Twelve months after the first Minsk agreement was signed, there are growing signs that an armistice is taking hold in eastern Ukraine. It would be no victory for Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s undeclared hybrid war, though. Instead, it seems the Kremlin has lowered its goals.
The biggest surprise in Ukraine this month is the dog that didn’t bark. In the first week of September not a single Ukrainian soldier was killed in the Ukrainian-Russian battleground in the eastern tip of Ukraine; in fact, the big guns have now been silent there for two weeks. The combined Russian and local rebel forces “still violate [the year-long] ceasefire up to ten times a day” in skirmishes, says Andriy Lysenko, Ukraine’s presidential defense spokesman, but they have stopped shelling the Ukrainian lines with heavy weapons.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak calls this reprieve “the lowest number of shootings over the past year-and-a-half” in Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine. It follows twelve months in which heavily armed Russian/rebel forces, breaching the Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015, have driven Ukrainian troops out of pockets along the truce line in bloody firefights and made incremental gains – but have not been able to break through Ukrainian defenses in any major offensive. Even NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, after a summer in which NATO generals were expecting a new Russian attack at any moment, admits that “so far it looks like the ceasefire is now more respected than it has been for a long time.”
Could a fortnight of unusual quiet presage a solution to what Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London Lawrence Freedman describes as a crucial conundrum in the fluid post-superpower world: how to convert a military deadlock into a stable political settlement? (For German efforts to bring this about, see Berlin Policy Journal’s interview with Markus Ederer, State Secretary at the German Foreign Office.)
What the relative quiet doesn’t mean is that Russian president Vladimir Putin has won his war. On the contrary, Putin has long since given up his expectation that eastern Ukrainians would rise up against Kiev if only they were nudged into revolt by Russian special forces infiltrated into the region – and that such rebellion would lead to the “return” of Catherine the Great’s 18th-century “New Russia” territory to Moscow. In this light the Russian president’s periodic saber-rattling toward Ukraine looks more like a mimicry of threat to maintain his macho domestic image.
The clearest measures of Putin’s lowered goals are the conspicuous absence of that long-awaited summertime offensive by up to 24,000 Russian regular troops already in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine and 50,000 Russian troops massed in nearby Russia, along with squabbling among Russia’s proxy rebels in the Donbass. Both fall and spring are bad times to attack because the seasonal mud makes roads in rural Russia and Ukraine difficult to navigate. Moreover, it appears that Moscow is now damping down the militancy of its unruly Donbass proxies by demoting militants and promoting those who favor political over military conquest of Ukraine.
Western analysts who regard continuing deadlock as a victory for Putin’s “hybrid war” argue that Moscow is creating another “frozen conflict” and could manipulate the Donbass at will to sabotage the Kiev government as it does in the quarter-century-old “frozen conflicts” in Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Yet since Putin has single-handedly consolidated a newfound national identity in Ukraine by attacking it, his army would now have to occupy the whole country in order to control it. The half-measures of deniable hybrid warfare – Russian officials still claim, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that there are no Russian regulars in Ukraine – have shown their limits.
The biggest deterrent to overt occupation is the prohibitively high costs, as Putin seems to be acknowledging for the first time in his new-found restraint. These include the rising numbers of dead Russian soldiers, the prospect of a quagmire of guerrilla warfare in Ukraine itself, military overstretch and a shortage of Russian troops for other contingencies in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and abroad, increasing Western financial sanctions, and domestic economic degeneration.
To outsiders, the deaths of anonymous Russian soldiers in Ukraine might not appear to be a real disincentive to belligerence for a ruler who enjoys almost 90 percent popularity, exercises vast power over domestic media, and has jailed the few political dissidents who have dared to cross him. Nor would it seem possible that the West’s long-term financial sanctions could have damaged Russia’s economy so fast.
Yet in retrospect Western analysts credit the casualties of Russian soldiers in Afghanistan with Moscow’s withdrawal of these troops in the 1980s. The extraordinary buildup of the ragtag Ukrainian army of early 2014 to a force that almost routed Putin’s Donbass proxies a year ago (and were themselves routed only by the first Russian regular invasion of Ukraine in August 2014) is another deterrent to Putin. So is the measured Western response to Russian belligerence, providing small-unit military training to Ukrainian troops and conducting joint military exercises in the Baltic and Black Seas while refraining from sending “lethal” weapons to Ukraine. These moves have signaled NATO’s determination to defend alliance members and to give Kiev help for self-help without escalating the war in a dramatic gesture that would prompt Putin to do the same.
The upshot is that now the Donbass stalemate – or “exhaustion”, as Freedman terms it – is actually beginning to look like something of a victory by default for Ukraine. As the attacker, Moscow loses if it does not seize more of the Ukrainian territory Putin has claimed for Russia. As the defender, all Kiev has to do is to maintain the stalemate. Freedman suggests that at this point “Russia might be more vulnerable to exhaustion than Ukraine…. The longer the conflict continues along the current path, the more time Ukraine has to reform its military and economy and deal with corruption.”
By contrast, time is no longer on Putin’s side. The trick will be to “prepare for the point at which the most exhausted side can slide away from its previous stance under the cover of implementing an established agreement.” In this case, that would of course be the much-maligned Minsk agreements.