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'F' Word Hangs Over Ukraine's Rebel-Held Regions

Residents of the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhya dig trenches to defend their city from pro-Russian or Russian forces in September.
Residents of the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhya dig trenches to defend their city from pro-Russian or Russian forces in September.

Ukraine has pledged to recapture them. Separatists vow to expand them. But even as hostilities rage on despite a shaky cease-fire, the areas in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed rebels appear to be drifting inexorably toward the "F" word, analysts say.

"For the foreseeable future -- let's say at least for the duration of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's being in power -- those territories will remain -- well, let's call them 'frozen,'" says Alexander Motyl, a professor at Rutgers University and an expert on Ukrainian affairs.

With Russian military support, separatists fighting government forces have cemented their control over areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in recent months, holding self-styled elections over the weekend that were recognized by Moscow but decried as illegal by Western nations.

Whether -- and for how long -- this emerging status quo will hold, analysts say, will depend largely on Russia, which has admitted that Russian "volunteers" are fighting Ukrainian forces but has denied providing arms and weapons to the rebels.

"In the short term, Russian can defend its proxies or even attempt more ambitious destabilization," says Andrew Wilson, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and author of the new book "The Ukraine Crisis: What It Means For The West."

In the long run, however, Russia "is clearly overextended" and "certainly can't pay for the economic problems of the Donbas region," he adds, using an umbrella term for the industrial section of eastern Ukraine that partially coincides with the territory held by the rebels.

"That long run might not be particularly long: six months or so," Wilson says. "But during that intervening period, Russia looks to be holding most of the cards, and Ukraine's position looks very weak indeed."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called the November 2 elections held by separatists a "farce at gunpoint" organized by "terrorist organizations" and said that the polling jeopardizes the Minsk peace deal signed by Ukraine, Russia, the OSCE and rebel representatives.

Simply conceding the embattled regions in Ukraine's southeast to the separatists is at the moment politically untenable for Kyiv's leadership, leaving international pressure on Moscow as one of the Poroshenko government's few viable tools to influence the situation, says Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

"The Ukrainians probably recognize that they don't have the military capacity to retake it, particularly because they would have to assume that the Russian army would come in again," Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, tells RFE/RL.

Should a frozen conflict emerge from the embers of the war, the viability of breakaway statelets in rebel-held areas would be extremely shaky if they were confined to the current de facto borders separating these territories from those controlled by Kyiv, the ECFR's Wilson says.

"These aren't historical or cultural or economically sensible borders. The reason that 400 people have died since the cease-fire on September 5 was … mainly because of a series of land-grabs, with the rebel republics trying to improve their nonsensical geography," says Wilson.

The separatist-controlled areas include the heart of Ukraine's coal industry, which is now cut off from major state and private customers on the other side of the front line, he notes.

'Humpty Dumpty'

Moscow has provided military and financial support to prop up breakaway republics in other frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union, including the rebel Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it even waged war to wedge away from Tbilisi.

And while the Kremlin says it is providing humanitarian aid to rebel-held parts of the Donbas, Moscow does not appear eager to go all in with its support for the region, says Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"They've shown very little interest in helping put Humpty Dumpty back together again," says Weiss, a former director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council. "As far as actually providing the resources and political direction that might create some new set of quasi-states on the map, I still don't see that in practice."

Weiss says he does not necessarily expect a spike in hostilities between the warring sides in the wintertime but that they could resume in earnest in the spring or summer, adding that he does not believe the conflict has reached a "frozen-conflict situation by any means."

"That's partly just why this whole thing looks so fragile to me," he says.

Motyl of Rutgers University says he believes that Poroshenko would be willing to tacitly accept the de facto borders of the breakaway regions in the Donbas.

"Of course, Ukraine will never recognize the territories as being independent, but they're likely then to transform into a frozen conflict, unless Russia decides otherwise and launches an attack," he says.

"In this case, all bets are off."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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