One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Stalemate or Forced Stagnation in Ukraine

June 26, 2014
Russian-backed fighters at the site of a downed Ukrainian army Il-76 at the airport near Luhansk on June 14, 2014 (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

As the world’s focus has suddenly shifted to the spiraling abyss that is the Levant in the Middle East, the situation in the Ukraine continues down its slide towards civil war, where progress by Kiev is met just as quickly with setback.

Things were starting to look up for Ukraine, they had just elected a new president, Petro Poroshenko, who had a seemingly positive talk with Vladimir Putin during the D-Day ceremonies (Putin remarked about the meeting “I can’t tell exactly how this will be implemented, but, in general, I liked the attitude. It seemed right to me and if this is what really happens, there will be conditions created to develop our relations in other fields too.”). The two countries seemed poised to work with world leaders over the need to find a peaceful and comprehensive solution to the crisis. Ukrainian forces stopped a separatist attempt to take over the Donetsk international airport in a coordinated and professional response, albeit with significant air support, that left the separatists reeling with heavy casualties (and sending many bodies of slain paramilitaries back to Russia). Crucially, the Ukrainian military regained control of the coastal town of Mariupol. The negotiations with Gazprom over Ukraine’s gas debts were tentatively advancing, and a ceasefire was announced by Ukrainian authorities and for a moment it seemed that the separatists were going to agree to it as well.

Yet, the seemingly positive meeting with Putin and advances by Ukrainian forces belie the true vacillating nature of progress in Eastern Ukraine. With every seeming advance by Kiev, a setback was inevitably not long in coming.

Ukraine was forced to surrender a large portion of the 1,200 mile border with Russia when it retreated from eight border guard posts that had been under sustained attack, leaving much of the border open for unfettered access by “tourists” from Russia (who previously did not meet much resistance from the Russian Border Guard service). Ukrainian helicopters were being shot out of the sky with increasing regularity (including one carrying Major General Serhiy Kulchytskiy, head of combat and special training along with six members of the special forces of the interior ministry). Kiev suffered a huge loss, both morally and physically, when separatists shot down a large Ilyushin-76 transport plane carrying 40 paratroopers of the Dnipropetrovsk based 25th airborne brigade (which is a relatively well trained and competent unit that has borne much of the fighting in the Donbas). Nine crew members (Rebels also claimed to have shot down a Su-25 fighter/bomber but it is still unconfirmed). A bomb was even recently found near the President’s office.

Additionally, the appearance of several tanks (appearing to be old T-64 variants) along with several MB-21 “Grad” rocket systems, have upped the stakes. NATO and the State Department have publicly accused Russia of being the source of this new weaponry, “We assess that separatists in eastern Ukraine have acquired heavy weapons and military equipment from Russia, including Russian tanks and multiple rocket launchers,” said the State Department.

And to be sure Russia is the source of these weapons, especially the presence of the increasingly deadly MANPADS, such as the Igla systems that are making the skies increasingly dangerous for Ukrainian aircraft. Yet another Ukrainian helicopter was downed shortly after the announcement of the ceasefire in an obvious, if not unsurprising, violation of the agreement). Even Sergei Lavrov admitted that Russia was supporting the separatists during a meeting with OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier.

Yet no state wants anarchy and civil war on their borders. So the question is then asked about Russia, what is to be gained from supporting this continued unrest?

For Russia the initial goal was to de-stabilize the interim regime and weaken Kiev and its new government into accepting Russia’s interests and dominance in the region. However, what began with undermining Kiev, quickly turned into an opportunity for organized crime and local power brokers, along with mercenaries, Cossacks and other vehemently nationalist and xenophobic Russians, to create their own little fiefdoms, and quickly diminished the Kremlin’s ability to direct and control the spiraling anarchy.

That situation quickly became undesirable. Controllable instability is what was desired and the Kremlin quickly sought to re-assert it. It gathered up old veterans of the Vostok (East) battalion (which was a Pro-Kremlin, Chechen staffed unit that saw significant action both in pacifying Chechnya and in the 2008 war with Georgia but was dismantled for political reasons, not the least of which was that its leader challenged the Kremlin’s attack dog in Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov) along with newer recruits from Ossetia and Abkhazia, who proceeded to kick out the rebellious separatists of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and re-assert some sort of order and hierarchy more amenable and pliant to the Kremlin’s directives. It sought to reign in the infamous Igor Girkin, or Igor Strelkov, “Donetsk People’s Republic” defense chief and GRU operative, whose ultra-nationalist tendencies saw him going to east Ukraine most likely of his own volition, but quickly was brought back under GRU control. He ordered the arrest of Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed mayor of Slavyansk and ordered that all looters be shot, along with inviting Vostok to Slavyansk. The anarchic and criminal tendencies of many of the separatists had become too much.

Re-asserting control over the dystopian anarchy and the multiplying warlords is just one part of the Kremlin attempts to salvage the situation, they also aim to prevent Kiev from making too much progress, lest Russia loses its continued ability to influence thinking in Kiev. As Kiev starts to make progress or their forces see positive movement, we see the appearance of heavy weaponry and very well trained separatists, if only for a short time. (It now seems that the experienced Chechens that staffed Vostok have withdrawn, and in their place there is an attempt to staff it with local Ukrainians. Yet there seems to still be a lack of enthusiastic volunteers, leading to many of the recruits being drawn increasingly further from Ukraine, such as locales as Central Asia). Along with the temporary introduction of well trained and experienced fighters is the presence and expert use of heavy weapons, namely MANPADS that are quickly degrading Kiev’s one advantage, control of the skies. Without air power, there is seemingly little chance Kiev will be able to defeat the separatists militarily. The hastily organized, trained and equipped National Guard, comprising many ultra-nationalists, is not likely able to make significant headway, and Ukraine’s one competent and professional force, the airborne troops, is seeing heavy casualties.

Yet, the presence of troops and equipment—at least until this point—seems rather measured. There always seems to be a metric in the appearance of both, to dissuade and prevent any progress by Kiev but not so much that it emboldens and unduly strengthens the separatists. The design appears to push against Kiev, but only so much. The recent public proclamations by the separatists to agree to the ceasefire, at least initially, and by Putin rescinding the authority to invade Ukraine—yet retain the option to defend Russians wherever they are—are designed to deflect and dissipate the mounting pressure against them. The latest incantation of Putin seeming to magnanimously seek peace in Ukraine by rejecting the authority to intervene in Ukraine is undoubtedly a tactic to undercut the impetus of imposing stricter sector wide sanctions.

While it is clear that Russia does not want to annex the east, at least physically, and has no desire to send in “little green men” in such a public fashion as they did in Crimea, they do want to reserve the ability to pull the strings of the separatists and the power brokers. Additionally, preventing too much success for Kiev and handing a quick political victory to the new president is as much as positive for Moscow as it is a loss for Kiev.

In short Russia is searching for equilibrium; tolerating neither too much control by Kiev nor independent thought from the separatists. And despite the public pronouncements about seeing common interests and working towards a peaceful solution, missiles will continue to fly and tourists will continue to cross the border for as long as it is seen necessary to ensure Russia’s dominance in negotiating with Kiev.