Conserved Conflict: Russia’s Innovations in Ukraine’s East

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 227


Russia’s conflict undertaking in Ukraine’s east fits within patterns familiar from other post-Soviet conflicts, initiated by Russia and conserved on Russian terms with international assistance (see EDM, December 17).

However, Russia’s war in Ukraine’s east involves a number of major political and military innovations in terms of conflict-conservation. These stem for the most part from the Minsk armistice and the processes of its implementation.

  • The armistice, by definition a military document, is largely political in content. Apart from the ceasefire-related clauses, the Minsk armistice imposes changes to Ukraine’s constitution and prescribes semi-sovereign powers for the Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine’s east. Those elaborate political clauses lay the foundations of a Donetsk-Luhansk proto-state: within the state of Ukraine formally, but outside Ukraine’s control de facto. For the first time in the post-Soviet era, Russia caps a military intervention against a neighboring country by prescribing changes to that country’s constitutional arrangements.
  • Further under the Minsk armistice, Ukraine is supposed to subsidize the Russian-controlled territory’s reconstruction and its social programs via guaranteed budget lines (entitlements) in Ukraine’s state budget. This provision is supposed to be enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution via the “special status” for Donetsk-Luhansk. This economic stipulation, capping as it does Russia’s military intervention, looks like war reparations imposed on the aggressed country; or a modern version of the ancient tribute.
  • Ukraine’s titles to sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability of its borders are no longer recognized in practice. Russia’s 2014 military intervention breached those titles de facto, but the Minsk armistice formalizes that breach at the international level. Under the armistice, a formal restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty and control of the external border in Donetsk-Luhansk is no longer a matter of title, right, or international law. Instead, that restoration becomes conditional on enshrining the Donetsk-Luhansk proto-state in Ukraine’s constitution and legitimizing the Moscow-installed authorities there through elections. Moreover, the terms of that restoration are negotiable between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk (i.e., Moscow) under the Minsk armistice.
  • Western powers have accepted this Russian logic by embracing the political clauses of the Minsk armistice (see above). And they have reinforced that logic by asking Ukraine to fulfill the political clauses first, as a precondition to withdrawal of “foreign” troops from Donetsk-Luhansk and a partial Ukrainian control at the external border there. The linkage and the sequence show that Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability of borders are being treated as conditional and negotiable, first by Russia and then by the West. In their handling of the other conserved conflicts (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Karabakh, and even Crimea) Western powers had invariably insisted on Georgia’s, Moldova’s, Azerbaijan’s and Ukraine’s territorial integrity and inviolability of their internationally recognized borders. Even in the form of lip service, that Western stance has been unconditional and non-negotiable. But the West is deferring to Russia on this score in Ukraine’s east.
  • Armed forces under the flags of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (“DPR, LPR”) exceed the conventional armies of many European countries in terms of heavy artillery, multiple-launcher missile systems and combat armor. The hardware and personnel have been transferred from Russia to the DPR-LPR and re-flagged there. The re-flagging is deniable, and such “local” forces are not required to withdraw from that territory under the Minsk armistice. Only “foreign” forces are so required, again conditionally, and without mentioning Russia. If and when the DPR-LPR are legitimized through elections (see below), there are no grounds to assume that these “local” armed forces would relocate to Russia. If anything, the “republics,” once legitimized, could boldly insist on retaining their “own” forces. These are exponentially stronger than the local paramilitaries and Russian “peacekeepers” of yore in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, local and Russian troops in Transnistria, or Karabakh paramilitaries and Armenia’s forces in that territory. None of those forces posed credible threats of offensive actions to Georgia, Moldova or Azerbaijan. But the “DPR-LPR”-flagged Russian forces can hold Ukraine continually under the threat of military action.
  • Russia and Western powers convergently pressure Ukraine to legitimize the Donetsk-Luhansk authorities via “democratic” elections to be staged in the occupied territory. This is another Russian innovation that the West has embraced. In the pre-existing conserved conflicts (see above), Russia did endorse various referendums (more so than elections) in secessionist territories, but had never asked those countries’ legitimate governments to cooperate with the staging of those votes, validate the results and legitimize the secessionist proto-states on that basis. For their part, Western governments and Western-influenced international organizations had unanimously scorned those referendums and elections, refused to monitor them and declared them invalid ab initio, since the pre-conditions to holding democratic elections did not exist. That stance, however, has now changed dramatically in Russia’s favor in the case of Ukraine’s east.
  • Moscow traditionally manipulated the negotiation processes and formats that handled the conserved conflicts in more than 20 years. Those processes and formats, however ineffective, were at least stable and structured, and Moscow could not expect Western diplomacy to endorse Russia’s and its clients’ positions against the aggressed countries. At present, however, there is no structured process or legitimate international forum to deal with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The “Normandy Four” group regularly produces a consensus among Russia, Germany and France operating against Ukraine’s interests. Germany and France lack a mandate or any authorization from the European Union to negotiate with Russia. But the EU itself lacks a policy, Berlin has taken over by default and has towed Paris along. In the Minsk Contact Group, an isolated Ukraine must face Russia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE—itself influenced by Russia’s veto power), and the Donetsk and Luhansk “republics.” The Contact Group itself is mislabeled: Contact Groups handling major crises elsewhere include Western powers by definition, whereas the Minsk Contact Group excludes the West also by definition. In Washington, the Barack Obama administration has encouraged Berlin to take over the process in Europe; but the United States itself negotiates bilaterally with Russia, on and off, about Ukraine, adding to the overall incoherence of the process. In the other conserved conflicts, the United States and the European Union participate in the 5+2 format on Moldova (Transnistria); the US and EU also participate in the Geneva Discussions relating to Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia); and the United States is a co-chair of the Minsk Group on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict (Karabakh). But the EU and US are absent from any structured format to deal with Russia’s war against Ukraine.

On the Western side, the introduction of economic sanctions is an unprecedented and innovative response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine’s east. The sanctions, however, have not significantly influenced Russia’s policies and decisions regarding Ukraine. The EU is struggling with itself increasingly hard to maintain the sanctions in place. Meanwhile, Western diplomacy endorses Russia’s positions, against those of Ukraine, on the implementation of the political clauses of the Minsk armistice, bracketing out the military and security clauses. And most recently, the West has reversed Russia’s “isolation,” treating the Kremlin instead as a possible helper in the Middle East. Moscow, therefore, hopes that European diplomacy seeks face-saving ways to begin downscaling the sanctions, that the Obama administration is open to a Syria-for-Ukraine tradeoff, and that Russia can wait out the West on the economic sanctions.