The eastern regions of Ukraine remain a warzone; Russia’s forces pepper Ukrainian lines with 120mm and 82mm mortars, small-arms fire, and light and heavy anti-tank grenades. Ukraine’s armed forces respond.
Ukrainian servicemen continue to die (most recently on November 2), as the ceasefire and de-escalation agreements about the withdrawal of heavy weaponry are routinely ignored. On October 20, the Organization for the Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) announced that 22 tanks and 48 armored vehicles had been deployed inside the supposed heavy weapons exclusion zone, while Ukraine’s defense ministry says some 90,000 Russian military personnel equipped with thousands of tanks and armored vehicles remain positioned about 260km (160 miles) from the frontier, including units from the 41st Army deployed during a buildup earlier in the year. That is in addition to an unknown number of Russian personnel and mercenaries fighting on the conflict’s frontline, armed and equipped by President Vladimir Putin’s government.
Since the conflict began in April 2014, over 14,000 Ukrainian and Russian citizens have died and 1.6 million have been displaced.
So last week’s announcement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Ukraine was indulging in provocative behavior to “drag Russia into some kind of combat action” can only be seen as a mixture of Kremlin black humor and (possibly) a reference to Ukraine’s recent novel use of a Turkish-built drone to attack Russian artillery.
There is no expectation of peace. Negotiation efforts have been ineffective. First, the Minsk Protocols were established, a series of agreements outlining various provisions and ceasefires. They have been poorly enforced, and the ceasefire has been violated on innumerable occasions. The OSCE formed the Trilateral Contact Group in conjunction with Russia and Ukraine, to try and mitigate the conflict. France and Germany initiated the Normandy Format with Russia and Ukraine in an attempt to bring peace. Negotiations through both platforms, however, have stalled.
So it is worth asking, as the Donbas conflict passes its seventh anniversary, what does the Russian Federation hope to gain? After all, Russia has spent billions on its military incursion into eastern Ukraine, and thousands of its soldiers have perished.
As things stand, Putin has no interest in ending the fighting. The Donbas conflict serves his needs on numerous levels.
Firstly, it disrupts Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia demonstrates daily that Ukraine is unable to secure its own borders and that it can move troops and equipment into the combat zone at will.
Secondly, it blocks Ukrainian hopes of joining NATO, a key Russian strategic goal. Since the Euromaidan protests in 2013, the Ukrainian government has undergone a series of anti-corruption and defense reforms to modernize its military. Ukraine regularly participates in NATO exercises, has been promoted to the status of NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner, and became the first non-alliance nation to participate in the NATO Response Force.
But the continuing conflict blocks membership. According to the Study on NATO Enlargement, candidates interested in joining the alliance must resolve all international and territorial disputes prior to membership. In Ukraine’s case, the Crimean Peninsula and parts of the Donbas have been occupied by Russia since the spring of 2014. While the Russian Federation is the aggressor, Ukraine pays the price; some of NATO’s more traditional and dovish members are unwilling to see past these issues. Putin thus has no motivation whatsoever to negotiate a deal; quite the opposite.
Thirdly, Putin continues to argue that a sovereign Ukraine has no right to exist. This has been most apparent in recent months. In July, Putin wrote a 5,000-word article stating that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, that Ukraine invented its borders, and that the West has “established an anti-Russian project to instill fear in Ukrainians.” More recently, Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev reiterated Putin’s points in his lengthy essay. This sentiment goes beyond the Russian government. Various Russian television and political pundits have echoed these statements. A senior Kremlin propagandist joined calls to annex occupied eastern Ukraine: “Mother Russia, take Donbas home,“ she said.
Fourthly, Russia understands the current economic climate in Ukraine. According to the London School of Economics, Ukraine’s foregone GDP per capita due to the Donbas war amounted to 15.1% up to 2017 alone. To make matters worse, GDP has declined by 5% due to the coronavirus pandemic. Finally, according to some economic experts, if the Donbas conflict were to be resolved today, the estimated costs of reconstructing and reintegrating the Donbas region would be $22 billion. That is money that Ukraine does not have.
It is true that the Donbas conflict has also been costly to Russia. Following the Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine, the United States and European Union implemented various economic sanctions and the West has united in these efforts, renewing and extending such measures. Russia has lost hundreds of billions of dollars as a result, but this has not changed its policy. According to the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies, Russia has spent an annual $6 billion on its war efforts in the Donbas (Russia spends an additional annual $5 billion on its Crimean integration efforts). Most recently, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that recent documents showed that Russia is planning to spend an additional $12 billion in the occupied parts of Ukraine over the next three years. This does not indicate the occupying power is preparing to depart.
Putin pays a price for his aggression but calculates that the costs are outweighed by the benefits of continually bleeding Ukraine. By keeping the conflict at a low-hostility level, Russia will continue to deplete Ukraine’s limited resources. As the conflict continues to drag on, more of the West’s anyway-hesitant members will tire of the sanctions regime and will see benefits in seeking an end to their involvement in the conflict.
And yet — whether Europe wants to admit it or not, Ukraine serves as a buffer state between Russia and the West, and a litmus test for the continent’s future. Should Ukraine succeed in its Western integration efforts, and should the Donbas conflict be resolved, then this would lead to a freer and more prosperous Europe. It would send a signal to others like the South Caucasus states where Russia also plays strategic games of self-interest.
Ukraine’s failure would be the failure of the West; showing that Russia has a free hand to remake borders, disregard the fundamentals of the United Nations Charter, tear up negotiated agreements, and use armed aggression without consequence.
Any Western leader imagining that Ukraine can be sacrificed without grievous results is badly mistaken.
Mark Temnycky is an accredited freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe.
Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.