International Relations

A Frozen Conflict Threatens Ukraine

Simon Letich*

Brisbane, January 21, 2015 (Alochonaa): It is a year since the beginning of the protests in Kiev that led to the fall of the pro-Russian government and the Russian invasion of Crimea. The pro-Russian insurgency which broke out in eastern Ukraine continues; there are now thousands of dead and a humanitarian disaster looms with millions either displaced or without adequate water, medicine and heating. Reports continue to stream in from government and non-sources on the ground that Russian forces are still actively supporting the pro-Russian rebels and no one is even talking about getting Crimea back again, ever.

International efforts at mediation and diplomacy were clumsy and based on the false premise that the Russian leadership actually cared about European-American opposition to their attack on Ukraine. In fact, Russia has been prepared to absorb considerable economic damage from any sanctions the West can muster and to call NATO’s empty hand regarding military intervention (and rightly so). NATO was never going to stop Russia from taking Crimea, despite their rhetorical support for Ukraine, and it took two separate Russian invasions of Ukraine to even prompt France to temporarily suspend selling major warships to Russia.

Such is the division in Europe, and the political difficulties for a unified EU or NATO foreign and security policy vis-à-vis Russia, that the initiative has seemingly remained entirely with Moscow this year. Ukraine has been using the winter to prepare to push back the rebels but the prospects for further Russian attacks loom large. Last year as Ukrainian forces gained ground against the rebels, Russian tanks and artillery operating from Russian safe havens were instrumental in pushing back Ukrainian forces. It was a demoralizing defeat which could be repeated soon. This leads us to ask a simple question – how will this end?

As I wrote earlier in the year, outright Russian annexation of eastern Ukraine might not be the Russian goal. East Ukraine is not Crimea, and Russia is probably best served with a divided Ukraine with legislative autonomy in the east but an influential Russian electorate and business class remaining in place. As for the current Kiev government, one wonders if the time has passed for a compromise on regionalism or autonomy given their political investment in fighting the rebels and the political polarization of the country between west and east. It would also seem that Western governments will remain on the sidelines. Whatever the state of the Russian economy, it would seem that the Russian leadership will continue to cling to their sphere of influence in Ukraine given that the direct costs of actually continuing to support the insurgency now pale in comparison to broader economic malaise now hitting Russia. If Moscow has indeed dug its heels in and accepted that its business dealings with the West are going to be damaged for some time to come then it may as well cling to its Ukraine strategy.

Consequently, we are left with the possibility that both Russia and Ukraine are going to fight this out in 2015 just as intensely as they did in 2014. Troublingly, there is the very real possibility that the rebels will, with Russian support, be able to hold their ground through another summer. The threat of civilian casualties too might create domestic and international pressures against the Kiev government’s ground offensives. The danger is that a substantively independent entity (under some degree of Russian influence) will remain in Ukraine’s east and that this may form the new political equilibrium of Ukraine even without a formal settlement. That is, Ukraine will continue to have the same official borders and population, with nominal sovereignty, but on the ground there will be a very real border separating Kiev’s control from that of the rebels.

The status of Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Russian orbit should come to mind as offering various degrees of analogy or precedent. This could be how the insurgency ends, not with a final military victory but with a stalemate and a slide into irrelevance to the outside world. East Ukraine could simply become another frozen conflict, and once frozen such conflict zones can be surprisingly durable. If east Ukraine isn’t subdued this European summer it might not be back in Kiev’s control for the foreseeable future.

Of course, as much as east Ukraine and Russia have suffered as a result of this war, Kiev’s prospects are equally daunting. Kiev still needs to be able to govern, raise money, fight corruption and modernize the state, and doing so whilst carrying the burden of the eastern insurgency is crippling it. It is still possible that sheer exhaustion and appropriately combined European-Russian inducements and assurances could bring Kiev to accept an autonomous east, however, this is unlikely for now. Ukrainian generals have claimed they are making gains and Ukraine’s president continues to cling to the rhetoric of decisive victory, so an about-face of policy would probably be political suicide for the government.

In the end, the degree of Russian support for the rebels will probably determine if they can hold out in 2015, and if they hold out in 2015 then a frozen conflict will most likely be the result. Thus, we can still say that the initiative resides firmly with Moscow, as it has from the beginning.

*DrSimon Leitch is the Editor in Chief,  Foreign Policy and International Affairs, Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University.  His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at


2 replies »

  1. Not completely holistic. Many would argue that Yanukovych wasn’t completely pro-Russian, but actually a compromise for a very divided population. The idea that Ukraine should take back Crimea (despite Russia’s unorthodox and illegal method of taking it ‘back’ in the first place) somewhat ignores the desires of the local population, which overwhelmingly supports being absorbed into the Russian Federation. Moreover, the ‘troubling danger’ that an autonomous region appears in Ukraine’s east is not just due to Russia’s meddlings, but a relatively inevitable result of a military operation against an ethno/linguistic enclave’s desire to ‘get off the train’ towards EU and eventually NATO integration. Again, the idea that Eastern Ukraine should be ‘subdued’ completely ignores the causes of the situation in the first place and suggests a Ukrainian military victory is more important than actually taking into account the (clearly pretty strong) local opinions held there. If the Ukrainian state wants to keep control over Eastern Ukrainian territory, it must be willing to compromise with the people who live there- it’s failure to do so is ignored in this piece. (The author could also do with learning the difference between ‘heels’ and ‘heals’!)

    • I agree with basically everything you mentioned here, Charlie. There was simply no space to deal with the deeper causes of the crisis, I am merely commenting on a handful of propositions for the new year. In fact, you are being most generous in suggesting this was “not completely holistic.” In many ways to describe a problem like a civil in under 1000 words results is nothing short of a fabrication or, as some would say, “lies agreed upon.”
      In case it wasn’t clear in the article I will clarify one point. As I mentioned, there is the possibility of a political solution in theory. As you suggest, Kiev could simply accept more regionalism or autonomy, or appease eastern Ukrainians in some other way and cancel the military offensives, but if we accept for a moment that Kiev’s ruling elite actually want to be a government for the whole country, and not a de facto rump state, that solution probably won’t be appealing until they are more exhausted, bankrupt or losing ground again. I am not suggesting that more regionalism or ethnic partition was inevitable or the only option, but rather, since the insurgency captured some substantial enclaves and so much has been expended in the fighting the options for political settlement have probably narrowed. I cannot now see the rebels acquiescing to a political settlement that doesn’t involve a substantive loss of central government control in the east, unless, of course, they (the rebels) start losing badly. Conversely, Kiev appears to want to avoid this exact outcome. For Kiev much now appears to hinge on their dealings with the rebels being perceived as successful, and that probably means preventing the people they are demonizing as “criminal gangs” or “terrorists” from ending up in de facto control of the east post-settlement.
      My point, therefore, is really not about what the possibilities for a settlement before the war were, or what was done wrong or right by the previous and current government, but more related to the issue of polarization as a result of the conflict and the problems it is causing for the prospects of a political settlement. I don’t doubt the strong feelings of either side now that they have been killing each other but I think that if the rebels survive the summer a semi-permanent (unofficial) division of the state is more likely.
      A side note – I am actually a little surprised Ukraine took this long to boil over. I was more on the side of pessimists about Ukraine’s future as far back as 2005. One troubling development was the way in which increasing numbers of Ukrainian students began to speak of their country’s problems in more openly ethnic terms. To me, connecting the country’s problems to an ethnic divide was itself problematic as I saw the key issues as being ones quite familiar – oligarchy, corruption, clientalism, government mismanagement and suppression. Now that connection is explicit as a result of the civil war and I think the country will be worse off for it. Thanks, Simon Leitch.

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