Ukraine’s Frozen Conflict – uncertainty dominates four years later.
This April marked the fourth year of hostilities in the eastern regions of Ukraine. February and March of 2014 saw conclusion of the Ukrainian revolution and beginning of unrest in the predominantly Russian-speaking areas of the country. What have been the recent territorial and military developments in the conflict? How are Ukrainian troops faring? Is the end near? To answer the latter right off the bat – no, it is absolutely not. More than ten thousand civilians have perished so far and more casualties are certain to come.
Despite signing of the Minsk II accords three years ago, hostilities have not ceased. Instead, the fighting has reduced in intensity and destruction, nevertheless regular skirmishes remain a mainstay of the Frozen Conflict. There have been no significant changes in the territories of the separatist groups in the recent years even though some acquisitions on their part can be observed. Neither side has the advantage to decisively push the frontier either direction.
The accords have contributed to this stalemate with restrictions on use of artillery guns and other heavy weaponry. Despite that, thousands of alleged violations of the agreement by the separatists and Russian mercenaries have been logged, including the use and deployment of prohibited heavy weapons at the contact line of both sides. Ukrainian troops are not without fault – both sides, often justifiably, accuse each other of violating the Minsk agreements. It is unclear which side had disregarded the restrictions first, but neither can ensure full compliance if opposition fails to comply – artillery is a key tool of modern warfare and a significant advantage to any military force’s operations.
Truces agreed between the participants outside of the peace process are often broken, leading to swift resumption in fighting and few breaks for those caught in the middle of it all. Civilian infrastructure and services have been devastated. Previously poor living conditions in the region have turned to misery. Although not as bad as in 2014 and 2015, the threat of artillery shelling remains – the occasional artillery or missile strike reminds residents close to the contact line of the conflict’s presence.
Road to Military Reform
While the frontline is seeing an overall stalemate, armed forces of the Kiev government have been undergoing a significant reform process with the objective of improving their military capabilities. The Ukrainian army in 2014 was claimed to be on the brink of collapse – disloyal, poorly armed and underfunded with a non-existent will to fight. That has changed significantly.
A recently passed budget bill will put military funding at more than 5 billion euros – more than 6 percent of Ukraine’s GDP, up from 2,2 billion euros in 2013. A series of reforms are either in the works or already seeing the execution or finalization phase. They are key in securing the state’s ability to re-capture the lost territories should this route be undertaken. For starters, implementation of civilian control of the Ministry of Defense is underway. That would potentially ensure higher levels of democratic accountability and introduce a political perspective in decision-making, both prerequisites to a liberal democracy as they ensure the representation of the interests of the populace.
Ukroboronprom, the country’s dominant military-industrial conglomerate, is under intense scrutiny for widespread corruption and improper production priorities. Proposed reforms could improve the efficiency of military spending and result in a needs-based production system. This would replace the alleged current system of producing what is possible, rather than what is needed. That would further boost the Ukrainian military’s ability to wage war on a larger scale.
The integration of previously independent volunteer units has been seeing relative success, lowering the risk of their utilization for political or other nefarious purposes, while at the same time boosting the army’s cohesion and combat abilities. Volunteer forces have been credited with averting a complete disaster at the onset of the hostilities in the east, so their normalization has been a necessity. Finally, foreign instructors have been introducing Western military doctrines and contributing to a rise in levels of professionalism and discipline of the troops in the recent years, bolstering their combat capabilities. All of this combined and more is changing the army’s image as a pushover that it arguably was at the start of the war.
It is unclear whether Ukraine’s reforms will deliver a much-desired end to this conflict. With the separatists backed up against the Russian border, their ability to receive reinforcements and equipment is nearly limitless. Allegations of supply convoys crossing the border into rebel-held areas continue to pile up to this day. Furthermore, observers claim that the Ukrainian military is still riddled with corruption, just as the entire state is, resulting in sub-optimal performance of the army. As a result of this grim reality, it seems that the balance of power has not yet shifted in Ukraine’s favor.
A military offensive, even if successful, might not even be the ultimate solution to the crisis. Especially with the prospect of heavy civilian casualties in territories over which Ukraine seeks to restore legitimacy, heavy casualties being an inevitable consequence of intense combat in urban settings and usage of artillery. Kiev might have to make major concessions on the region’s autonomy and forego a complete re-integration process altogether. Even that is an optimistic prediction as it relies on the assumption that the separatists will ever abandon their desire for self-rule or unification with the Russian Federation. Moreover, European partners continue to urge for a peaceful solution, resulting in little international support for anything but a diplomatic resolution.
At this point, the only certainty around the Frozen Conflict is that there is no certainty – it may last for many more years or could come to a rapid halt at a moment’s notice. Most of it is dependent on the actions of external actors, like that of the Kremlin, the White House, and Brussels, and the willingness of both Ukraine and the rebel groups to make concessions. With Kiev switching allegiance to the Western camp, it is no longer feasible for Putin to make peace with the Ukrainians. Stability would enable their potential accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, as well as provide more leeway in acting against Moscow’s regional interests. Everyone’s personal opinions aside, that is not an optimal outcome for an increasingly assertive Russian state attempting to secure a buffer sphere of influence on its borders.
This article was originally published in Leiden University’s International Studies student magazine “BAISMag” on the 22nd of March 2018. Time-sensitive information in this article has not been adjusted, therefore excluding recent developments between April and July. Other alterations have been made from the original version.