What does the battle of Avdiivka say about the political “ecosystem” of the war in the Donbas?
The War Must Go On
Yet a further escalation of hostilities in the Donbas which is taking place mostly near the city of Avdiivka, has been underway since January 2017, reaching its peak in February. This battle shows that the war between Russia and Ukraine is far from over despite the Minsk agreements. Moreover, the reality which served as a backdrop for the conclusion of these agreements has changed over the two years which have passed since the signing of “Minsk-2”.
The implementation of the agreements is impossible without fulfillment of the provisions of paragraph No. 10 – “the pullout of all foreign armed formations, military equipment, and also mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine”. However, the implementation of this provision would signal the end of the existence of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) as well as Moscow’s ultimate defeat. The Kremlin is apparently well aware of this, although Russia has not been successful in defeating Ukraine (so far) with the use of military force.
The Russian authorities are prepared to wait for a new opportunity to win the war (and one does not start a war without the desire to win). Kyiv and the West have only one way to end the war since Moscow’s goal is to cause Ukraine to fail as a state, demoralizing Ukrainian society. As long as the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the local authorities are relatively efficient, which was demonstrated both during previous exacerbations of the conflict and during the current developments in Avdiivka, the Ukrainian ruling class should move forward with reforms. The criterion for their success – the manifold increase in the number of citizen beneficiaries of a free Ukraine with a developed market economy. Otherwise, the battle of Avdiivka and every subsequent exacerbation of the conflict will gradually turn Ukraine into a dehumanized society, all too familiar with war, having come to terms with it. Such an outcome would be welcomed by Moscow which already successfully rules over a dehumanized Russian society.
It has long been observed that the timing of the escalations of the conflict in the Donbas tends to coincide with important political events: meetings, negotiations etc. The current exacerbation of hostilities began after the inauguration of Donald Trump and is associated with the desire of the Kremlin to raise the stakes regarding the Ukrainian issue while forging relations with the new US administration. This motivation is also attributed to Kyiv which is once again accused by Russia of fueling the conflict.
It is obvious that the battle of Avdiivka, controlled by the Ukrainian forces, stemmed from the initiative of the enemy. Kyiv has no military or political objectives to pursue by advancing the offensive in the Donbas. On the other hand, Russia has indeed set out such objectives, and so this is not only about Trump.
The peculiarity of the situation of the DNR/LNR or certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions is such that militants cannot refrain from engagement in fighting or observe the long-term ceasefire. The presence of the Russian military (take, for example, the coordinated work of artillery – combatants would be unable to do that) and advisers does not mean that they have 100% control over militiamen. Combatants and advisers in the Donbas undergo regular rotation whereas the militants are stationed there on a permanent basis. Under the ceasefire agreement, when rebels who are poorly adapted to the truce have nothing else to do, they naturally engage with the enemy in fights for power. In other words, they have to take part in a serious battle once every couple of months in order to ensure that they remain in good shape and to maintain order.
It comes as no surprise that the exacerbation of hostilities coincided with the first telephone conversation between the US president and Vladimir Putin this time around and that, last time, it took place just prior to the meeting of the “Normandy format” in Berlin in fall 2016. The frequency of various meetings, talks, and consultations meant to resolve the conflict in Ukraine, shows that escalations of the situation are correlated with either impending or past political events.
It is noteworthy that repeated escalations of the conflict are, first of all, intended by Moscow to maintain control over the militants themselves and the leadership of the DNR/LNR. On top of that, recurrent escalations of the conflict ensure the obedience of citizens residing in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. And the benefits for the Kremlin are greatest when these escalations suddenly take place around the time of the “Normandy format” and/or conversations with the United States.
The parasitical war model
Apart from the creation of “Novorossiya”, one of the key aims of this war is to turn Ukraine into a state under Moscow’s control. And although the former aim has not been achieved, the latter aim is still very much achievable.
The problem lies in the fact that the political reality has altered over the last two years since the second “edition” of the Minsk agreements. It appears that Moscow initially assumed that Kyiv would be sufficiently demoralized to start playing by the rules set out by the Kremlin following the defeat at Debaltseve. However, Moscow has clearly underestimated the procedural complexities surrounding the implementation of its own plan.
It has become increasingly obvious since February 2015 that the deadlock over “Minsk 2” constitutes an integral factor affecting constitutional reform in Ukraine as well as the elections due to be held in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions; the more time that passes, the more apparent this becomes. Elections were set to be held in a number of municipalities which were to be adorned with special statuses in Ukraine, guaranteed by the Constitution, a quite absurd notion.
The only viable option would be to establish two regions, based on the areas affected by conflict, each having a designated capital (in Donetsk and Luhansk) in line with the proposal to federalize Ukraine put forward by the Kremlin. However, such an approach would bring about a necessity to provide endless subsidies in practice, since the economies of these regions, captured by militants under Russia’s direct orders, currently lay in tatters. In other words, no justification exists for granting special statuses to these regions, other than independent military force. Therefore, this would not be a replication of the “Transnistrian scenario” but an extended version of the “Chechen” one, whereby the local authorities, not under Ukrainian control, would be dependent on subsidies while affecting both domestic and foreign policy.
It is noteworthy that neither the leadership of the DNR/LNR, nor Moscow was able to offer up an economically viable model for the development of these territories. Industrial and mining enterprises, which remain under their respective owners’ management and continue to operate, contribute towards the Ukrainian budget through the payment of taxes. Enterprises controlled by the DNR/LNR which have not been pillaged by militants, continue to operate at minimum capacity. In both cases, these organizations receive zero investment, meaning their future prospects are bleak.
Hence, the areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions which are not economically controlled by Kyiv are linked to Ukraine and are dependent on it. Over the last few years, warlords, coordinated by Moscow, have been limited to consuming resources originating from Russia, parasitizing on captured assets and imposing “taxes” on local entrepreneurs. Hence, every escalation of the conflict is a suitable opportunity for them to ask Moscow for the next raft of subsidies.
This means that the war in the Donbas can only end if one of the parties – Ukraine or Russia (plus, the DNR and LNR) ultimately suffers defeat. It is important to understand that the Minsk agreements are relevant to Russia only as a means of saving face. In other words, the implementation of these agreements in 2015 would have been disastrous for Ukraine whereas their hypothetical fulfillment in 2017 (given all the objective, procedural impossibility to do so) would simply change nothing and would not bring victory for Moscow. The Kremlin is waiting for a new advantageous, political opportunity to turn Ukraine into a failed state.
Trump as a magic potion
With the new US administration coming to power, many observers – depending on their respective outlooks – hope to see an end to the Russian-Ukrainian war in favor of Moscow or are, on the contrary, full of eschatological expectations. All of this is reminiscent of the medieval “magical thinking”. One should obviously remember that Trump’s personal traits and those of the members of his team may be decisive in this process. However, none of them are capable of radically changing the systemic political situation which has emerged in the aftermath of the Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Neither the US nor the West, in general, is able to recognize the annexation of Crimea either before or during the era of President Trump since fundamental laws of international relations have been violated in this case. These laws came to be with the experiences of the world wars fresh in the memory. Even if the sanctions against Russia were to be lifted entirely, which is currently impossible, this would not automatically turn it into an economically prosperous country, and certainly wouldn’t prompt it to abide by the abovementioned rules. And hence, both fresh violations of the existing rules and subsequent sanctions are inevitable as long as the current power elite remains in place in Moscow.
No “great bargain” between Trump and Putin, designed to declare Russia victorious over Ukraine, is possible. Therefore, the war must go on. History books do not lack examples of conflicts which raged on for decades. The battle of Avdiivka is not the final instance of the escalation of the conflict. Since the Kremlin is not willing to give up its goal of subjugating Ukraine, the tactic of waiting for new opportunities has been adopted which is hardly surprising especially as Ukraine itself hampers its own transformation.
Only Ukrainian reforms, introduced by the Ukrainian ruling class with the support of the Ukrainian people, can put an end to the war. Unless this is achieved, time will undoubtedly serve the Kremlin.
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