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Lose The Territory, Win The War


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin during cease-fire talks in Minsk on February 11.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin during cease-fire talks in Minsk on February 11.

For more than a year, there's been a war in eastern Ukraine that nobody called a war. And for the past three months, there's been a cease-fire there that wasn't a cease-fire.

And now that the agreement reached in Minsk in February that was supposed to end hostilities in the Donbas is all but dead in the water, we seem to be lurching toward some kind of endgame. And it is shaping up to be as strange and counterintuitive as every other aspect of this through-the-looking-glass hybrid conflict.

"Normally, wars are fought over prize territory: winners gain it, losers lose it," Alexander Motyl, a professor at Rutgers University-Newark and expert on post-Soviet affairs wrote recently in Foreign Policy.

But in this conflict, Motyl added, whoever ends up holding the Russian-controlled territories of the Donbas will actually be the loser.

The region, he noted, is an economic basket case. Its industrial base is devastated. Infrastructure damage is estimated to be $227 million. Gas and water shortages are endemic. Only one-third of the population is receiving regular wages.

Of the estimated 3 million people remaining there, 2 million are either children or pensioners who must be supported by 1 million working-age adults.

Responsibility for rebuilding this mess will be a major financial albatross for either Kyiv or Moscow.

And then there are the politics.

Without the rebel-held areas, Ukraine can get on with reforming its economy and integrating with the West. With them, Kyiv will be saddled with a pro-Moscow fifth column in the east that will paralyze it for the foreseeable future.

So who is losing?

"As the man who owns the enclave and is likely to do so for the foreseeable future," Motyl wrote, "Vladimir Putin is thus the loser. And both Russia and Ukraine know it."

And this explains a lot. It explains, for example, why the Kremlin is suddenly so concerned about Ukraine's territorial integrity.

In a radio interview last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow wanted Ukraine to remain united and accused the authorities in Kyiv of trying to partition their own country.

Lavrov made his comments in reaction to a call by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for UN peacekeepers in Donbas

It also explains why separatist leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk last week submitted proposals for those territories' long-term status that keep them inside Ukraine -- albeit one that is decentralized to the point of dysfunction.

"At first glance, the separatist documents seem promising. In a sharp break with previous practice, they make no mention of the unrecognized Donetsk and Lugansk 'people's republics,'" Russian political commentator Leonid Bershidsky wrote recently in Bloomberg.

"Instead, the territory is called 'a separate district with a special status.'"

Bershidsky added that the proposals "have Moscow's fingerprints" and "demonstrate a lawyerly cunning that the rough and ready rebels have never exhibited."

This is the context, subtext, and backstory of the flurry of diplomacy we have seen in recent weeks -- from Angela Merkel's visit to Moscow to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's stopover in Sochi to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland shuttling between the Ukrainian and Russian capitals.

The West is desperately trying to salvage a Minsk cease-fire that is long past its sell-by date.

Russia, meanwhile, is trying to force an interpretation of that cease-fire on everybody that results in a Bosnia-style solution that allows Moscow's proxies in eastern Ukraine to keep the country dysfunctional and out of the Western orbit.

Russia could of course still launch a costly and risky military offensive aimed at Mariupol or Kharkiv.

Or, as Bershidsky suggests "he can freeze the situation and proceed to build ties with the rebel-held areas on the model of other frozen conflict zones: Transdnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia."

But according to Motyl, "time is on Ukraine's side" as "the current stand-off is the best of all possible worlds for Kyiv."

"Winning this 'hybrid' war means losing territory. All Ukraine needs do is keep the separatists boxed in," he wrote.

"Sooner or later, a rational or semi-rational Putin disinclined to start World War III over a piece of crummy real estate will have to accept 'frozen conflict' status or pull another Crimea and annex the territory. Either way, Russia will be stuck with a no-future region that will be a drag on its economy for decades to come."

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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