The Kremlin-controlled hybrid army again increases the intensity of fighting in the Donbas. How has the nature of the Russian-Ukrainian war changed?
Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin have practically ceased all communication. The last time they spoke on the phone was in the middle of July, but the conversation was a formal and meaningless one. LigaBiznesInform’s sources in various government positions say that the two leaders have simply grown tired of each other – the Ukrainian one has stopped trying to diplomatically outmaneuver the Kremlin after the Minsk-2 talks, the Russian one has stopped trying to impose his game onto the Ukrainian president. Both treat each other with open contempt. “They are tired of each other, but they converse periodically – about once a month.”
The talks are mostly held on the lower levels, but there’s no progress there either – the Minsk Accords are generally not carried out, the weapons are not removed, the firing does not stop, the prisoner exchanges are constantly broken off. The charges of Poroshenko’s internal critics – that Ukraine is the only party that is abiding by the Minsk Accords – are true. But, however it may look from the distance, every step taken toward fulfilling the agreement is a thought-out decision coordinated with Western allies.
Under pressure from sanctions and falling oil prices, Moscow would seem to be interested in the speedy resolution of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Some observers – both in Ukraine and abroad – are absolutely convinced that Russia has either already reached their goals in Ukraine, or is exhausted economically and is therefore interested in getting out of the war as soon as possible. But both of these theories, if they are correct, are not backed up by the actions of the hybrid Russian army. A more likely assumption is that the Kremlin will try to put the squeeze on Ukraine and will act tough until the Russian economy’s projected “expiration date” – 2-3 years according to analysts.
Russia has time and resources, but its main objectives in Ukraine have not been reached: the country is still moving away from Russia (the vast majority of Ukrainians support integration into NATO and the European Union); no one intends to revise the economic part of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, which will enter into force on January 1, 2016, and Kyiv does not want to take back the terrorist enclaves on Moscow’s terms.
The key question is – what’s next? LigaBiznesInform’s sources in the Ukrainian government continue to claim that the aim of the Minsk Agreement all along has been to stall for time and to create favorable conditions for putting pressure on the aggressor’ economy. The logic is to strike economically if it’s not feasible to strike militarily. The longer Ukraine and the West hold Moscow to the framework of the Minsk Agreement, the greater the damage to the aggressor from sanctions. The longer Ukraine demonstrates a peaceful approach, the stronger the unity of the allies against Moscow. And the more time to teach all Ukrainians how to hold guns in their hands.
The diplomatic front
Sanctions are a key issue for the Putin regime. At the end of this year the European Union will meet again in order to make a decision – to continue or cancel the sanctions. One of the recent successes of Kyiv was the UN Security Council vote to create the MH17 tribunal. It was voted down, but that was expected.
“Of course we knew from the beginning what the outcome of that vote will be,” a Ukrainian diplomat said. “Russia’s only hope was China. If two heavyweights vetoed the tribunal, the responsibility would be divided, and therefore the effect would be different. Until the last moment at the table in front of him Churkin had a speech on “a divided UN.” After the vote, they tried to plant that message, but few people were buying it.”
If all parties knew the outcome of the vote, why, then, was it held? This vote is an example of joint actions of Ukraine and its allies. The reputational blow to the Kremlin in the UN downgraded Russia’s position in the EU. Churkin’s behavior in the United Nations has put Putin’s friends in European capitals in an awkward position, and essentially robbed them of their “seat at the table”. Now it will be more difficult to prove the innocence of the Russian regime in the war in Donbas, and to advocate for the lifting of sanctions. Support for Ukraine, by contrast, has increased.
Another objective of Moscow – to split the EU – is also unfulfilled. Several countries aiming for EU membership (or strategic partnership) joined the sanctions against Russia – Albania, Montenegro, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein. Moscow’s prophecies about EU’s half-dissolution due to a possible Grexit also failed to materialize.
Meanwhile, a key diplomatic battle between Kyiv and Moscow is fought over the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. Up to a certain point Russia was trying to use this tool in their own interest – and continues to try, but with less enthusiasm, more and more often declaring via their Donbas puppets that “the Agreement is dead.” The Poroshenko Administration informally says that the Kremlin originally agreed to the agreement in Minsk with the aim of using it to twist Ukraine’s arm, but in the end found themselves trapped in endless negotiations, which do not give the Moscow authorities any trump cards, but only aggravate its passive position of an aggressor who is unable to offer an acceptable political solution.
A source in the Ukrainian government thinks that the Russians are willing to stop the aggression in exchange for the elections in Donbas, which will be recognized by Ukraine. The Poroshenko Administration, in turn, insists on the need for elections in the occupied territories to be held under Ukrainian law and under the supervision of the OSCE. This option does not suit Moscow. But the source is convinced that Moscow is not seriously considering a military escalation, given the economic near-catastrophe in Russia and the strengthening of the Ukrainian army.
Internal politics in Russia and Ukraine
The United States are forced to to push Ukraine toward steps that are difficult to explain to voters, but are part of the overall game against Putin. According to a source who participated in the Minsk Accord negotiations, the West insisted on constitutional amendments awarding a special status to the occupied territories, and now insist on conducting local elections in the liberated parts of Donbas. The Ukrainian authorities have not yet decided whether to go go the route of conducting elections under the fire of Russian guns or to postpone them and impose military administration. One fear is that pro-Russian puppets are likely to be elected to local councils and open the gates to Russian forces. Such fears are unfounded, since the election commission can refuse to register such candidates, or they may attract attention of security services. In the end the vote may take place – under pressure from allies.
This pressure is intense. Although there’s no externally imposed control, as is constantly claimed in Moscow, Washington is watching the developments in Ukraine very closely. In early August, Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield personally hinted to Prosecutor General (and presidential protege) Viktor Shokin that Washington will support the prosecutorial reforms, and in particular measures that would “investigate and bring proceedings against those in power who are suspected of corruption.” The statement was published in the midst of a discreditation campaign against deputy Prosecutor General David Sakvarelidze, who is investigating internal corruption in the Prosecutor General’s Office.
The obvious goal of the Western allies is to force the authorities in Ukraine to carry out reforms, rather than to simply talk about them. And the key issue is the fight against corruption. Ukraine will not get any more loans if the siphoning of budgetary funds does not stop. And without these loans, no government can hold on to power given the state of Ukraine’s economy.
Ukraine’s economy is in a more dramatic free fall than Russia’s. If economic support from the EU and the US is not clear and firm, Ukraine’s situation can worsen faster than Russia’s.
However, if the West shows determination, the Ukrainian economy will stand, and Russian economy will in the near future reverse the gains of the Putin years. Already, almost all large and promising projects in Russia are frozen, including programs to develop new oil and gas fields. The Moscow authorities are deprived of their Western loans, unable to pay their dollar-denominated debts, and therefore are forced to curtail the activities of state-owned companies. Investment in the country fell to a record low, and foreign capital follows foreign assets out of Russia.
War in the Donbas
The key question is when Russia and its henchmen will return to the offensive. The second half of August is the most favourable time for Moscow in the near future. In September the demobilization of Russia’s enlisted men will start. On the other hand, right now is also when Ukraine’s armed forces happen to be at the peak of their available manpower. The third wave of mobilization has not been demobilized yet, whereas the training of the sixth wave is already well underway. The second favourable timepoint for a Russian offensive is October, when a rotation is planned in Ukraine, whereas in Russia it will already be over.
Sources in the Security Service and the Defence Ministry say that Moscow is constantly moving troops around along the border with Ukraine, as if simulating an attack. The latest incident occurred on the night of August 16 to 17, but sources say that a dozen of these border maneuvers occur every month, forcing Ukraine’s military to place ground and air forces on high alert every time. Last August, carelessness and underestimation of the enemy’s capabilities under such circumstances led to the Ilovaisk encirclement tragedy.
The Ukrainian army of today is much improved from the state of affairs of last summer, when a few effective battalion tactical groups had to counter the Russian army almost with their bare hands. The soldiers interviewed by LigaBiznesInform especially noted the successes of Ukrainian artillery, which has learned to effectively suppress their Russian counterparts, their fire made more precise by recent use of Ukrainian-made drones.
According to sources, one or two brigades will soon form the basis of elite tactical groups who will be better armed and equipped, and manned exclusively by better-paid professional servicemen. But a full transition toward a professional volunteer army is ruled out while the Russian aggression is in progress – the cost of building a sufficiently large volunteer force to man the front line is prohibitive. Better to teach as many men to fight as possible, for possible full mobilization.
The Russians are also not standing still. According to the ATO headquarters, the invaders have already created several full combined-arms brigades of local separatists and Russian troops who are officially discharged from the army as soon as they cross the border. Right now there are around 30 thousand fighters in Donbas, reinforced by 8-10 thousand Russian military. Another 50 thousand Russian soldiers are stationed at the border. Opposing them is a Ukrainian force of 70 thousand men.
Russia’s goal is to undermine the situation in Ukraine as much as possible, to undermine the government’s credibility and spoil its relationship with its allies, all the while trying to get rid of sanctions. The strategy is partially successful.
Ukraine’s goal is to keep Russia within the framework of the Minsk Accords for as long as possible, while achieving its own goals and keeping distance from Moscow’s attempts to pull it into its own game. The strategy is likewise partly successful.
However, thus far in all three policy domains – foreign, domestic, and military – Ukraine’s efforts seem to have the upper hand. Russia’s foreign policy efforts seem to have backfired, whereas Ukraine’s efforts strengthened its position. Putin’s domestic policy decisions often puzzle even his supporters. At the same time, Ukraine’s government maintains its lead in opinion polls, given the available opponents, but risks losing ground due to absence of progress in fighting corruption.
Russia maintains the military lever with which to threaten Ukraine. Temporary military equilibrium in Donbas can be upset at any moment. Russian authorities and the terrorists they control have repeatedly made statements about Ukraine’s military “starting an offensive”. This is a sure sign that the Russians are preparing yet another provocation.
The aim of the possible Russian offensive is to force Ukraine and its allies to take Moscow’s demands about re-integrating the occupied Donbas into Ukraine seriously. The Kremlin offers Ukraine a choice between a bad scenario and terrible one – legalize the terrorists or face the continuation of war, in which the Russian army will fight against Ukraine under the guise of an “insurgency”. For Ukraine, in this scenario it is best to not make any choice and to survive August – the most promising month for a Russian offensive. In the fall, it will be much more difficult for Russia’s hybrid army to attack.