the Russian border may represent the beginning of a new phase in the perpetual conflict.

From the Kremlin, all eyes look to Kyiv

2014 was a pivotal year for post-Soviet Ukraine. That year saw the removal of pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych and the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea. It was in the aftermath of this major geopolitical shift that pro-Russian separatists protested against the new government, establishing breakaway states in Donetsk and Luhansk. The Russian connection has been an open secret of the separatist regions since their inception.

Putin has always treated Ukraine with a mix of anxiety and aspiration, but an uneasy status quo could be maintained as long as the Kremlin’s influence was felt in Ukraine. However, the flight of Yanukovych in 2014 severed this relationship, with Putin losing a major European foothold. The anti-Russian rhetoric of the new Ukrainian government, including the planned abolishment of Russian as the second language, motivated Putin to respond aggressively. The capture of Crimea was possible due to its ethnic Russian majority. The prevalence of large ethnic Russian communities in Donetsk and Luhansk eased Moscow’s influence into the region. The demands of international trade also certainly motivated the move, with the annexation of Crimea granting Russia Sevastopol, its only major warm-water port. Such unilateral action against Ukraine would have been impossible with NATO membership. Any future regional action is only open to Putin should this geopolitical norm be maintained. 

Since their inception, Moscow has denied any connection to the separatist groups. Such claims have been treated by the international community as dubious at best, blatant lies at worst. Earlier this month, a comprehensive study of weapons and ammunition used in the Donbas was concluded and released. The findings serve to fully implicate the Kremlin with separatists in both Luhansk and Donetsk. Advanced military weapons have infiltrated the region since 2014. This was made clear with the downing of a civilian airliner by anti-aircraft weapons. All 289 people on board died. This recent research has concluded that separatist weaponry could have come from nowhere but the Russian military, including sniper rifles and land mines that have never been used by the Ukrainian military.    

Deception & Duplicity – Zelensky vs. Putin

April 2021 saw major military movement on the Russian side of the border, with the mobilization of an estimated 100,000 troops. This is believed to be the largest Russian military build-up since the initiation of the war. Military experts have stated that the movements were explicitly intended to be seen. Such visibility has lost Russia any element of surprise but imposes an insistent psychological pressure for Ukrainian soldiers on the edge. Spring also saw an intensification of conflict in the Donbas, with the deaths of 4 Ukrainian soldiers in Donetsk. The US military’s European Command raise its risk levels from possible crisis to imminent crisis in response (the highest level). Combat lasted for an entire day, unique for a conflict in which most engagements are defined by brevity. In the same month, Russia restricted navigation of foreign vessels in parts of the Black Sea until October. The move was swiftly condemned by Ukraine and the EU, contradicting norms of maritime passage and international law. Significantly this involves a restriction of the Sea of Azov, critical to the export of grain and steel in the east of Ukraine.  

The spring mobilisations share striking characteristics to those preceding the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Putin has clear incentive for military action. The annexation of Crimea was popular across Russia, propelling Putin’s approval ratings up to 90%, from 60%. Putin’s popularity is once again on the decline, following economic recession and a botched COVID reaction. The arrest of Alexei Navalny has also promoted increasing western pressure. In addition, Zelensky’s crackdown on pro-Russian sympathies in Ukraine further motivates Putin to pursue an aggressive approach. The president ousted pro-Russian politicians and charged many of the separatist leaders with treason. In a particurly risky move, Zelensky closed down three television networks associated with Viktor Medvedchuk. Putin is the godfather to Medvedchuk’s granddaughter. 

Zelensky has chosen to continue this anti-Russian purge, rather than escalating the military engagement with Russia despite the build-up in spring. The President has stated that a full-scale assault on the separatist regions for liberation will result in unavoidable civilian deaths. He remains convinced that the end to the conflict remains in NATO membership. Indeed, military analysts have argued that the display of Russian military strength is only intended to influence Ukraine into implementing the Minsk agreements of their own accord. This includes a federalisation of Ukraine imagined by Moscow, including greater autonomy to the separatist regions, with a peaceful reintegration and granting of amnesty to separatist fighters.

Ukraine’s foreign relations – a shot in the dark?   

As the largest democracy to emerge from the post-soviet republics, Ukraine has been a clear US ally since its independence in 1991. The US is also in a greater position to apply pressure to Russia than many European states, many of which are reliant on Russian energy, most notably Germany. With one hand on the switch, Putin is given greater room to pursue his policies in Ukraine. With the planned construction of Nord Pipeline 2, this does not seem set to change anytime soon. However, America’s relationship with Ukraine has not been without its tensions of its own. Ukraine became the backdrop to an impeachment trial against Trump. The US president was accused of blackmailing Ukrainian president Zelensky into researching US political enemies by threatening to remove foreign aid. Nearly $400 million was suspended in July last year, though subsequent bipartisan outrage ensured its restoration a few months later. William B. Taylor Jr, a prominent American diplomat working in Ukraine, criticised the decision, arguing that it undermined a vital US ally and served to put Ukrainian lives in danger. The suspension, while not long enough to significantly undermine the military, took a noticeable psychological toll. 

The inauguration of President Biden looks to repair some of the damage of the Trump administration, however. Significantly, Biden is willing to consider Ukrainian entry into NATO. The military build-up in April was a major early foreign policy test for Biden, despite the lack of escalation into military action. Biden visited Ukraine many times when working as the VP under Obama. In addition, President Zelensky was the second European leader to visit the White House under the new administration. Despite the certain influence of COVID on this decision, the prioritisation still sends a strong message: The US stands to respect the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine. Zelensky secured a $60 million defence aid package in the meeting, contributing to the $400 million in aid the Biden administration has so far granted to Ukraine.   Overall, analysts have considered Biden’s action to be mixed. Notably, the administration dropped its objection to the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline, which will import Russian natural gas directly to Germany. This bypasses any potential revenue and transit fees payable to Ukraine. Yet, the relationship under Biden is stronger than it’s been in years, and this is a fight Ukraine can’t win alone.   

With the uncertainties towards its greatest ally under Trump, Kyiv has reorientated itself towards the politics of the Black Sea. In particular, Zelensky has initiated a new relationship with Turkey’s Erdogan. 2017 saw the establishment of a passport-free travel zone, and there is work on a regional free trade agreement that could double the bilateral trade. The Russian annexation of Crimea was seen as a pivotal turning point for Turkey’s view of the Black Sea. In 2016, Erdogan warned of the Black Sea becoming “a Russian Lake”. The recent exclusion of foreign ships in Russian monitored areas of the Black Sea serves to reinforce the image for Ankara. Military analysts closely examined Ukraine’s purchase of 6 Turkish combat drones in 2018 as part of a $69 million defence agreement. It is in the politics of the Black Sea that Russia increasingly plays its hand against Ukraine, yet the Bosporus remains firmly in Erdogan’s hand, a reality far removed from Putin’s control.  

A Future on the Fringes?

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the extent of volatility in the eastern territories. Overwhelmed hospitals fought off a surge in cases last winter, with the conflict already having forced many doctors out of the region. Winter temperatures drop as low as -24 Celsius, freezing oxygen cylinders. The COVID outbreak has also made travel between the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Ukraine proper more challenging, requiring an illegal crossing of two international borders. Travellers pick up medicines unavailable in the republics when travelling through Russia. While exact figures are difficult to locate, it is estimated that the covid rate in the republics is 2.5x that of the rest of the Donbas combined. This has been linked to locked-down borders and rampant corruption.  

The future of Ukraine remains to be seen. NATO membership became a potential future with the breakdown of the pro-Russian government seven years ago. With the international priorities of the new US administration and greater evidence implicating direct Russian involvement in the separatist’s regions, membership is becoming a greater reality. Yet Ukrainian troops still man the trenches as Russian weapons flood across the border, and Moscow continues to mobilise troops behind its border as Kyiv desperately tries to hold on to its allies. War in the Donbas is likely to continue for many more years.    

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