The Problem with the Donbas

7 April, 03:08 PM

In 2014 Igor Girkin, aka ‘Strelkov’ (the shooter), became the face of the rebellion in Ukraine’s Donbas region against the new government in Kyiv. 

He was not actually Ukrainian, but a Russian with strong nationalist views, who enjoyed historical re-enactments of past Russian wars, and had worked for the FSB (the successor to the KGB). He was a veteran of the conflicts that erupted in the former Soviet Union after its collapse, including in Chechnya.

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In February 2014, after a popular movement had led the pro-Russian president Yanukovych to flee, Girkin helped to create the conditions for the annexation of Crimea before moving on to the supposedly Russophile Donbas, becoming the Defense Minister of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk Peoples Republic’.

He did enough to help turn what might have been patchy unrest into a violent conflict but then fell out with Moscow for two reasons. First he was attracting too much attention, especially after he was implicated in the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner – MH17 – for which he is now being tried (in absentia) in the Netherlands. Second, he disagreed over political objectives.

He wanted the territory of the Donbas (and more if possible) to follow Crimea into becoming part of the Russian Federation. But then Putin held back. Militarily this would certainly have been easier for Russia then than it is now, but Putin’s preferred strategy then was to integrate the Donbas back into Ukraine under a new constitution that would guarantee it extra rights and an ability to influence Kyiv’s future political direction.

Girkin thought this was a lost opportunity. His readiness to speak his mind, and the publicity surrounding him, irritated Moscow, and so he was told to get back to Russia and shut up.

Putin’s Donbas Dilemma

To follow his preferred strategy Putin first had to stop the separatists losing to Ukrainian forces. He did this in August 2014 by inserting Russian regular forces into the battle. Then, having inflicted some heavy blows on Ukrainian forces, he agreed to ceasefire talks, which led to the Minsk agreements of September, which were revised slightly after more fighting the next February.

In principle these agreements achieved his objectives but in practice they failed because they were never implemented. He was stuck with subsidising the two enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk, who were left in limbo, while Ukraine continued, from Putin’s perspective, on its alarmingly pro-Western course.

Accepting that his plan from 2014 was not working, Putin either had to accept an increasingly unsatisfactory frozen conflict or take his chances and resolve the matter once and for all, turning Ukraine into a client state with a compliant government.

There are many explanations for why he embarked on this war, including the role of NATO and demands for a new security order, but at its heart this was always about Ukraine, and Putin’s inability to accept it as an independent state that was escaping from its historic ties to Russia as it turned to the West.

As Putin was developing his plans, a disenchanted Girkin, having failed to make a mark in Russian politics as a neo-imperialist, kept up a grumpy commentary on events. He declared his former enclave to be a ‘dump’, with its inhabitants worse off than they would have been in either Russia or Ukraine.

Even when Putin ordered a massive build-up of forces around Ukraine he was sceptical. Earlier this year, he noted – correctly – that there were insufficient troops mobilised to complete a full invasion of Ukraine, suspecting at most Putin would try a limited operation in the Donbas.

After a month of war he observed that a ‘catastrophically incorrect assessment’ of Ukraine’s forces had been made, and that there was now a risk of a long and debilitating war -  ‘a bloody push and pull’.

Now he views the conflict in even more apocalyptic terms. His reaction to the war going badly, however, is not to advise abandoning it but instead doubling down, generating more reserves from within Russia; putting the whole economy on a war footing; breaking off all negotiations with Kyiv; and seeking to ‘liberate’ more territory for incorporation into Russia. The war, he insists, must either be won completely or it will be lost completely. Losing he acknowledges as a distinct possibility. As things stand there are only a few weeks left before the forces in the Donbas will be unable to function.

Avoiding Defeat

Girkin himself now is a figure of little importance, but the line he is taking, and the impossible advice he is giving, indicates just how high the stakes are for Putin. Western attention is naturally drawn to those brave souls protesting a cruel and catastrophic war on Russian streets. Hope for some sort of regime change in Moscow, however it might be organised, conveys a desire for a more reasonable and less obsessive figure to take Putin’s place, ready to end the war and restore amicable relations with the rest of the world so that sanctions can be ended and the massive task of reconstructing Ukraine begin.

But for the moment it is important to note that Putin may be as vulnerable to his critics among the hawkish nationalists as to those from more technocratic circles alarmed at the path now taken. It is the nationalists who have been energised by Putin’s aggression and will be most distressed should he fail. As cracks start to appear in the state-controlled media, challenging the view that the military campaign is going well and on schedule, those sounding the alarm warn of the consequences should the multitude of Russia’s enemies, from Americans to the ‘Nazis’ in Kyiv, triumph. They want to move beyond the limited operation that Putin claimed to have set in motion to something more absolutist. Ukraine must be defeated, and seen to be defeated, no matter what the costs. Perhaps because he is aware of this, Putin shows no sign of relenting on any of his core demands. He dare not confirm the weakness in his position.

This needs to be kept in mind when considering the evident uncertainty in Moscow about how to bring this war to a moderately satisfactory conclusion. There has been particular interest in the statement of 25 March from Russia’s Deputy Minister of Defence who announced that the first stage of the operation had been successfully concluded, with extensive damage to the Ukrainian military machine, and that they would now focus on the main objective, which was the Donbas. This appeared to let Kyiv off the hook, which meant, however this was dressed up, some retreat both from Moscow’s original objectives and its current offensive.

A few days later the Foreign Ministry announced, ostensibly as a gesture of ‘de-escalation’ to support the Istanbul peace talks, that the Russians were going to wind down their attacks on Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv. This was then followed by limited signs of troop movements, with some units moving back into Belarus. This has led to intense debate about whether the Russians are really serious about this shift in objectives.

They are not known for honest portrayals of their policies. Every gesture has to be scrutinised for deception and tricks. Perhaps the real purpose is to regroup to prepare for new offensives? How does this new focus square with the missiles and shells that continued to fly at all types of targets, civilian as much as military, in Chernihiv and elsewhere?

There has yet to be much concrete progress at the talks. President Macron, who puts more store in keeping up communications with Putin than most, was rebuffed in his latest efforts to establish a humanitarian corridor to Mariupol, to bring relief and to allow more civilians to escape.

The state of the war will become clearer over the current days but there is no reason to doubt that a degree of focus has been forced on the Russian military. Not because they have achieved their first set of objectives, let alone because they wish to give a boost to negotiations, but because they are, one could say, in a bit of a pickle.

The vast armies assembled to invade Ukraine have been frustrated and now largely exhausted, both literally in terms of fatigue as well as in their supplies. Logistics and morale are pressing issues along with casualties and lost equipment. They simply cannot hold all their current positions beyond the Donbas region, as has been demonstrated in a number of successful Ukrainian counter-offensives. To keep these troops going in defensive positions, say close to Kyiv, so that they can keep Ukrainian forces tied down still requires supply lines for they must remain strong enough to avoid conspicuous and embarrassing defeats.

Withdrawal carries its own hazards but the advantage of redeployment is that these forces can be used to achieve what is now the main objective. Reinforcements will arrive but, on the evidence so far, few will be elite units, many will involve unwilling troops dragooned into service, and the equipment taken from the reserves will often be obsolete and even less well maintained than that which it is replacing.

All this means that it makes some sort of sense for the Russians to concentrate on the Donbas. There is even still a line of commentary that urges President Zelensky to see in this an opportunity to end the war and give Putin something that he wants in order to bring this terrible war to an end. Others wonder why Putin did not simply make the Donbas his sole objective from the start instead of seeking to subjugate all of Ukraine and install a new government in Kyiv.

A Consolation Prize?

This is a question worth addressing because it takes us back to the role of the Donbas in this whole sorry story. It reminds us why political and military objectives cannot be discussed in isolation from each other.

Recall the days before the invasion. Then the Russian narrative was about the ‘genocidal’ threat Ukraine posed to the Donbas. The separatists encouraged this with an elaborate rigmarole about how they were being shelled from Ukrainian positions and so must evacuate civilians into Russia for their own safety. On 21 February, when Putin convened that odd and stilted meeting of his Security Council, the question on the table was should Russia recognise (but not annex) the independent statelets of Donetsk and Luhansk.

At the end of the day, after a long speech, so full of grievances and angry assertions that it seemed to be building up to much more, Putin announced, somewhat anti-climactically, that indeed Russia would recognise these statelets.

This was curious given the Russian line up to this point that these enclaves should be part of Ukraine, who should pay for their upkeep, but allow them more self-government and influence over Kyiv’s policies. The claim at the Security Council meeting was that the Minsk agreements were dead because Ukraine clearly did not want these territories anymore. That left another puzzle.

The enclaves only constituted about a third of the total territory of the two provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. It soon became apparent that the separatists would lay claim to all this territory. The next day the recognition of these statelets was put into law in Moscow, followed by the inevitably staged ‘provocation’ that required Russia to act to protect their security. On 24 February when Putin announced his objectives of the invasion that was then underway he explained:

“We will seek to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.”

Thus the rapid escalation of Russian concerns led to the dramatic conclusion that only with regime change in Kyiv could the security of these territories be guaranteed.

Take away all the dissembling and the make-believe and one can see the policy dilemma that has been present from 2014 which the invasion was intended to solve. The starting point then may well have been Putin’s belief that Russia had some responsibility to protect the population of the Donbas after the unfortunate turn of events in Kyiv and the flight of Yanukovych.

The main concern, however, was that this would lead to Ukraine drifting away even more from Russia despite the historic connections between the two countries. Although Putin’s actions in 2014 accelerated the detachment he hoped, somehow, to use the Minsk agreements to pull it back. This effort has proved to be futile which is why he really did want to achieve regime change in Kyiv as the only way to reconstitute this lost unity.

This partly explains why he held back from taking the Donbas in 2014 when he had the chance to do so. But it was not the only reason. There were three others. First, he was aware that there was no real clamour in this territory to join Russia. It would be challenging and costly to govern them. Second, there would be far more severe Western sanctions imposed on Russia than those following the annexation of Crimea. And third, a new border would be created between Russia and Ukraine that would then have to be defended against an angry Ukraine that would get increased backing from the West.

All those considerations still apply except more so. So long as Putin stays in power the alienation of Ukraine from Russia is complete and it will integrate more with the West. So long as Ukrainian territory is occupied severe sanctions will stay in place and the Ukrainians will keep up the pressure on any new cease-fire line that leaves their territory under Russian control.

Their army is no longer one that Russia dare underestimate. The problems of governing and controlling this territory will be immense. They have destroyed those they were going to save. Their prize from the war will be shattered and depopulated town and cities, with those still in residence sullen and hostile, ready to resist and support insurgencies. This is why taking Donbas is not a satisfactory consolation prize for Putin, let alone for those hardliners demanding that he stick to his maximalist objectives. It is simply a recipe for continued instability, turning Putin’s folly of 2014 into an even greater catastrophe, serving as a continuing drain on Russia’s dwindling economic and military resources.

In all the searches for a peace settlement it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there are no good outcomes for Russia from this war. It has inflicted massive human, political, and economic costs on itself, as well as on Ukraine.

Nothing that Moscow can now achieve can outweigh those costs. If he is unable to muster a final offensive to achieve his original aims there is no formula that will enable Putin to pretend that this has all been worthwhile and he has achieved exactly what was intended. As Igor Girkin has observed, he will have lost as completely as he once hoped to win.

This column was first published by Substack. NV is republishing it with a permission.

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