War for Donbas?

It’s too soon to be sure, but it seems as if the media coverage of Ukraine has turned a corner in the last week. The warnings of an imminent Russian invasion have become less strident, and there are signs of a dawning recognition that full-scale war is in no-one’s interest and is therefore unlikely to happen.

French president Emmanuel Macron has visited Vladimir Putin in Moscow to present the case for a diplomatic settlement. The initial reports are not particularly encouraging, but I remain of the view that, as I said last time, “Eventually Putin will have to take whatever he can get and present it to his people as a victory.”

It’s worth considering, however, the possibility of an outcome that is somewhere between a peaceful agreement and a serious invasion. Putin may have in mind to use his military buildup for a limited incursion in the Donbas, in the far east of Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have held parts of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces since 2014. Not surprisingly, much of the commentary on Macron’s mission has centred on the Donbas question.

There’s a long-standing plan for peace in the Donbas, in the shape of the Minsk agreements of 2014-15. Basically the idea is that Ukraine would grant a comprehensive autonomy to the two provinces, and Russia in return would recognise Ukraine’s territorial integrity* and withdraw behind its frontiers.

The agreements stopped most of the fighting, but otherwise they have never been implemented. That’s partly because neither side trusts the other to keep its side of the bargain. But it’s also because both see advantages in just keeping the conflict going rather than make the concessions that they’ve promised.

The Ukrainian government doesn’t want to concede any meaningful autonomy; it fears that that would just entrench the separatists as a fifth column that Russia could use in the future. And Russia doesn’t want to give up the leverage that the current occupation gives it – autonomy for the Russian-speakers within a united democratic Ukraine doesn’t hold any real attraction for Putin.

And although the Donbas was once an economic powerhouse, that was before eight years of civil war. If peace is ever restored there, whichever side ends up in control is going to be stuck with a massive reconstruction task in addition to a substantially disaffected population. That’s why several commentaries on the diplomatic tug-of-war have included the line, “the loser gets Donbas.”

While a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would present enormous problems, an operation to secure some more territorial elbow room for Donetsk and Luhansk – most probably including the city of Mariupol, Donetsk’s natural outlet to the sea – would be much more manageable. It would be analogous to the 2008 war with Georgia, in which Russia safeguarded the “independence” of that country’s breakaway provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

But the analogy quickly breaks down. For one thing, the Georgians started the fighting by attacking South Ossetia: Ukraine is unlikely to be so foolish. More importantly, the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia clearly didn’t want to be part of Georgia. Self-determination worked in Russia’s favor, and it also provided a natural stop line; Russia could credibly maintain that it had no territorial ambitions against Georgia proper.

Those same factors made the Crimea annexation work as a limited venture, but they don’t apply in the Donbas. Russia has the ability to annex the two provinces if it wants to, but the costs would seem to greatly outweigh the benefits: not least, the cost of poisoning any future relationship with Ukraine, which would always be wondering how much further Russian ambitions might extend. (Just as Bismarck poisoned his relationship with France by the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine.)

The optimal future for the Donbas lies with the implementation of some version of the Minsk agreements. It’s possible that a new agreement to that effect will be the outcome of the present crisis, but the same obstacles that have prevented implementation so far will still be there, and it seems unlikely that they will be overcome unless the international community is willing to apply serious pressure.

Fundamentally, the Russian and Ukrainian governments both regard the Donbas as a side issue. For both, the main game is the nature of their bilateral relationship. Ukraine wants to be secure in its independence; Russia wants a friendly and neutral Ukraine, preferably one that doesn’t offer the Russian population the example of a successful westernised democracy.

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* Except for Crimea, which everyone knows is never coming back – although no-one is allowed to admit that. But it may possibly feature at some point as a counter in a diplomatic settlement.

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