The recent uptick in fighting in the Donbas sends a clear warning sign that the conflict in Ukraine is anything but frozen. Although large-scale fighting stopped with the Ukrainian army’s retreat from the town of Debaltseve in February, sporadic shelling and exchanges of gunfire have continued to jeopardize the Minsk agreements. Reports of an imminent Russian-backed separatist offensive have been circulating for weeks.

U.S. State Department, and NATO officials continue to accuse Moscow and the separatists of violating the cease-fire and deploying troops and equipment for an upcoming assault. For its part the Russian government claims, erroneously, that U.S. military personnel have been deployed to the conflict zone.

Balázs Jarábik
Jarábik was a nonresident scholar focusing on Eastern and Central Europe with particular focus on Ukraine.
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Amid charges and counter-charges between capitals, the conflict more and more looks—deceptively—like a confrontation between Russia and the United States. However, the dynamics of this conflict are far more complicated and driven as much by Ukrainian domestic affairs and local commanders’ decisions in the conflict zone as they are by any Cold War-style stand-off between East and West.

To begin with, both the separatists and the pro-Kyiv forces have violated the cease-fire and other elements of the Minsk accords that each side is obligated to uphold. Beyond any doubt, the separatists have been the most egregious violators of the Minsk agreements. A key separatist objective in violating the ceasefire has been to secure their positions along the line of contact, leading them for tactical reasons to push into territory that is supposed to fall under Kyiv’s control according to the Minsk accords.

Still, pro-Kyiv forces, including the far right Ukrainian nationalist Pravyi Sektor organization, appear to have been behind some of the most recent fighting: both the Ukrainian and Russian representatives to the Joint Centre for Control and Co-ordination (JCCC), a group consisting of military representatives established by the OSCE to monitor the conflict) reported to the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission that Pravyi Sektor had launched an offensive northwest of the city of Donetsk on April 12.

Yet, the level of violence remains relatively low. In the absence of major fighting at the level of intensity witnessed before the fall of Debaltseve in February, these tactical violations attract disproportionate attention, raising concern about a new major escalation. Another factor contributing to the perception of instability is the improved performance of the OSCE monitoring mission. It is doing more monitoring using its locally-based observers and drone platforms, getting better access, and—very importantly—taking on more ambitious tasks like brokering local ceasefires and directly monitoring local hot spots.

Pravyi Sektor’s offensive steps in April coincided with the start of the “Normandy format” talks between Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France on the political components of the Minsk II accords. In some respects their moves seemed almost perfectly timed to undermine Kyiv’s ability to negotiate during those talks. The subsequent encirclement of their base near Dnepropetrovsk (where former governor Ihor Kolomoyskyi remains a key power broker) also suggests that the reintegration of some of the irregular battalions fighting alongside the Ukrainian army (namely Azov and Pravij Sektor) is incomplete, and that these groups may continue to keep Kyiv under pressure. 

Indeed, Poroshenko’s attention has at times been diverted elsewhere. He has been attempting to broker a new “contract” between Ukrainian oligarchs and the state while maintaining the central government’s unity and cohesion. A recent spate of attacks on Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenuik indicates there may be severe friction between the two camps inside the government and Presidential Administration. Trying hard both to shore up Western support and maintain working relations with Moscow, Poroshenko is attempting to decrease oligarchs` rents and expand the role of the state.

Poroshenko broke an unspoken arrangement with Kolomoyski by demanding that UkrNafta, a company Kolomoyski effectively controlled, pay dividends to the government. The recent coal miners’ strikes in Kyiv were reportedly sponsored by Donbas oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, suggesting that Poroshenko’s new “contract” with the oligarchs lacks key signatories.

Last but not least, an Austrian court ruled on April 30 that tycoon Dmytro Firtash could not be extradited to the U.S., strengthening his and other oligarchs’ standing ahead of the October 15 local government elections. Remember, it was Firtash who, while under house arrest in Vienna, helped broker a pre-election deal, between the two major political forces who emerged from the Maidan—Petro Poroshenko and Vitaliy Klitschko.  According to this deal, Klitschko reportedly agreed to bow out of the presidential campaign, endorse Poroshenko, and run for Mayor of Kyiv.

The politics of war and peace in Kyiv remains complicated. President Poroshenko’s government is reluctant to engage in a dialogue with the separatists and has relatively little interest in actually regaining control over the territories, where the latter holds sway. Kyiv has been gradually cutting ties with Donbas, suggesting that reintegration is not on the agenda. Aside from the financial cost of rebuilding the war-ravaged region, many of the political elite in Kyiv, see the loss of Crimea and Donbas as a political gain. Gone are the regions that were dominated by former President Victor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions. The loss of these regions should help the post-Yanukovych ruling coalition—whose base of support resides in western and central Ukraine—cement its hold on power.

Moreover, parts of the Ukrainian public appear to be coming closer to accepting the loss of the Donbas, in part because of the growing awareness that life is much worse in the breakaway territories. The government and mass media have indicated that severing ties with the region may not be a bad option.

Thus, it is quite possible that the escalation in the Donbas has not been driven by Russia, but by disappointed local actors, including those who feel threatened by Poroshenko’s—as they see it—growing grip on power and who believe that he cannot fight on two fronts at the same time. Although the Minsk truce is fragile, major violence in the Donbas is unlikely. But as the fall elections approach, we may see the fights between representatives of the old Ukraine emerge with increased intensity.

  • Balázs Jarábik