For Ukraine, one benefit of being dragged into America’s domestic political scene is that its strategic importance to the United States has become clearer. As former Ambassador Bill Taylor said at the impeachment hearings: “Ukraine is a strategic partner of the United States, important for the security of our country as well as Europe. Ukraine is on the front line in the conflict with a newly aggressive Russia.”
For almost six years, Ukraine has been fighting off Russia’s attempts to move its borders westward. Casualties of the conflict have reached an estimated 40,000, with 13,000 killed including 3,300 civilians.
Among all this noise about Ukraine, a lot of misinformation circulates. Some of this has been unintentional and well-meaning, such as the assertion from certain members of Congress that President Trump’s withholding of the $400 million in aid in military aid directly cost Ukrainian lives. The rest of the misinformation has come from Russia.
As Ukraine and Russia resume talks to end the war, it is important that we separate fact from fiction. How and why did the war start? How has it progressed? And, most importantly, how can a peace settlement be reached?
The Russian state has mischaracterized the conflict as a civil war; or as an uprising by ethnic Russians in the east of Ukraine attempting to rejoin the Russian Federation; or as a Russian military project to protect Russian speakers from far-right thugs who took over Kyiv in a bloody coup.
None of these narratives is remotely true. The war started as a land grab on the Crimean peninsula, with Russia taking advantage of disarray in the Ukrainian state and armed forces in the weeks following the Euromaidan revolution.
A matter of days after corrupt Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia after being ousted in a popular uprising, the so-called “little green men”—Russian special forces unconvincingly posing as local freedom fighters—moved in on Crimea. The operation had been planned for some time, and as soon as the opportunity presented itself, it was implemented—Russia secured control of the peninsula within days.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had long coveted Crimea. Crimea hosts Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, is an attractive holiday destination and held a symbolic historical relevance to Russia. The region was Russian territory until as recently as 1954, when it was gifted to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev.
The Donbas region holds no such attractions, so it was by no means certain that Russia would double down on its success in Crimea by using the same strategy there. Beset by corruption and reliant on oligarch-owned major industries like coal and steel, the Donbas had a poorly functioning economy even in peacetime. Before war broke out in 2014 the Donbas accounted for 16 percent of the Ukrainian population, but only contributed 8.4 percent of its GDP.
Russia’s objective for pushing into the Donbas was less about claiming Ukrainian territory than securing the annexation of Crimea and maintaining leverage over the new Ukrainian government.
Russia’s objective for pushing into the Donbas was less about claiming Ukrainian territory than securing the annexation of Crimea and maintaining leverage over the new Ukrainian government. The loss of Ukraine from their sphere of influence was a genuine fear for Russia. A well-known phrase in foreign policy circles is that “Russia without Ukraine is a country, Russia with Ukraine is an empire.”
Putin has operated remotely in the Donbas through use of “curators” and proxies—whenever there has been a danger of a significant battlefield defeat, though, regular Russian forces have poured in.
The Russian proxies had the upper hand at the start of the conflict and claimed much of the Donbas in early 2014. However, as the new government established itself, the battered Ukrainian army staged a remarkable comeback. Reorganizing themselves quickly, and boosted by new volunteer battalions, by July 2014, Ukrainian forces had retaken twenty-three of the thirty-six districts previously under separatist control. It looked, briefly, like Ukraine might be able to take back all the territory it had lost.
It was at this point that thousands of Russian special troops swept in to drive the Ukrainians back, inflicting some heavy defeats, like the one in the key supply link of Iloviask in August 2014. The Ukrainian army had surrounded Iloviask, but as the Russian regular forces arrived, found themselves surrounded. They reached an agreement to give up the town in exchange for being allowed to retreat safely. But the Russians went back on the deal, and many Ukrainians were killed trying to escape.
In fact, each time Russia’s proxies in the Donbas were unable to deliver an important strategic objective, the regular army moved in to do the job. At Donetsk airport, for example, Ukrainian fighters nicknamed ‘The Cyborgs’ held out against all the odds for 242 days, until Russian regular troops finally forced a retreat in January 2015.
It was by this time clear to the Ukrainian side that this was a war they could not win militarily. But their resistance had made clear to the Kremlin that any further incursions would come at a heavy political cost. Since then, the battle lines have hardly moved, while the war no longer features large battles with tank and infantry, but sporadic artillery and gunfire. The United Nations reported that 9,100 people had died and 20,700 people were injured by November 2015. Since then, the annual death toll has been closer to 500 to 600 people.
Germany and France were able to broker talks in late 2014, leading to the Minsk Agreement in September 2014, followed by Minsk II in February the following year.
The Minsk agreements called for an immediate ceasefire and the release of all hostages. The separatists agreed to disband their armed units and gradually reintegrate into the Ukrainian state. Kyiv agreed to disband militias, pass an amnesty law, a special status law and a constitutional amendment, to resume payment of pensions and other benefits, draw up a strategy for economic reconstruction.
However, with the Russians were involved in the agreement as mediators, rather than combatants they cannot be held to account for breaking the agreement, which they have on every occasion, and any agreed ceasefire has been broken within days or even sometimes hours.
So five years on, the Minsk agreements have yet to be fully implemented. A major sticking point is Ukraine’s refusal to organise local elections until all Russian troops have been removed and the border restored to Ukrainian control. Russia has shown no desire to meet these requirements.
Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has brought a fresh impetus to the peace process. He has shown a willingness to compromise with Russia, and a prisoner exchange was organised in December. However, there is little optimism that a lasting peace can be achieved, due to some clear red lines on both sides that seem insurmountable.
It is hard to imagine Russia committing to anything that looks like a retreat, and it is impossible to conceive that its leaders will give up Crimea. As far as the Kremlin is concerned, the annexation is finished business and Crimea is Russian.
It would be equally unthinkable that a Ukrainian leader could sign away part of the country, be that the Donbas or Crimea in the face of aggression from its neighbour. Furthermore, Putin seeks some form of autonomy for the regions within the Ukrainian state, which Ukraine fears may usher in a federal system, giving Russia a virtual veto over Ukrainian domestic and foreign policy.
In the geopolitical fracas, the people of the Donbas are in danger of being forgotten.
It is not even clear if the participants even want peace—all sides profit in some way from the stalemate. Political instability in Kyiv suits Russia, and Ukraine cannot achieve its objectives of joining the European Union and NATO in the midst of an armed conflict. In turn, Ukraine has an excuse to hold out on enacting any disadvantageous provisions of the Minsk agreements.
In the geopolitical fracas, the people of the Donbas are in danger of being forgotten. It may take the region decades to recover economically, if indeed it ever does. Besides the physical damage to the region, the banking system has collapsed and trade ceased. It is estimated that the region’s economy shrunk by about two thirds in 2014.
It is not a conflict the people of Ukraine have sought. Surveys last year showed that 65 percent of people living in the government-controlled areas of the Donbas, and 55 percent of people living in the breakaway “republics,” wished to remain a part of the Ukrainian state.
The Donbas is the area that nobody wants, a war prize that nobody wants to win. At a time when international resolve is slipping, the Donbas more than ever needs pressure to be maintained to bring the conflict to a conclusion.