Although the Minsk agreements have long been considered dead, diplomatic efforts regarding the Donbas war have flared up from time to time, just like violations of the ceasefire. The move to overhaul the implementation of the Minsk agreements has largely come from the new U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, Kurt Volker.

In a relatively short period of time, Volker has managed to revive both the initiative to send U.S. weapons to Ukraine and the Minsk agreements’ implementation, using an originally limited peacekeeping proposal from Moscow, and re-energizing the working channel with Russia’s representative Vladislav Surkov.

Weapons for Ukraine

While the weapons the United States has pledged to supply will enable Ukrainian armed forces to defend themselves more efficiently, they will not ratchet up their attack capacity. Neither the Barrett M107A1 sniper rifles nor the Javelin anti-tank missiles will be able to challenge the prevailing artillery, electronic warfare, command and control, or aerial superiority (manifested through drones) of the Russia-backed rebel forces. 

In terms of the concrete tactical and operational effect, the U.S. sniper rifles will help the Ukrainians counteract the superior range and firepower of the Russian-made KSVK/ASVK Kord and other heavy sniper weapons used by the separatists. Sniper fire was among the leading causes of death of Ukrainian servicemen in 2017. High-energy bullets fired from Kord rifles easily penetrate thinner walls, let alone the sandbags often used by the Ukrainian side as cover. Once the Barrett rifles appear on the front line in higher numbers, Ukrainian losses from skirmishes may decrease, as will the separatist snipers’ technical advantage.  

The same goes for the Javelin missiles. In well-trained hands, these weapons pose lethal danger to any armored vehicle that approaches the front line. They are capable of destroying all tanks and armored vehicles used by the separatist/Russian forces, with the possible exception of only the newest T-90 and T-72B3M tanks that are equipped with the latest reactive armor and active defense systems.

At the same time, the relatively short range of the Javelins—less than 5,000 meters—will not enable the Ukrainians to attack and engage targets further away. The high cost of the system—a Javelin launcher costs around $126,000—is another argument against using it for offensive purposes. Given that a single missile costs over $78,000, and that the United States has placed strict conditions on the system’s usage and storage, and will be monitoring them, it is highly unlikely that the Ukrainians will deploy these at the front line. 

Instead, the Javelins will likely be positioned way behind the line of contact, and a flexible reserve force could be put into action in the event of a separatist breakthrough. Media reports have already highlighted that this is the intention of the United States, although there is some concern over corruption and the neo-Nazi reputation of some of the Ukrainian battalions.

Politically, the transfer of these weapons will have multiple effects. The lethal equipment from the United States may boost the morale of Ukrainian troops, among whom frustration with the long conflict is mounting, judging by the increased level of suicides at the front.

As some U.S. weapons were already in Ukraine, via direct commercial sales, this move is designed to serve as encouragement for other NATO allies to start supplying Ukraine with weapons. This applies to those countries in particular that have already been supplying; mostly but not exclusively Central and Eastern European states, and lately Canada.

In the long term, Ukraine’s armed forces need comprehensive rearmament, so supplying Ukraine with U.S. equipment—including drones, Humvees, and artillery radars—and recently also with weapons, may be perceived as Washington creating points of reference for its future arms sales to Kiev.

Patronage Games

The cautious but marked difference in the policy of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration from that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, probably partly stems from trying to offset the impact of the investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election. Promoting U.S. business interests seems to be a bigger factor though. Since the Ukraine crisis, the United States has had considerable success selling weapons to European countries. Part of this is a preference in Central and Eastern Europe for buying American, in order to upgrade the security relationship with the United States to more than what NATO offers.  

Since the initial shock of Trump’s victory, Ukraine has been doing its utmost to revitalize relations with the United States. Part of this strategy has been buying into Trump’s domestic policy agendas, such as purchasing anthracite coal from Pennsylvania, LNG gas from the United States via Poland, nuclear safety mechanisms and fuel from Westinghouse, or General Electric locomotives to modernize railway transport and wind turbines for power generation. In addition, the majority of the airplanes operated by Ukraine International Airlines are U.S.-made Boeings, including the four Boeing 777-200ER long-haul aircraft bought most recently.

Ukrainians are also actively lobbying in Washington. The U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Unit has registered nine active lobby groups with clients from Ukraine’s National Reform Council (which operates under the presidential administration), from state oil and gas company Naftogaz to oligarchs like Dmytro Firtash (currently under house arrest in Vienna awaiting extradition to the United States) and Serhiy Taruta, the former post-Maidan governor of the Donetsk region. According to some estimates, as many as 50 Ukrainian parliamentary deputies attended the Trump prayer breakfast in February 2018, showing that all the parliamentary factions are trying to gain or buy influence in the United States, as Ukraine’s main patron

The Ukrainian efforts have been paying off, and the Trump administration’s new policy personnel have managed to turn U.S. foreign policy back onto its previous path. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Warsaw that Russia’s planned Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany would undermine the energy security of Europe. He has also said that Ukraine is now the outstanding issue in relations with Russia. 

Peacekeeping Plans

Along with weapons, the question of peacekeepers has come up several times during the conflict. All the previous talks failed, as although generally in agreement with the idea of peacekeepers, Russia and Ukraine could not agree on any details, such as the number of troops, arms, the mandate, and particularly their access to the Ukraine-Russia border. A lack of basic trust between the two sides, together with a lack of political will, remains the key limit on the peacekeeping mission. 

Talks about peacekeepers resumed after a U.S. member of an OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) died in Ukraine in April 2017 in a road mine blast. While Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko discussed the issue with U.S. officials at the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly, it was Russian President Vladimir Putin who proposed the first UN Security Council draft resolution, albeit limited in scope. 

The other key reason is that although the Donbas conflict is usually described as slow burning, it bears more resemblance to trench warfare in the hot spots where the two sides are too close to each other. In January of this year, the OSCE SMM observed a 30 percent increase in violations, recording 3,200, while 14 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the same month alone. Although the intensity of hostilities has decreased, mines, unexploded ordnance, booby traps, and improvised explosive devices have become the top cause of civilian casualties. Eastern Ukraine has become the most mined area in the world.

The ambitious and proactive U.S. special representative has managed to bring UN mandated peacekeeping proposals closer to reality than ever before—with a little help from Moscow, after Putin reportedly began managing Russia’s policies in Ukraine himself. Russian second-track diplomacy actors, i.e., analysts and think tanks reportedly close to the government, have been discussing the proposal in detail since autumn 2017, which may well be interpreted as a definite sign of Moscow’s interest.

Volker has also been lining up European partners to move closer to the original Ukrainian plan. A number of track-two events have already taken place in order to elaborate the details. The Donbas peace plan is mentioned in the new German coalition agreement, and Berlin fully supports the idea of a peacekeeping operation.

A recent report commissioned by former NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen, now an adviser to Ukraine’s president, developed the details of a peacekeeping force of 20,000 soldiers from non-NATO countries led by Sweden. Belarus, Kazakhstan, Austria, and Sweden have also confirmed their interest in participating, making the proposal look increasingly realistic.

Donbas as Collateral 

The new diplomatic dynamic leaves Kiev in a rather uneasy situation. The fear is that Moscow may be serious about peacekeepers and leaving Donbas—a notion that was unthinkable even a month ago. Some commentators insist that Kiev isn’t really interested in ending the conflict, which it uses to secure Western support and which allows the authorities to present the country as an important Western ally. The war is also used as an excuse for not implementing reforms in many cases. These factors are important in maintaining the stability of the fragile post-Maidan coalition.

As Ukraine’s defense capacity has grown, it has been pursuing a “creeping offensive.” According to official sources, the army advanced 10 kilometers in Donbas in 2017, recognizing that at that time, Moscow’s main priority was to improve relations with the Trump administration.

Understanding Russia’s military and technological dominance, and facing a potential loss of Western support in the event of an outright attack, Kiev’s objective is to buy time, highlight Russia’s role in the conflict, and avoid implementing the political requirements of the Minsk agreements. The Rasmussen report stated that the peacekeeping force would allow local elections to take place in eastern Ukraine within twelve months: a key part of the 2015 Minsk peace accords, but for whose implementation little has been done in the past three years.

At this point, however, not even internally displaced persons can vote in Ukraine. This is politically acceptable for the post-Maidan coalition, as Donbas and Crimea were the strongest constituencies of the Yanukovych-led Party of Regions, and of pro-Russian sentiment in general. The worry in the ruling elites is that elections in Donbas, following an amnesty as stipulated in the Minsk agreements, may elevate separatists directly to the Rada (the Ukrainian parliament). This would guarantee a permanent political crisis.

In the absence of a military victory over the rebels, therefore, Donbas has become collateral for Ukraine’s late nation-building project. While Kiev wants Ukrainian identity to grow in the region, given that southeastern Ukraine is the part of the country least oriented toward the West, identity there has economic and social underpinnings, as well as political. The southeast is where heavy industry is located, and it has been hit hard by the economic and social impact of the conflict.

The region’s identity has proved to be resilient—both ways. As research by the Berlin-based Center for Eastern European and International Studies (ZOiS) has shown, only about 25 percent of the population in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics feels “more Russian” since the regions broke away from Ukraine, while for most of the population (50 percent), the mixed Russian-Ukrainian ethnic identity has not changed. In the government-controlled parts of the Donbas, 11 percent of the population feels Ukrainian, while identification as Russian has also increased somewhat, but the majority (53 percent) continue to have an ethnically mixed but strong civic Ukrainian identity, despite the conflict that has been going on for four years.

Russian Responsibility

Russia denounced Washington’s announcement that it would send weapons to Ukraine, accusing the United States of escalating the Donbas conflict. But until its presidential election on March 18, Russia will ramp up supplies to the separatists. After the election, Moscow will likely continue to show a compromising face without changing its key objectives. 

Ukraine was a major blow to the attempt to construct a Russian-dominated equivalent of the European Union in the post-Soviet space: the Eurasian Economic Union. The annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas also achieved what was once unthinkable, highly negative attitudes toward Russia among the Ukrainian public. The same is true of the Russian public. According to Levada Center polls, since spring 2014, the majority of Russians have had a negative opinion of Ukraine, and although the differences are diminishing, it is unlikely that the dominantly negative attitude toward Ukraine will change any time soon. 

Although Moscow does not think that a U-turn in Kiev is possible, and would not be willing or able to pay the cost of such a turnaround, its aim is “making the conflict more entrenched,” as the latest Estonian foreign intelligence annual report summed it up. Accordingly, Moscow is trying to reduce its own responsibility while increasing the status—both political and military—of the self-proclaimed formations that undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Russia is not investing in the occupied Donbas, but merely keeping it afloat.

Russia also continues to reduce its liabilities in Ukraine. It has completed its rail link circumventing Ukraine in the southeast, and has sped up construction of the bridge spanning the Kerch Strait connecting mainland Russia with Crimea. Direct flights between Ukraine and Russia have stopped—with Minsk serving as the connecting hub—and train connections may also be halted.

Russia’s overall share in Ukraine’s foreign trade has declined since the conflict, and while it bounced back somewhat in 2017, it is a fraction of what it was in 2013. Still, Ukraine has started buying Russian gas again following the Stockholm Arbitration Court decision, increased its coal purchases from Russia after its own economic blockade of Donbas, and gets two-thirds of its oil from Russia and Belarus. 

Some in Moscow think that a gradual normalization of relations is possible, just as happened with Georgia after the 2008 war. From the Kremlin’s perspective, allowing Kiev to reintegrate Donbas may serve to disrupt or delay the post-Maidan nation-building project.

On the one hand, it may be possible to increase the number of pro-Russian forces in Ukraine’s political life during the 2019 parliamentary elections, as Euroskeptic sentiment—mostly in southeastern Ukraine—is growing. This sentiment is actively shaped by new populist parties such as Vadym Rabinovych’s For Life, currently polling at 7 percent.

On the other hand, the strength of radical nationalist and populist forces is also growing, as demonstrated by the collapsing support for the current ruling elites, as well as by the massive lead in the polls of the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party led by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Russian experts close to the Kremlin recently emphasized that a peacekeeping mission makes sense if it leads to the regulation of the crisis, rather than to freezing it. They also asserted that Kiev’s uncompromising attitude is based on counting on the West’s “unwavering support.”

Another Russian expert posits that the United States is willing to accept certain parts of the Russian proposal, such as the gradual handover of control over the border in parallel with the political process, such as the status of Donbas and amnesty for rebel fighters. These terms remain unacceptable for Kiev, however, especially before the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.

What Next?

Despite the ongoing conflict, life is largely returning to normal: the number of people crossing in and out of government-controlled territory in January 2018 was significantly higher compared to a year ago. Reconstruction in the government-controlled territory of Donbas is slow, but ongoing. Going forward, improving living conditions in the so-called “liberated territories” should become a greater priority for the Ukrainian government, if it is really serious about changing regional identity in Kiev’s favor.

Beyond weapons and diplomacy, the West is also planning to increase aid directly for eastern Ukraine. The United States and the EU plan to disperse around $200 million in aid to facilitate the economic, social, and political reintegration of the government-controlled parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Political reintegration envisages the region sharing the post-Maidan Ukrainian identity and accepting its political program.

This will be an uphill battle. Aside from Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine, Kiev’s policies are not helpful either, as the heated debate in the Rada over the recently adopted Reintegration of Donbas bill suggested. The law stopped short of providing concrete reintegration measures beyond agreeing to recognize birth and death certificates issued in the occupied territories. Otherwise, it mostly rebranded the conflict to officially shift the blame to Russia. However, the alternative—cutting ties with the breakaway regions completely—was advocated by even the reformist Samopomich party. 

Moscow has little expectation of or trust in the new diplomatic activity, given the Ukrainian nationalists’ outsized impact on policymaking when it comes to Russian interests. Kurt Volker acknowledged the grip of a “nationalist minority” in a recent interview, and the OSCE regularly reports on violent nationalism. Kiev and its Western supporters must tread carefully, because support for the post-Maidan government is fragile, mostly due to continuing corruption, as well as disappointing economic results.

Donbas is a key campaign agenda ahead of the 2019 elections, and patriotic-minded voters are, in the absence of Crimea and Donbas voters, key constituents. The economic blockade of the self-proclaimed republics, which has gradually become government policy after being initiated by patriotic political forces, is still relatively popular. Most Ukrainians do not support any compromise on eastern Ukraine.

Pressure on Kiev is likely to grow while it is vulnerable due to the pre-election period and Western loan repayment, but not mostly over Donbas. The West has increasingly been targeting Ukraine’s crony capitalist system, which is the real stumbling block for reforms. Key sectors of Western interests, such as energy, the military, and transportation, are also a key source of rent for Ukraine’s oligarchic system. Washington expects Kiev to bring its law enforcement organizations in order by curbing the paramilitary threat, regaining the state’s monopoly on violence, and cleaning up corruption at key state companies such as Ukroboronprom.

Diplomacy, aid, and weapons may serve as bargaining chips, but serious reforms are hardly feasible before the 2019 election cycle, let alone progress on peace in Donbas. As election campaigning has already started dominating public life, the conflict in Donbas will most probably stay as it is now: with occasional flare-ups, but no major changes.

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

  • Balázs Jarábik
  • Andras Racz