Kiev—A peaceful resolution to Russia’s intervention in eastern Ukraine is unlikely in the near future as Russia seeks to preserve its gains in the country while securing relief from Western sanctions, according to recent reports.
Observers in Donetsk and other contested parts of the eastern Donbass region who were interviewed for a lengthy study produced by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) are convinced that “Moscow has decided to transform the crisis into a frozen conflict, a scenario international participants in the peace talks have long feared.”
The ICG conducted interviews with Russian military specialists who are familiar with Moscow’s strategy in these situations, including functionaries from the Russian-backed separatist republics in the Donbass region. These observers stated that Russia is considering several potential courses of action, “from freezing the conflict while keeping [the Minsk peace agreement process] alive, to dropping the [separatist] entities at a convenient time.”
According to observers from the separatist group Donetsk People’s Republic, Moscow is weighing its options to see if the U.S., European Union, and other Western entities are interested in negotiating over the Ukraine conflict. These observers speculated that if Putin can convince those entities that they need Russia’s help to resolve other international problems, such as counterterrorism and the Syrian civil war, then the Ukraine question can be pushed “further off the international agenda,” to Russia’s ultimate advantage.
The Russian government hopes to gain relief from economic sanctions linked to the invasion of Ukraine, according to the reports. Russia is vying for sanctions relief in part because its energy export-based economy has been harmed by low oil prices.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev appeared at this year’s annual Munich Security Conference, which is normally attended by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in part to probe whether the EU would be willing to lift these sanctions.
The ICG report and a January analysis conducted by the U.S.-based intelligence company Stratfor identified actions Moscow could take to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine, including withdrawing Russian military units embedded with separatist groups and ending its supply lines to the separatists. So far, Russia has shown no sign of taking these actions.
“Since Russia still denies providing such items, this could be done with minimal publicity or face loss. The international community, including the US, might react with confidence-building measures, perhaps including a security dialogue in the region, or consultations on ways to dismantle the poorly-disciplined LNR and DNR militaries,” the ICG report states.
The Stratfor report outlines the full spectrum of Russian options in the country, from an outright invasion of half of Ukraine to a continuation of low-intensity operations aimed at spreading the Ukrainian military thin, causing chronic stability problems for the already-troubled Ukrainian government.
The Stratfor report identified weaknesses in NATO’s ability to “halt or roll back Russian forces,” an outcome that would require “considerable air power assets” in Ukraine. In the event that air operations become necessary, the report estimated that NATO would need approximately 30 new bases in Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and other countries in the region. This expansion would require significant funding, well beyond the recent quadrupling of the budget for the U.S. European Assurance Initiative that was announced by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
Russia would have its share of difficulties if it decided to pursue an aggressive course of action in Ukraine. The financial, material, and manpower requirements of such a course would require conscription and dramatic realignments in Russia’s budget.
“There is a full menu of options now that both Russia and EU heads of state could take,” a NATO-nation diplomat based in Kiev said. “Unfortunately, the options run a gambit from bad to worse—and with no happy end in sight.”