Out of Kiev’s Hands
Why Ukraine's failing Donbass region is becoming a big headache for Russia.
The Russian-occupied Donbass enclave in eastern Ukraine is on the verge of economic and social collapse. That grave fact casts the Russo-Ukrainian war in a different light. Normally, wars are fought over prize territory: winners gain it, losers lose it. In this case, the implosion of the Donbass means that whoever controls the enclave is, in fact, the loser. As the man who owns the enclave and is likely to do so for the foreseeable future, Vladimir Putin is thus the loser. And both Russia and Ukraine know it.
According to United Nations data, of the 5 million people who formerly populated the enclave, nearly 2 million have left since March 2014. Since many of these refugees are educated, middle-class professionals who are unlikely ever to return to a war zone, the enclave has suffered an irreparable loss of its intellectual and human capital.
Of the 3 million who are left, about 2 million are children and pensioners — leaving 1 million working-age adults to support them, service the crumbling economy, and do the fighting. According to the National Bank of Ukraine, GDP in the Donbass has collapsed, with industrial production falling by over a third in 2014, and construction by over a half. Many bridges and rail tracks remain destroyed. Only one third of residents receive a steady wage. Large swathes of the territory suffer from gas, water, and electricity shortages. And Kiev stopped paying pensions to enclave residents in late 2014. Unsurprisingly, the decline of the Donbass has continued apace in 2015.
Although refugee streams appear to have abated — those most able to flee have already left — economic decline and flight will continue as long as the war does. In time, the enclave’s population will consist of senior citizens barely surviving off their private plots, children forced to fend for themselves on the street, overworked women, and desperate men who opt either for alcoholism or for the material compensations of fighting — and dying — within the separatist ranks. (In the photo, a resident of the Donbass village of Nikishino talks to neighbors outside her destroyed home.)
The longer the fighting continues, the less will the Donbass be able to sustain itself and its war-fighting capacity and the less will the separatists be able to create a functioning political entity. Worse for Putin, the enclave’s only source of economic sustenance is the country that has done most to destroy it — Russia. Putin would prefer that Kiev assume the cost of feeding the region and paying to rebuild it (infrastructural damage is estimated by the Ukrainian government to be about 5 billion hryvnia, or about $227 million). But Ukraine will never do that as long as the enclave is controlled by the separatists, who insist they will never abandon their aspirations to independence.
Given the enclave’s economic decline and dearth of able-bodied men, it’s no wonder that the separatist armies rely so heavily on volunteers from Russia and on Russian regular forces. We have no way of estimating how many physically fit working-age adult Donbass males still support Putin and his proxies, but there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that some of them are having second thoughts about the prospects of a cause that has depopulated their region and devastated their economy. Some must also sense that their losses have been high, both in absolute and relative terms. If, as there is good reason to believe, separatist losses exceed those suffered by Ukraine’s armed forces (about 3,000 dead: 1,750 confirmed and an estimated 1,250 missing in action and presumed dead), some separatists must be wondering about the enclave’s ability to continue fighting.
The problems with relying on Russian volunteers and Russian regulars are obvious. They put the lie to the separatist claim that they are fighting a civil war against the “fascist junta” in Kiev. They are expensive — and the Kremlin has to pick up the bill. They do nothing to boost the local economy. And they run the risk of alienating what’s left of the local population, which may have felt some solidarity with its own “boys,” but which is less likely to identify with Russian adventurers from Tomsk.
The current stand-off is thus unsustainable for the separatists and their patron, Putin. The longer they hold on to a territory that Kiev cannot liberate, the higher the economic price and the greater the risks of the occupation. There is, however, no easy way out of this jam for Russia. Renewing the fighting would kill more Ukrainians and harm Ukraine’s reform plans, but, like having the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics declare independence, it would do nothing to resolve the Kremlin’s difficulties in the enclave. Indeed, expanding the size of the enclave would only compound Putin’s problems, as expansion would inevitably destroy more territory and promote greater population flight. If Russia could inflict a decisive defeat on Ukraine, it could force it to retake the Donbass on Russia’s terms. But this would require a massive attack which would likely intensify Western sanctions, compel the Obama administration to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, encounter determined Ukrainian resistance, and end up embroiling Russia in a bloody long-term war.
The logical solution to this conundrum would be to declare victory over the “fascist junta” in Kiev, pull out Russian forces, and dump the enclave on Ukraine, which, having insisted that the Donbass is Ukrainian, would have no choice but to try to cope with the mess. For that to happen, however, Putin would have to abandon all the ideological grandstanding he’s employed over the last few years. Besides jeopardizing his legitimacy and power, such a conciliatory move would not come easily to the Kremlin’s self-styled macho man.
In contrast, the current stand-off is the best of all possible worlds for Kiev. Ukraine can benefit from the emotional appeal of insisting that it will never abandon the Donbass, while actually doing nothing to liberate it. Time is on Ukraine’s side, precisely because winning this “hybrid” war means losing territory. All Ukraine needs do is keep the separatists boxed in. 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.
Correction, May 7, 2015: The initial version of this article included an incorrect currency conversion. The cost of infrastructural damage in the Donbass, as estimated by Kiev, is 5 billion hryvnia, or about $227 million, and not $2 billion as originally written.
Photo credit: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images