Transnistria-Type Scenario Looming in Ukraine’s Donbas (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 146


Western diplomacy seems about to revert to pressuring Ukraine into a disadvantageous armistice and negotiations with Russia’s protégés in the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.” This could become the basis for creating a Transnistria-type Russian protectorate, frozen in place and time on Ukraine’s territory (see EDM, July 11, and Part Two of this article).

Chronologically, Russia’s 1992 aggression against Moldova in Transnistria became the “mother of frozen conflicts,” initiated and then frozen (or heated up again as needed) by post-Soviet Russia. In many ways, the Transnistria conflict presaged the methodology of Russia’s conflict undertakings in South Ossetia and Abkhazia against Georgia, and later in Crimea against Ukraine. It was also the Transnistria conflict that set the pattern of Western tolerance of Russia’s conduct in its claimed sphere of special interests.

In terms of territory, population, and resources at stake, however, a Transnistria-type scenario in Ukraine’s Donbas could become the “mother of frozen conflicts” in 2014 and for years to come. Transnistria’s, Abkhazia’s, and South Ossetia’s pre-conflict populations amounted to some 750,000, 500,000 and 100,000, respectively (now down to an estimated 450,000, 200,000, and 40,000, respectively), with no economic resources to speak of. By contrast, Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces had a pre-conflict population of 6.8 million (4.4 million in the former and 2.4 million in the latter) as of 2012. The two provinces hold massive mineral, industrial, and manpower resources that Russia may harness to its own economy and labor force in the event of a Transnistria-type, frozen-conflict situation persisting in Donbas.

Russia’s paramilitary forces intervened in Donbas in the second week of April 2014 and achieved their maximum territorial expansion by mid-June. After that, Ukrainian forces started regaining the lost territory step by step, paying a heavy price in battle casualties. The Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR, LPR) have been reduced to rumps by now, while Ukrainian forces advance on the two eponymous cities.

Any Western diplomatic pressure on Ukraine to stop the advance of its forces, and negotiate instead, would bring about a Transnistria-type situation in Donbas. It would enable the “DPR” and “LPR” to survive under Russia’s protection, awarding Moscow a permanent lever of pressure upon the Western-oriented government of Ukraine. This scenario would also consolidate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule at home.

The two cases are analogous, but not identical. To avoid a Transnistria-type scenario eventuating in Donbas, the dissimilarities must also be recognized and handled accordingly by policy makers. Dissimilarities include:

1) Location. Ukraine faces Russia directly across the border in Donbas, whereas Moldova is more fortunate in not sharing a border with Russia. Direct contiguity with Russia would render the “DPR” and “LPR” (or their merger as “Novorossiya”) permanent and impregnable, once an international diplomatic solution would rescue them from military defeat this year. Such a solution would undoubtedly be portrayed as temporary by the main protagonists, pending theoretically a final settlement.

However, the territory’s common border with Russia would pre-determine its de facto integration into Russia. Such integration would eventuate in two possible forms: Moscow could either turn the Donbas into an unrecognized buffer-state entity, or alternatively acknowledge the Donbas conditionally as a part of Ukraine, provided that Moscow-designated Donbas leaders are empowered to participate in Ukraine’s central governance and block its Western course. Annexing the Donbas outright, on the model of Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia, would constitute Moscow’s third-best (i.e., worst possible) option, politically and economically.

2) Balance of forces in-theater. Ukraine has partly reconstituted combat-capable military units, successfully mobilized paramilitary volunteers, and rolled back Russia’s proxy forces. In contrast, Moldova and Georgia lacked the capacity to defend themselves effectively. Ukraine seems headed for a legitimate military solution—i.e., the defeat and disarmament of Russia’s proxies—as a prerequisite to the political solution outlined in President Petro Poroshenko’s 15-point peace plan (see EDM, June 26).

Ukraine’s capacity in this regard is an asset not only to itself but to the West, although disquieting to those in Western Europe who would rather seek a compromise with Russia. Diplomatic verbiage about a ceasefire and negotiated solution with Russia’s proxies in Donbas could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Prolonging the “DPR’s” and “LPR’s” existence could, in practice, deprive Ukraine of a part of its territory, political stability, and effective governance—in sum, of its European prospects.

3) “Peacekeeping.” Unlike Moldova (from 1992 to date) and Georgia (1992–2008)—and unlike Ukraine itself in Crimea (February–March 2014—Ukraine does not face Russian conventional military forces stationed on the national territory. Moldova and Georgia accepted those Russian forces as “peacekeepers” under extreme duress, amid Western complacency. In Ukraine’s Donbas, however, Russia has yet to attempt introducing military “peacekeepers” in support of its paramilitaries. Russian diplomacy now seeks international acceptance of a “humanitarian operation,” which could develop into a military “peacekeeping” operation in Donbas (Interfax, August 4–6).

Russian forces currently massed on Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders seem to raise this prospect. Apparently, the Kremlin expects some Western governments to blink and press Ukraine into a negotiation process that would conserve the “DPR’s” and “LPR’s” existence, so as to avoid exacerbating Western-Russian relations. Such a course would amount to a unilateral Western “de-escalation,” instead of a Russian de-escalation that the West has been supplicating Putin to deliver. Western “de-escalation” could then turn into “normalization,” both on Russia’s terms; while the unresolved conflict is relegated to a diplomatic back burner.

4) Novorossiya. The Kremlin’s project to carve out a quasi-state under Russia’s protection in Ukraine’s east and south (“Novorossiya”) is a uniquely distinguishing feature of Russia’s new-type aggression against Ukraine. Targeting eight provinces of Ukraine, this project has failed to catch on in six of them thus far. Meanwhile, the “DPR” and “LPR” have merged politically into a would-be “Novorossiya,” aiming to become the center of gravity for Moscow’s original project. Odessa was a close call until May, Kharkiv remains a close call to date, Russia’s agents operate in other target areas, and Moscow’s television channels propagandize for Novorossiya intensely. In the earlier conflicts, Russia had not attempted to capture further Moldovan or Georgian territories beyond Transnistria or Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The project to expand from outlying footholds into the target country’s interior is one of the innovations of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Nationalist opinion in Russia views Transnistria as an integral part of “Novorossiya;” but Russia’s government has not as yet espoused this view.

An international diplomatic rescue of the “DPR”-“LPR” would give Putin his Novorossiya trophy to display for his populace, boosting Greater Russia nationalism and regime approval on that basis. Beyond this, Moscow will be watching how Ukraine’s austerity reform programs, and Russia’s own economic warfare, affect southern and eastern Ukraine. Capitalizing on social discontent, Moscow will probably try to subvert additional areas of Ukraine into joining the Donetsk-Luhansk “Novorossiya,” if the already existing entity becomes entrenched in Ukraine’s east.

Along with these dissimilarities, the common features between the Donbas and Transnistria situations must be just as compelling from policy makers’ perspective (see Part Two).