INTERSECTION.  Options and strategies for an end of violence in the Donbas

Author: Gustav Gressel

On February 20th 2015, I received a call from Marielousise Beck, Member of the German Bundestag, worried about the situation in Ukraine. Debaltseve has just fallen into Russian hands two days earlier, despite the fact that the ceasefire implementation agreement signed in Minsk (generally referred to as the Minsk II agreement) called for an immediate end to all hostilities by February 15th. To the Ukrainian Army, the debacle of Debaltseve was a severe blow, and decision-makers in Berlin wondered how long military resistance would last. Moreover, the battle for Debaltseve was led by regular Russian Army formations, and the question was, how far would they want to go? What to do to make Russia rethink its strategy? How quickly could the West reverse the situation in Ukraine? What about lethal aid? What about the prospects of a peacekeeping-mission? Mariluise Beck would accompany German President Joachiem Gauck to Kyiv on February 21st, the anniversary of the successful Maidan revolution. Would Ukraine, one year after the people deposed the corrupt regime of Victor Yanukovych, collapse under a Russian assault? I offered a short paper summarizing the options for further steps on Ukraine to give some food for thought during the discussions to come within the German policy circles. The following articles are based on this paper – although I have updated and modified it to take account of recent events and the changed situation in Ukraine. Before going into depth in the situation, I want to thank her for her trust in my and the ECFR’s work and the permission to publish the paper.


Part 1

The Russian-Ukrainian war

The struggle for control of the Donbas has raged for more than a year. What started as a limited uprising by Russian-sponsored nationalists against Kyiv, turned into an undeclared war between Russia and Ukraine. So far, the war has officially taken over 6500 lives, 1.3 million internally displaced people and over 600,000 international refugees. Due to the high number of refugees and the limited capacity of the Ukrainian state to keep track of the massive population movement, the actual death-toll is certainly higher. In February 2015, the German BND (Federal intelligence Agency) estimated that the war has taken around 50.000 lives so far, a number which increases by the day. Since the Balkan wars of the 90s, the Russian-Ukrainian war is the deadliest conflict on European soil. If there was a humanitarian imperative that made the West try to end the former, it should be considered equally imperative to end the recent conflict.

Just like the Balkan-wars, the war in Ukraine leads to an immense societal radicalization and outbursts of nationalism, particularly in Russia. It is generally acknowledged that the Balkan-wars provided the boost in prestige and domestic standing for the conservative, religious, revanchist, nationalist, and revisionist forces within Russia and enabled them to dominate Russian domestic politics – a development that led to the establishment of Putin’s authoritarian rule and the abandonment of Russia’s transformation efforts. It was these first nationalist outbursts that convinced Samuel P. Huntington to write about a “Clash of Civilisations” in 1993 – a paradigm that was used and abused in the decades to come. The wave of nationalist hysteria and state-sponsored militarism that this war has caused in Russia is hard to miss. The murder of Boris Nemtsov was the most visible outcome yet. A renewed wave of domestic repression, and the demonizing of the domestic opposition as a military threat in the Kremlin’s new security strategy will entrench authoritarianism in Russia and prolong the crisis of failed modernization that has been haunting Russia since 1991. To the author, the militarization of Russian society and the glorification of the Russia’s imperial past (particularly whitewashing Stalin’s totalitarianism) marked the final transition of Putin’s Russia from an authoritarian to Fascist state – but that remains debatable. The West has not yet grasped the destructive psychological, societal, and political effects of this conflict.

To this day, the West’s (particularly Germany’s) efforts to end the war and bring about a diplomatic solution have not yet yielded the desired results. While there is no doubt that the European sanctions policy and the various peace initiatives – most notably, the one that led to the Minsk implementation agreement – have put constraints on the war and hence limited both human sufferings as well as larger escalation, there is no end to the fighting as such. Today, the Donbas is in a state of “neither peace, nor war” which is on the surface calmer than previous phases of the war. But so far, the war has undergone many cooling off phases which has usually allowed the parties to regroup and rotate their military forces and resume fighting another day. There is an ongoing discussion on whether the battle for Ukraine has entered a new phase in which Russia will make use of economic pressure and political destabilization rather than further military force, or whether the truce is a mere tactical pause in the fighting which will be resumed another day. The problem is that the conditions for further escalation remain and this strategic uncertainty dominates the environment in which Kyiv needs to make decisions – both in terms of its domestic policy and its economy.

Until now, the official political discussions on how to deal with the conflict reveal more about the domestic constraints and imponderables of the actors involved and focus more on tactical manoeuvres than on the conflict as such and the options to end it. While diplomacy will remain the “art of the possible” (Bismarck) we need to consider the options at hand from a wider and more long-term perspective.

Russian war aims and strategy

While Russia’s behaviour on the ground was shaped primarily by short-term considerations about the feasibility or infeasibility of certain moves, no one can deny that the Russian actions are focused towards one strategic aim: to prevent Ukraine from heading West. Before the Maidan, Ukraine was the object of a Russian de-sovereignization policy, aimed at practically taking over Ukraine as a quasi-colony in exchange for favours to the political class that formally ran it. Russia threatened Yanukovych several times to convince him not to sign the EU-association agreement and to crack down on the protest movement in Kyiv. When Yanukovych couldn’t deliver, Russia intervened militarily twice – first in Crimea and then in Donbas. Why did Russia take such a large risk on Ukraine? Given the economic and political outfall of the crisis, Russia’s actions seem to be disproportionate to the gains of owning Ukraine. Rational arguments are hardly able to explain the obsession of Russia’s political class with Ukraine. Rather one needs to take emotional and irrational interests into account: “Kyivan Rus” is considered the cradle of “Russian civilization” by Russian nationalists (one of whom is Putin himself). It is Russia’s identity as an imperial power that is at play, and for this identity, the Russian leadership is willing to pay a great deal. It is difficult to weigh mythological and spiritual values in rational number (like soldiers or billions lost), especially as the Russian leadership considers economic hardship a patriotic duty.

It is noteworthy that Moscow puts these nationalist interests above presumed rational interest like the creation of an independent sphere of influence, the recognition of a great-power status for Russia, the destabilization of NATO, and the prevention of democratic change in Ukraine. Moscow pursues these interests though its war in Ukraine. But the high risk taken, and nationalist passion involved indicate a more irrational-emotional affiliation towards the cause. One should note that China also challenges Russia’s economic and political predominance in Central Asia. For a petro-state like Russia, this challenge could be far more lethal than Ukraine signing an association agreement with the EU. But because Russia’s new fascist ideology is centred on an independent Orthodox- Slavic civilization, Moscow can’t ease its grip on Kyiv. Hence Europe has to deal with a much more irrational Russia than it would like to and has to expect Russia to be willing to pay a very high price for Ukraine.

This makes any resolution for the West extremely difficult to achieve, because there is little chance to satisfy the Russian leaderships with concessions in Donbas. The Russian war-aims go beyond that. Furthermore, Russia’s imperial nostalgia revolves around Kyiv, the Crimean peninsula and the cultural port-cities of the Tsarist times – Odessa above all. There are actually no emotional or political values attached to the Donbas itself, and the destruction of this particular region seems tolerable if it advances Russian interest beyond the Donbas. The peoples’ republics of Luhansk and Donetsk are pure political tokens, and so Russia can and will be much more reckless in the pursuit of its war aims than Kyiv. Even staunch Russian nationalists would rather fight for the old imperial port-town of Odessa or mystical Kyiv than for some run-down industrial complexes in the Donbas.

On the other hand, there still is an exit strategy. The real Russian war-aim was not communicated publicly - in Russian propaganda, the war is still about the people of Donbas. Furthermore, the more secular members of the power elite perceive Putin’s war aims as not worth the effort or costs to Russia. They worry much more about the harm to the country’s international standing in the long-term. If the war becomes more costly to Russia, they might convince Putin to let up on Ukraine.

There is even a mixed reception of the war in Ukraine within the armed forces. While the annexation of Crimea was a “glorious” endeavor, giving cause for nationalist celebrations, the open-ended and publicly denied war in the Donbas is something else. Russian garrison cities have started to erect monuments for fallen Russian soldiers in the war, a clear indication that they want their service to the “motherland” commemorated and recognized publicly. To this day, the war has been successful and not very costly to the Russian security services. Even during time of the most intensive battles, casualties hardly surpassed the 100 bodies a week benchmark. If this were to change, or the relative ease of combat in Donbas were at risk, the resentment against the continuation of the war would rise.

The Russian strategy to achieve its aims through a limited war of attrition in the Donbas. Russia knows that it can sustain a war-like situation militarily, politically, and economically much longer than Ukraine can. The Ukrainian economy is deteriorating faster than Russia’s and the continuous uncertainty about the future of Ukraine is scaring off foreign and domestic investors. It is unclear how long the West is willing to pump money into Kyiv. For Putin, time is on Russia’s side - the longer the war lasts, the better the conditions for him.

However, it is important to remember that Russia has already declined the option of total invasion of Ukraine. In April 2014, Russia had about 150.000 men deployed across the border: one corps-size group at the Belarusian -Russian border to seize Kyiv, one Corps-sized group around Kursk-Voronezh to invade Kharkiv, one further at Rostov on the Don to enter the Donbas, and strong amphibious forces on the Crimea to strike towards Odessa. Moreover, a large portion of the then deployed forces were paramilitary forces of the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry for Emergency Situations. That meant that Russia actually considered occupying Ukraine and setting up an occupation regime. However, these forces are no longer mobilized and current Russian deployments of forces are directed towards the Donbas. Russia has already backed down on total war.

As Russian intelligence services were well aware of the disastrous state of the Ukrainian army, the chances for another cheap victory were good. In April, the Ukrainian armed forces were unable to send more than 6000 men into the Donbas. Those who were sent defected to a large extent, and the supply-chain for those that stayed was non-existent. But the creation of voluntary forces in the National Guard, the wave of patriotism and determinedness of the Ukrainian people seemed to have taken Moscow by surprise. If Russia were to push deep into Ukraine militarily, it would risk a partisan war that, given the extent of the area and the will of the Ukrainian population, would be much more costly than attrition of the ineffective Ukrainian army. Furthermore, Moscow had not anticipated a united and meaningful response from the European Union. Therefore, in order to shift the balance of strategic expectations in favour of a truce, the West has to increase the relative costs of the war to Russia. This is, however, difficult to achieve.

It is also worth noting that after both the battle for the Donetsk airport, and after the initial offensive around Novoazovsk, the Russian forces had the chance to penetrate deeper into Ukrainian territory than they did. However, the Russian forces missed the opportunity to do so. This could be because of human error or a deliberate approach. Russia does not need more Ukrainian territory. Rather, it needs to bring about further humiliation of the Ukrainian army to destabilize Ukrainian political process and reforms. They need to capture forces, not terrain. On the other hand, the Ukrainian inclination to hang on every inch of “holy Ukrainian soil” gives the Russian armed forces plenty of opportunities to beat them.

Finally, a quick victory would shift the costs of maintaining Ukraine to Russia too quickly. If the war drags on to the point that Ukrainian popular support for Westernization has been eroded by years of economic stagnation and political turmoil, Ukraine will likely fall into Russia’s hands like a ripe apple. And if the project fails after the EU has pumped billions of Euros into Kyiv, Europe will never dare to support any Maidan at all – be it in Kyiv, Minsk or Moscow. Russia is playing the long game. A war of attrition is the preferred operative choice.


Part 2

What to do about the war: increase sanctions or arm Ukraine?

Option one – increasing economic pressure

Sanctions against Russian individuals – even if they are high officials – are nothing but symbolism. The only really painful sanctions are the “sectorial sanctions” put on Russia in June 2014. But the Russian economy and customers have been hit much harder by the collapse of the oil-price in late 2014 and the “counter-sanctions” imposed by the Russian government – particularly on food imports. The Russian economy has adapted to them and after a first inflation shock, the economy has again stabilized. The perspective for growth is dire, but this does not immediately threaten the popularity of the regime. So far, Russia has tried to persuade vulnerable states in central Europe to veto further sanctions or the continuation of the sectorial sanctions in place. Hungary and Austria are in the focus of Russia’s subversive attempts. Greece might use the veto-threat as a bargaining chip, but as long as the negotiations with Athens are still going on, it is less likely that it will veto the extension of the current sanctions.

While the sanctions in place are important, they do not change short-term considerations in Moscow. The Kremlin still thinks that the Ukrainian economy will blow before the Russian economy does; hence Russia will rather end the war on its terms. There are two further escalation scenarios discussed in terms of sanctions-policy: an embargo of Russian oil, and banning Russia from the SWIFT system.

A comprehensive ban of Russian oil and oil product seems to be a reasonable approach, as the revenues of oil and gas export make up almost 40% of Russia’s state budget. The share of oil is bigger than the share of gas in this sector. However, unlike gas, oil is much easier to diversify in terms of export-customers. Natural gas is bound to infrastructure to distribute and process it, hence the disruption of gas-flows is very difficult (if impossible) to compensate. But oil can be diversified much more easily. Oil-sector sanctions against Iran have been effective so far, because US allies in the Asia-Pacific region have so far been willing to go along with them, thereby reducing the Iranian share on the Asian market as well as the European and American. As proliferation is a close concern to South-Korea and Japan too (because of North Korea) fostering this consensus was relatively easy (for Washington). But it might be more difficult in the case of Russia. Furthermore, the volatility of the oil price did more harm to Russia’s economy than any sanctions regime. And this price could again spike if oil-sanctions were imposed on Russia, hence nullifying the effect of sanctions.

The ban of Russia from the SWIFT system would on the other hand deal a significant blow to the Russian financial system. However as the move was discussed since autumn 2014, Russia has had some time to prepare for making arrangement with Asian partners (particularly China) to keep up the liquidity of its banks in case of such a move. Further economic hardship will happen, but will it bring about peace? That remains very difficult to determine. And even if it does, it will need quite some time. The sanctions on Iran were in place for years before Iran was ready to negotiate sincerely with the West. But in a war, is it wise to call for years of patience before it eventually ends? And is such a strategy justifiable in a humanitarian sense?

Option two: Arming Ukraine

As mentioned above, the costs of Russian military adventurism need to be increased. While businessmen and economic technocrats have lost their influence on Putin’s decision-making, the military intelligence service has not – quite the contrary. In the policy-debate, delivering certain lethal goods to Ukraine is seen as an easy tool to increase the costs in terms of blood to the Russian side. However, this is an oversimplification. The faults in Ukraine’s war efforts are far greater than the dire equipment.

On a strategic level, the Ukrainian political leadership and the Ukrainian general staff have long failed to understand what a war of attrition actually means for Ukraine and how to conduct it. Committing major forces in an offensive on the Donetsk airport – despite that the airport was destroyed already – was a mistake just like not withdrawing the troops from Debaltseve – especially as the Russian offensive became imminent. The inflexibility of the Ukrainian general staff during the winter-battles in Ukraine and its reluctance to adapt to new developments on the front posed the question whether Ukraine actually had a war-plan at the time.

When the Ukrainian army was called to the field in April 2014, it could only send 6,000 men and few armoured vehicles. After decades of negligence, drain of motivated personnel, and Russian subversion, there was practically no Ukrainian army to speak of. What was sent to the East thereafter was a hastily expanded, recently re-organized “patchwork army”, that needed to conserve its forces above all, especially the few combat-proven forces that have fought well in the past. For a new and unproven army, a defensive posture is preferable. The easier the line of defence is in terms of terrain, flanks, etc. the higher the chances to repel Russian advances and inflict casualties. On the contrary, the Russian Army exploits difficult terrain and open flanks to outsmart the Ukrainian forces wherever possible. The Ukrainian reluctance to withdraw exposed forces and the illusion in Kyiv about its own offensive strength has made it easier for Russia to inflict humiliating defeats upon them.

But since Debaltseve, the Ukrainian leadership has been much more cautious, and the professionality of Ukrainian troops has increased. At Marinka the Ukrainians not only avoided being trapped and encircled by advancing Russian forces by delaying action, they also engaged in a limited counter-offensive that expelled the Russian troops again from the city. The battle showed a coordination of arms and formations not yet seen on the Ukrainian side. While it is too early to chant success or to be overly optimistic – and to assess whether this new effectiveness was due to increased military advice and training by Western forces or combat experience on the Ukrainian side – it is the manifestation of a learning-curve that needs to be further supported by the West.

The next front ripe for disaster was the Ukrainian logistical chain and defence administration. During previous governments, the maintenance of the armed forces was financed by selling off old surplus materiel and even regular military equipment. This practice has created a hotbed for corruption and inefficiency. Furthermore the defence administration has been subverted by Russian spies – especially under Yanukovych, who appointed even a Russian citizen for Minister of defence. For this very reason the European defence industry rejected handing over sophisticated defence materiel to Ukraine: you never know who will have a hold on these items. In autumn 2014, some European States sent a detailed request to Kyiv to clarify where delivered items should be stored, who manages the stocks, who trains the military personnel on those systems, to whom they would be handed out and how the supply-chain would look for each item. In the meantime, the assistance was restrained to non-lethal aid which was distributed not via the army, but vial local NGOs who were accountable to Western standards. In April and May 2015, Ukraine incorporated some of these NGO and their personnel into the Ministry of Defence, making them an official part of the Army’s supply chain. While the move may not be an elegant solution, it certainly practical. And Europe should at least re-evaluate its stand on arms deliveries after the recent reforms. Most important, Europe should not deny the perspective of arms deliveries in the future, but tie those to the implementation of defence-reforms it perceives necessary preconditions.

Then, there are issues of tactical mistakes conducted by Ukrainian commanders in the field. The reports on the big battles of the Russian-Ukrainian war submitted by Polish defence journals consider poor leadership and lack of coordination and situation awareness as main sources of Ukrainian defeat. There was little coordination between armour, infantry and artillery within the Ukrainian Army, just as there was little coordination between formal Army and National Guard militias. There were too few reserves at hand for the Ukrainian commanders, and even those were not committed or committed at the wrong time in the battle. Before advancing, the Ukrainians did not properly reconnoitre the Russian positions, therefore not concentrating the right amount of troops on the right spot, often even missing open flanks of the separatists. Ukrainian tactical commanders reacted slowly to new developments on the field, reporting was bad and superior commanders hardly ever knew what was going on because the troops did not report their status and situation. These are all signals of unprofessional “patchwork” forces, hastily trained and expanded. Furthermore, in most battles the rebels were fewer in number – even in the offence. They did not win due to superior numbers or firepower, but they always caught the Ukrainians off guard, putting the decisive effort into weak spots of the Ukrainians, outflanking them and at the end forcing superior numbers of Ukrainian troops to withdraw because they held better territory. That is quite professional work.

Even better equipment would change little on those tactical ills of the Ukrainian army. Actually tanks never were impenetrable in the history of armoured warfare. They dictate time, space and intensity of the battle, and they succeed if they do that in an unexpected way or faster than their opponents. Russian forces in the Donbas were much better in this regard. Its regular forces and military commanders sent into the Donbas have some experience from Georgia 2008 and the Chechen-wars. Nobody should expect an inexperienced foe. The Ukrainian commanders basically lost their skills to conduct armoured warfare because since the mid-2000s the Ukrainian Army ran out of funds to conduct manoeuvres beyond the company/battalion level. On the Russian side, on the other hand, professionalism has steadily increased since 2008.

On the other hand, many strategic and political reasons against delivering lethal systems to Ukraine are plain wrong. Russia is already depicting the Ukrainian army as a Western/NATO force and portraying the conflict as a proxy-war waged by the US against Russia. In terms of propaganda, there are few things to escalate. And Russia will not bring about total war or further escalation in Ukraine, because it already ruled out this option at a time when the Ukrainian military resistance was much weaker. Russian threats of a further escalation are part of a poker-game to deter the West from helping Ukraine. However, they are by large, empty threats.

Hence, while the strategic rationale for arms-deliveries for Ukraine is sound, there are many unsolved practical issues against it. The issue should be tied to the following policies:

  • Comprehensive reform and lustration of the defence sector; plans best accorded with Western military experts/personnel;
  • Increase of exercises with NATO Partners;
  • Increased training efforts for the Ukrainian armed forces, especially the officers’ corps.

So far, the US, UK and Polish training and advisory initiatives, as well as the Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian brigade are important steps in the right direction. Other European states should follow this example. But the final prospect of receiving lethal military aid would be the decisive incentive to speed up and facilitate those reforms. Given the fact that there was a first major overhaul of the Ukrainian defence structures in spring 2015, the West should be evaluating the steps made and draw respective conclusions. The ENP’s “more for more” principle should well apply for the armed forces. But unfortunately, the delivery of lethal aid will not be the silver-bullet to improve Ukraine’s military performance over night and hence change Russia’s calculation on the war. For the humanitarian situation, this would mean a further deterioration. But just like the additional sanctions, working towards such deliveries will increase the pressure on Moscow to implement the Minsk agreement.

Part 3

The other course of action: Direct military presence

The call from Ukrainian president Poroshenko to deploy a peacekeeping force in the Donbas was, as Elmar Brock called it, a cry for help. On the 19th of February, some National Guard battalions were demanding a separate command structure independent of that of the armed forces. Having lost all trust in the armed forces leadership, such moves could have caused the disintegration of the Ukrainian Army as such. What would the West have done then? As both sanctions on Russia and increasing military aid for Ukraine are long-term efforts, a situation on the ground might arise where the West has to react more quickly. And, in the author’s perspective more importantly, any long-term indirect strategy just continues the dire humanitarian and economic situation for Ukraine and costs lives every day. War kills, but pacifism kills as well.

If external forces would patrol the line of demarcation, further military escalation from the Russian side would come at a much higher price – at least diplomatically. But if the mission is ill conceived to the theatre and mandates are weak, then there is a considerable risk that the peacekeeping force will make a fool of itself. One should bear in mind that UN peacekeepers in Bosnia were frequently taken prisoner or hostage, used as human shields, or just sat to watch the atrocities committed by Serbian irregulars. The extensive backing of the Russian rebels by Moscow could as well make the rebels loose respect for the international forces. Provocations and humiliations could follow suit.

3.1 Expansion of the OSCE force

The expansion of the OSCE monitoring force to supervise the implementation of the Minsk agreement seems to be a logical step forward. Up until now, the roughly 480 observers could hardly supervise the vast territory mentioned at Minsk. At the time, the front line is more than 360km long and should be observed to a depth of 140km on each side. It is illusive to achieve this with so few men, even if the parties were cooperative.

But even worse, the OSCE observers are denied access to important areas once a major military confrontation occurrs or if one is prepared. In the separatist-held territories, it can only travel during the day on routes it has announced to the rebels 24hs in advance. Even then, the observers are accompanied by “rebel authorities” and have no right to inspect woods, storage-facilities, industrial plants, etc. even next to their route. The OSCE mission in its current form has neither the mandate nor the credibility to enforce anything on the ground – not even its own access to certain areas.   

Expanding the mandate of the OSCE is very difficult to achieve. Consensus of all 56 member states – including Russia - is required. The OSCE as an organisation has no experience, command structure, experts, procedures, etc. to field more robust missions. The OSCE could only operate successfully in a cooperative environment. If such an environment were not provided, the mission would either fail miserably or other organisations would be called upon. The same was true of the Balkans where the OSCE did valuable work monitoring elections, supervising local governments, police-training, judiciary, etc., but failed miserably in the peacekeeping realm. To re-invent OSCE structures and procedures makes little sense, and there is little hope that Russia would agree on this. It would be much easier to call for a UN mission on the spot. As the environment in Eastern Ukraine can hardly be described as cooperative, pushing for an expansion of the OSCE mission would only waste time and probably be a futile effort.

3.2 A UN Mission to Donbas

The idea of a UN mission to the Donbas was raised by the Ukrainian government in February 2015 and is still debated in Kyiv. Unlike the OSCE, the UN has experience, personnel, and procedures in place to field even robust missions. UN peacekeeping did made considerable progress since the Balkan wars.

There are Ukrainian objections as Russia could use such a mission to legitimize its own military presence as “peacekeepers”. However just like in other UN missions, there could be limitations on who is allowed to contribute. For example only those nations that have formally recognized Israel may contribute to UNIFIL in Lebanon, preventing Iran and others to send “peacekeepers”. Similar provisions could be made with regard to Ukraine: only those countries that have no open territorial issues with Ukraine may participate. This would effectively ban Russia because of Crimea, but Russia would not have to formally concede that it is part of the conflict in Donbas.

However the biggest issue will be to overcome Russian objections against such a mission. Russia’s veto power in the UNSC makes it easy to dilute the mandate, and it is very unlikely that Russia would agree to a mandate robust enough to make a difference on the ground. To date, Russia rejects the notion of a UN mission, stating that this would effectively be the “end of the Minsk agreement”.   

However the West could argue that since Minsk, Russia has permanently created new facts on the ground, most notably in Debaltseve. After almost 5 months after the Agreement was signed, even the most basic provisions of the ceasefire are not kept. And the Russian troops in Donbas, augmented by local guerrillas, are responsible for that. So the West has to provide its own reasons for why there is now a new situation which calls for additional measures. This could serve as a line of argumentation to at least put a robust UN mission on the diplomatic agenda. To make the mission effective, the mandate has to include the free access to the entire Donbas without reservations; the mandate to enforce the terms of the Minsk agreement by military force; and the mandate to protect civilian population from organized violence by military force. The mandate should include the strength, size, and equipment to make this mandate credible (50.000 soldiers, heavy equipment including tanks and air assets). Otherwise the mission would easily end in a farce, just like the OSCE mission before.

It is very unlikely that Russia would agree to those demands. But still they should be put forward. It would be a necessary precondition to legitimize any further steps (sanctions, military aid) in front of the domestic audience in Europe. Over the last decade, Russia has bombarded Europe and the US with diplomatic initiatives that it knew Europe would not agree on, just to get the West on the defensive (like Medvedev’s new security order, etc.). Europe could at least use the same tactic to corner Moscow. Either Russia comes up with serious counter-proposals to effectively deal with the situation that can be managed with Russia. Or the Russian stubbornness and refusal to discuss meaningful steps for further implementation provides more legitimacy to unilateral European action.

3.3  A EU/NATO force or the unilateral enforcement of peace

The deployment of a robust European force to Donbas would mean a change to the entire international setting of the conflict and entail acknowledgement that the war in Donbas  with Russia cannot be ended. Hence the option should be considered as a measure of last resort, but it has to be considered. If not, Russia will hardly get serious about contributing to the solution of the conflict.

The deployment of a robust EU or NATO force would not require Russian consensus, and therefore implemented in any circumstances. But this would have severe consequences for the further status of the DNR and LNR. It would practically shred the Minsk agreement. There would be no return of the Ukrainian border guards to the entire Russian-Ukrainian border. Russia would probably feel free to annex Donbas, or to recognize the “independence” of these “states”. On the other hand, deployment of EU or NATO forces would free Ukraine from providing services for these regions and from the responsibility  for their economic survival and reconstruction. Even if the DNR/LNR were not recognized by the West, these ‘states’ would be a permanent matter of fact. De facto ceding of additional territory after Crimea would deal another blow to the Ukrainian government. That said, the Ukrainian public has at large sobered up to the thought that these regions are lost for the time being, and any feasible way to end the war and stabilize the economy – even at the expense of excluding these regions – has much higher acceptance now than it had a year ago. There would be resistance amongst nationalist forces, as they would call for the continuation of the war. But radical forces within Ukraine have been overestimated all along, and they won’t probably matter much.

On the other hand, the deployment of a large, robust EU force that actually takes position on the Ukrainian side of the demarcation line would be the fastest road to end the war. Ukraine could embark on its course of reform and Europeanization without being dragged down by war. The electoral base of pro-western forces within Ukraine would be even stronger, as the most pro-Russian regions are effectively separated from Ukraine. It would save the EU billions of Euros that would otherwise have to be pumped into a faltering war economy, not to mention illusory ideas of “reconstructing” Donbas with European money. And most important, it would save countless lives.

To further secure Ukraine’s path of Westernization, NATO could provide a guaranty for Ukraine’s survival modelled after the US guarantee for Taiwan. A deliberate ambiguity should prevent Ukraine from seeking Western backing for a military revision of the status quo (hence dragging the West into war) but also deter Russia from threatening Ukraine or trying to open up another separatist front.

The fear that such a unilateral move will bring about the third world war is entirely ridiculous. As mentioned before, Russia backed down from invading Ukraine out of fear of further military escalation. How then it is supposed to threaten the West? The Russian military leadership, while behaving aggressively, knows very well that the defence reform started in 2008 is still an unfinished process and that the Russian military is by no means capable of taking on the entire West. Before the Maidan, Russian military thinkers concluded that the state of the Chinese armed forces will not provide Russia with the international setting to challenge Europe until 2020/2025. In Russia’s mind, a strong China is needed to bog down US forces in the Pacific. Only then would Russia have a free hand to challenge the status quo in Europe. Russian military reform was conceived to meet this schedule and be completed by 2020 at the earliest. Hence the very same Russian military intelligence circles and military leadership that advised Putin on the fateful escalations in Ukraine are those who really comprehend the shortfalls of Russia’s military might.

There may be discussions, whether this should be an EU or NATO led force. Ultimately this is a discussion of secondary importance. If the EU is serious about CFSP and responsibility for its neighbourhood, it should lead such a mission. An EU mission would also make it more attractive for countries reluctant to engage on Ukraine to join in, particularly in Western Europe. Russia would object to both, although a EU force would probably give the Russian propaganda about the “next US imperialist war” less international resonance. However, there may be serious doubts whether the Europeans are ready to do something meaningful without US leadership (which means NATO). This is as sad as it may be true.


None of the possible courses of actions discussed above should be treated as isolated options or issues. Acknowledging the fact that Russia is fighting for “state capture” in Kyiv, and that it perceives itself as the slowly winning party in a war of attrition, the West has to find ways to increase the costs of the Russian behaviour. Due to the military and administrative shortfalls within Ukraine, there is no easy or fast solution to the conflict, and the role Kyiv can play on its own is fairly limited.

The West should therefore follow a gradual approach in increasing the pressure. Most important, Europe needs to increase its level of ambiguity in dealing with the situation. Russia should never have the feeling that it won’t get worse from a certain point. Europe for example should have never officially declined to deliver arms to Ukraine. For the same reasons Europe should never say that it won’t adopt any unilateral military measures, although it would much more prefer to solve the crisis with Russia in a civilized way. For the same reasons, Russia still threatens to go to war with the West, although the chances that it would live up to this threat are not even remote.

Both the threat of economic sanctions as well as the delivery of lethal aid to Ukraine should be put forward to save the Minsk accords from collapsing. The latter will need much more time to be implemented, as it has to be embedded in a comprehensive training programme and defence reform within Ukraine. American, British, and Polish armed forces are already stepping up training and advice for Ukraine. And there still is much more to do along this line. The Special-advisory mission of the EU in Kyiv is too small and too civilian to be of much help in this area.

Discussing an expansion of the current OSCE mission is most probably a waste of time. To bring the issue in front of UN Security Council to establish a UN mission to supervise and – if necessary – enforce the truce could be a waste of time, but only if the West does not built up enough pressure or openly discusses other options. The events around Debaltseve or Marinka were convincing enough to call for such a mission without calling for a revision of Minsk. The discussion over an EU/NATO mission and security guaranties to Ukraine could be proposed to make Russia think twice about rejecting the UN mission.

Europe has different options at hand to increase and decrease pressure on Russia. Europe needs to regain the diplomatic upper hand by being more flexible, ambiguous and much more talkative about its threats than it was before. 



Ukrayinska Dumka


Great Britain The Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain has many branches throughout the country. Select a branch below to find out more information.