After Russia’s takeover and annexation of Crimea, pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine began taking government buildings in cities and towns throughout eastern Ukraine. By the end of April, they had taken more than a dozen cities and it appeared the Ukrainian military was unable to retake the lost territory.
In May, the Ukrainian military, with its command structure reorganized and its forces in the east strengthened, began to push the separatists back. After a ten-day unilateral ceasefire in late June, the military resumed the effort and took back a substantial portion of the territory taken by the separatists, who were driven back to the areas in and around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Now, with Luhansk cut off from water and electricity for the past three weeks and partially retaken, Donetsk encircled and cut off from supplies, more than 2,000 killed, several hundred thousand displaced, Russia’s 260-truck “humanitarian convoy” having returned to Russia after entering Ukraine without permission and unloading its supplies in Luhansk, and Ukraine resuming its attack on the besieged cities, it would seem to be only a matter of time until the separatist insurrection is defeated.
Yet it’s still not clear how the conflict will end. It is possible it will end in the near future with a ceasefire. On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been in frequent contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin—she speaks Russian and he speaks German—made her first visit to Kiev since last fall. She likely tried to persuade President Petro Poroshenko to stop attacking Donetsk and Luhansk and agree at his upcoming meeting with Putin in Minsk on Tuesday, Aug. 26, to a ceasefire with the separatists, who have recently reorganized their leadership and are now led by Ukrainians rather than Russians.
But it’s quite possible Poroshenko will reject another ceasefire. After all, why should he agree to one? Ukraine is winning the battle on the ground. Moreover, he may quite reasonably believe that, as in June, the separatists and their Russian sponsors wouldn’t honor a ceasefire, especially after Russia decided on Friday to send its “humanitarian convoy” into Ukraine without prior customs clearance or escort by the Red Cross—an act Poroshenko labeled a “flagrant violation of international law.”
Russia presumably decided to send in a portion of the convoy not only because of its frustration with Ukraine’s week-long delay in clearing the convoy, despite the plight of the hundreds of thousands of civilians still living in Donetsk and Luhansk, but also because, while the convoy waited at the border, Ukraine continued its attacks on the separatists in those cities, hoping to drive them out before agreeing to a ceasefire and allowing the convoy to enter.
There can be little doubt at this point that if Ukraine continues to attack the separatists in their remaining strongholds, and especially if it attacks another Russian humanitarian convoy in the future, Russia, which has deployed some 40,000 combat-ready troops, including airborne assault and Spetsnaz forces as well as tanks, heavy artillery, and antiaircraft weapons, will intervene militarily.
If that were to happen, the result could be, as in Moldova in the 1990s and Georgia six Augusts ago, a “frozen conflict” in which a nominally-independent but Russia-controlled “statelet” backed by Russian troops is created in eastern Ukraine, like Transnistria in Moldova and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.
While the Ukrainian military’s dramatic success in July and August in recapturing much of the territory taken by the separatists may make a ceasefire in the near future more likely than a Russian incursion and “freezing” of the conflict, no one should be surprised if the latter occurs. For one thing, Ukraine may not agree to either a de facto cessation of its attacks on the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk or a formal ceasefire. For another, Russia has a multitude of interests at stake in eastern Ukraine and may be unwilling to walk away from them.
Some may have thought that after Russia seized and annexed Crimea in March it would agree to a peaceful resolution of the crisis. After all, the annexation secured the headquarters, home base and other facilities in and around Sevastopol of its geopolitically-important Black Sea fleet and precluded the possibility that Ukraine could abrogate or refuse to renew the long-term lease on the port and facilities it granted in 1997 and extended for 25 years in the 2010 Kharkiv Pact.
But the Ukraine crisis has never been just about Crimea. For Putin, who in his 2005 state of the nation address said “the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the century,” Ukraine has always been regarded as a necessary participant in the Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union he envisions as a means of reintegrating the economies of most if not all of the non-Baltic post-Soviet states. It was for that reason that he deployed a wide range of carrots and sticks, including a promise of $15 billion in financial assistance and a reduction in the price of gas, to persuade Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych not to sign an association agreement with the European Union at Vilnius last November.
The perceived threat to Russia’s national interest posed by Ukraine’s association agreement with, and perhaps eventual membership in, the EU is not limited to the adverse economic impact of a reorientation of Ukraine’s economy toward the EU. It reflects also a perception that Ukraine’s relationship with the EU would carry with it a geopolitical threat—the threat that Ukraine might join NATO.
There is, of course, no formal relationship between membership in the EU and membership in NATO. Indeed, several current member states of the EU are not members of NATO. But it is the case that, counting the German Democratic Republic, 13 states to the north, west and south of Ukraine that were controlled by Communist parties prior to 1989-91 are now members of the EU and all of them are also members of NATO.
Beyond the geopolitical issue, there are close cultural, economic and military ties between Russia and Ukraine, especially eastern Ukraine. For example, in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, almost 40 percent of the population is ethnic Russian and 70 percent identify Russian as their native language. Those proportions aren’t as large as in Crimea but they are greater than those in any other region of Ukraine.
Also, even more than two decades after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine have a close trading relationship. Indeed, Ukraine imports more from Russia and exports more to Russia than it does from and to all 28 members of the EU, taken together. Russia is, by far, the most important source of Ukrainian imports (e.g., gas) and the most important market for its exports. And reflecting the high degree of integration that continues between the countries’ military-industrial sectors, a substantial portion of Ukraine’s exports to Russia consist of military equipment produced in eastern Ukraine. For example, the engines for Russia’s military helicopters are produced in Zaporizhzhya; its SS-18 ICBMs are produced in Dnipropetrovsk.
It’s possible that, with victory in sight and in order to avoid destroying Donetsk and Luhansk and inflicting more suffering on their civilian populations, Ukraine will agree to a ceasefire and that, notwithstanding their imminent defeat, Russia will honor the ceasefire and refrain from sending the separatists more reinforcements, supplies and weapons. But that may not happen, in which case the likely result will be an overt Russian military intervention and a “freezing” of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
David R. Cameron is a professor of political science at Yale University and the director of Yale’s Program in European Union Studies.