Ukraine after Debaltseve: Appraisal and Prognosis

Posted on February 25, 2015 by


With news of another “planned and organised” retreat, this time from the strategic hotspot of Debaltseve, it’s time for a reappraisal of the conflict raging in Eastern Ukraine. What follows is a summary of events, a survey of the relevant actors’ interests, activities, and likely courses of action, and a suitably damning prognosis for where this conflict may be going.

The war in Eastern Ukraine began shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, when pro-Russian Ukrainians requested similar referenda on independence and stormed administrative buildings throughout Ukraine’s East (but principally in the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘oblasts’). Given Vladimir Putin’s ex post admission that Russian soldiers occupied Crimea before its dubious referendum on accession to the Russian Federation, a Russian hand was immediately suspected, and with good reason. Since the onset of hostilities, Russian involvement has become increasingly difficult to deny, with key evidence including the wealth of Russian equipment on show, captured Russian servicemen, and an embarrassing incident in which the Russian-signed Minsk II agreement called for the withdrawal of the ‘Tornado-C’ weapons system—a Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) never exported and exclusive to the Russian Army.

Following the strategically-termed1 ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’ (ATO) launched from Kyiv (and despite some early successes), the Ukrainian Army (UA) has been losing a war against pro-Russian rebels (orchestrated and facilitated by Russian military intelligence, the GRU) and Russian regular forces, consisting principally of so-called ‘artillery duels’ interspersed with symbolic siege-style battles. The fight for Donetsk airport has been the greatest of these, and though the below footage corroborates the UA’s depiction of the airport as “a sieve“, that it became a Russian sieve following the UA’s “tactical withdrawal”, came at an enormous symbolic cost.

The latest such defeat, the “planned and organised” withdrawal from Debaltseve (a strategic rail hub linking the capitals of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts) carries similar costs, whilst also consolidating the only significant inroad the UA had into Russian-held territory (long foretold by the likes of ConflicReport, whose image is displayed below, and the XXCommittee blog).


Where this conflict goes next might be anyone’s guess, but an appraisal of all relevant actors (their interests, their particular dynamics and limitations, and their actions thus far) might demarcate the boundaries for likely action, as our previous writings have consistently done.

The ‘Rebels’

Though having declared their intent to capture Mariupol, another significant city in the Donetsk oblast to the south, and Kharkiv, capital of the short-lived ‘Kharkov People’s Republic’ in the north, the discrepancy between rhetoric and action is significant here. Unlike a previous East–West confrontation in Bosnia, then Kosovo (in which Moscow’s influence over the Serbs was often exaggerated—not least by the Russians themselves2), Russia can be assumed to have a firm grip on ‘rebel’ activities, since without their support their forces would likely be rolled back by the UA, as happened repeatedly in May 2014—prior to a significant increase in Russian forces and heavy armaments. Having consolidated control over Debaltseve, there are some indications that certain aspects of the Minsk II agreement (like the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line) are being honoured.

The Russians

Whilst Minsk I (September 5th 2014) was broadly seen as a triumph for the West and Western Ukraine, Minsk II (signed 11th February 2015) granted Russia more-or-less what it wanted. It asks much of the Ukrainian administration in terms of constitutional amendments and devolution of power, whilst only demanding that Russia ceases to support Eastern Ukraine and its costly pro-Russian insurgency—a task that will now fall upon the Ukrainian tax-payer. Despite the frailty and near-collapse of the 15th February cease-fire (epitomised by the fall of Debaltseve—though the closing of this ‘pocket’ should have been, and perhaps was, foreseen by both sides), some are optimistic that this settlement will at least ‘freeze’ the conflict. True as this might be, war in Ukraine (its scope and its consequences) still remains Russia’s prerogative.

By incorporating Debaltseve, the so-called ‘Novorossiya’ already looks a more viable state, and there is little doubt that the addition of Kharkiv (and its respective oblast) and Mariupol—the first step towards a valuable ‘land bridge’ between Crimea and the Russian Federation—would further bolster it. These territories will no doubt provide food for thought among rebel leadership and their Russian creditors, however the bounty of gradual incorporation of Minsk II—a relaxation of sanctions whilst retaining a frozen conflict warm enough to flare up, should Ukraine again pursue EU or NATO membership—will be their likely course of action, especially should Ukraine and its Western friends get serious about preventing further Russian encroachment.

The West

The question of arming Ukraine has occupied headlines of late, but it is not a significant dynamic in the war since it is wholly subordinate to Russia’s above-mentioned prerogative. Western arms in Ukraine would certainly kill Russian soldiers, though there is little consensus about what effect this would have in Russia. Equally—and especially should Kyiv try to reclaim captured territory—a Russian counter-escalation would likely ensue, and though it would do little to mitigate the increased casualties inflicted by Western counter-artillery equipment and anti-armour weaponry, there is no chance of this war turning in Kyiv’s favour without an overwhelming, and potentially nuclear, threat of Western intervention, unlikely to arrive whilst Ukraine remains strategically vital to Russia but strategically nebulous to the US. Here the West, and the US in particular, suffers acutely from a rhetoric–policy discrepancy—not unique to liberal democracies, but certainly exacerbated in them. On an issue of such salience among Western publics, US policy-makers are expected to uphold their moral compass; however, nothing will drive policy-makers or publics to countenance a strategy that exhausts Russia’s escalatory capability (up to, and including, nuclear weapons).

The final challenge to Western policy-making lies in its inconsistency. Whilst the US looks increasingly keen to arm Ukraine, Europe is mostly against such escalation. Within Europe and the EU there is further inconsistency, for whilst Russia’s European neighbours plead for a stronger stance, fearing for their own state’s security, Germany and France remain categorically opposed, whilst British arms sales to Russia may not have stopped in the first place—a revelation quickly suffocated by promise of 75 military advisers to Ukraine. Firm and unanimous policy is not to be expected.

The Ukrainians

Where Ukraine stands between these is not difficult to read. Pro-Kyiv commentary castigates any analyst that fails to attribute Ukraine sufficient agency, independence, and sovereignty3, but at what point the choice between Western patronage that will only go so far, and a return to Russian vassalage (a path Georgia has slowly taken since the 2008 Russo–Georgian war) represent a choice is unclear. Whatever happens, President Petro Poroshenko is unlikely to emerge favourably. War has driven East and West apart and, as poll data indicates, Western Ukrainians will accept nothing short of EU and possibly NATO membership (whether this would be granted is another matter), whilst those in the East favour membership of Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union; these opinions are only likely to harden as bitter warfare takes its toll.

Poroshenko will struggle to reconcile even the moderates in this debate, and should Ukraine lose the war—having been squarely criticised for mismanagement of Ukraine’s effort—he may even face a prospect worse than electoral defeat: fighters from Kyiv’s broader-shouldered militias have already threatened to “bring[…] the fight to [Kyiv]“, should front-line conditions not improve. ‘Neutralism’ is routinely decried a surrender to a self-evidently nasty regime, but whether “foisted upon it by external actors” or embraced (as has been argued here before), without a substantive change in policy from East or West, Ukraine will have little other choice. 


1 So as to avoid provoking Russia with a war on its doorstep (however ludicrous this sounds today).

2 Bowker, M., 1998. The Wars in Yugoslavia: Russia and the International Community. Europe-Asia Studies, 50(7), pp.1245-1261.

3 Before going on to make the incredibly dubious claim that international law is still relevant whilst great power politics is not, I might add.

Image courtesy of Ukraine Crisis Media Centre.