The peace process tenuously in place since September failed after separatist elections have effectively declared the independence of the Donetsk and the Luhansk People's Republics. Moving closer to renewed open conflict, Ukraine is unprepared to reintegrate the regions and faces the distinct possibility of a long-term frozen conflict settling in eastern Ukraine.
The elections in the separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk on Sunday, 2 November, are highly likely to precipitate a renewal of open hostilities in the short-term and are indicative of a movement toward a long-term frozen conflict in Ukraine. The elections have largely undermined the Minsk Protocol of early September and the reaction of the central government in Kiev, while remaining officially committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, will contribute to this deterioration. Russian interests in Donetsk and Luhansk appear set on ensuring Kiev’s forced dependence on Russia. However, the economic costs of its policy toward Ukraine may force a policy adjustment more amenable to conflict resolution.
On 2 November, the self proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, held elections for their respective leaders. The elections were not recognized by the OSCE, EU, US, or other Western states and institutions, while Russia has extended limited legitimacy to the actions and its “Foreign ministry ‘respected the will expressed by the population of the southeast’ of Ukraine.”
The elections are particularly important because they undermine the Minsk Protocol signed by Ukraine, Russia, the OSCE, and the separatist leaders of Luhansk and Donetsk, on 5 September. The protocol and its follow-up memorandum installed a ceasefire on the four month old conflict between Russia backed separatists and Ukraine’s central government and stipulated a 12-point plan for an eventual peace settlement. As agreed, Kiev adopted a law providing Donetsk and Luhansk a special status with rights to self-governance throughout a three-year reintegration period. However, in the two months following the Minsk Protocol, both sides have broken the ceasefire.
Kiev held parliamentary elections throughout government-controlled regions on 26 October. Elections in the separatist-controlled areas were to follow on 7 December. The separatist decision to hold early elections place addition strain on relations with the center and threatens to lead to a resumption of open conflict.
Unsurprisingly, the de facto leaders of the separatists, Igor Plotnitsky of Luhansk and Aleksandr Zakharchenko of Donetsk, won the majority of votes and have solidified their position within the two regions under their control. Both leaders appear committed to achieving recognition as independent statelets, albeit with limited international recognition. Both Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky signed the Minsk Protocol, and while nominally committed to a peaceful resolution with Kiev, the elections undermine their credibility with Kiev and the West.
Backed by Russia, the separatist forces outmatch Ukraine’s military. Having fought intensely in the preceding seven months, the ceasefire has provided time to equip and train personnel with Russian support. Separatist commander, Aleksandr Matyushin, corroborates this, noting the ceasefire is “no more than a strategic pause.”
Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko addressed the situation shortly following the elections, calling the elections “a farce that jeopardizes the entire peace process.” Meeting with the National Security and Defense Council on Tuesday, Poroshenko ordered reserve troops to reinforce government-controlled cities in the eastern Ukraine. He further recommended the parliament repeal the special status law.
With the exception of these recent decisions, Poroshenko has strongly preferred a negotiated settlement to the conflict, rather than a military one. However, in the recent parliamentary elections, pro-Western parties dominated, though hardline, anti-Russian MPs are likely to advocate harsh policies against the separatists.
Kiev’s position vis-à-vis separatists is weak. In comparison, Ukraine is militarily under-equipped, poorly trained, and in need of substantial military modernization. With limited Western aid Ukraine is unlikely to succeed should in open conflict resume. Further, Ukraine remains economically dependent on Russia, particularly in energy. Having recently signed a deal with Russia to resume gas flows and debt payment, it remains to be seen whether renewed conflict will result in another interruption.
Russia is principally interested in Ukraine’s continued dependency on Russia limiting its ability to fully integrate with the West. In this respect, Russia has succeeded, but where its endgame lies is contestable. It is not in Russia’s interest to annex eastern Ukraine as it did with Crimea where historical and “protection of compatriots” arguments supported the takeover. Further, the price of annexing eastern Ukraine is too high given the economic cost thus incurred and those it can expect from continued noncooperation.
Since the declarations of independence by the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s republic, Russia has engaged in hybrid warfare, utilizing cyber attacks against Ukraine and Western allies, propaganda, and veiled intervention to achieve its aims. Despite a partial demilitarization of the border since September, Russian troops have once again started gathering at the border with Ukraine since the separatist elections in an implicit threat to Kiev.
Political will from Russia is key to settling the conflict. It has the capability of pressuring the separatist groups into negotiating peace with Kiev and reintegrating the regions into Ukraine. But, cooperation is not forthcoming; its current tactics mirror those associated with other frozen conflicts: pro-settlement rhetoric is combined with sluggish movement toward negotiations and tacit support for separatists.
The US, EU, NATO and other Western organizations and states have roundly criticized the separatist elections and Russian intervention in Ukraine throughout the crisis. To this end, Western states are focused on affecting a substantial political shift in Ukraine and the peaceful outcome of the conflict between Kiev and the separatists.
However, Western reaction has lacked a strong unified voice and only partially solidified in the wake of Crimea. Having installed several rounds of sanctions, European economies are similarly affected by the bans. Further, NATO and the EU have kept Ukrainian membership in their organizations off the table, enabling further separatist and Russian exploitation.
Outlook and Implications
Open conflict between separatists and Ukrainian forces is likely in the immediate period following the elections in Novorossiya. The breakdown of the Minsk Protocol and increasingly hostility among key personalities contributes to this estimate. For its part, Russia will likely continue supporting the separatists while attempting to minimize political fallout from the West.
Should renewed fighting begin, a frozen conflict becomes more likely with consequences for all parties involved. Mimicking previous tendencies in other post-Soviet frozen consequences such as Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, or South Ossetia, separatist representatives have drawn out the realistic time frame for negotiations and solidified territorial control. Ukraine’s foreign policy will remain dependent on separatist, and therefore Russian, interests and the potential for integration with the West will be severely limited.