Kiev Should Give Up on the Donbass
As conflict rages again, Ukraine needs to understand that winning the war would be more trouble than it's worth.
It didn’t take long for things in Ukraine to go south in the Trump era.
Before last fall’s U.S. election, Ukraine had finally appeared to be stabilizing after several tumultuous years. The country was receiving generally good grades and assistance from the International Monetary Fund; it enjoyed the political, diplomatic, and financial — if not quite military — support of the West; and it was making headway on internal reforms in the legal, economic, social, educational, health, and energy sectors. Finally, its armed forces had successfully transformed themselves from the 6,000 combat-ready troops available in mid-2014 to a powerful, battle-hardened army that managed to fight Russia and its proxies to a standstill in the east.
Now, fighting has again flared up in the east, after many months of relative quiet. That fighting is accompanied by a new, though faint, promise of a settlement, in the form of a Trump administration intent on pursuing a grand bargain with Russia that could settle the Ukraine conflict once and for all, perhaps even by restoring its territorial integrity.
The problem is that a settlement on Ukraine’s declared terms would not be in its interest — and Russia might be counting on just that.
Perversely, the current state of affairs in the Donbass — that is, a semi-frozen conflict — has become the best option for Kiev. True, soldiers and civilians on both sides of the front continue to die, and this is not a good thing. But Ukraine has been spared immense costs: It’s no longer obliged to sustain a rust belt that once drained its coffers, endure the region’s corrupt oligarchs, political elites, and criminal gangs, or appease its pro-Soviet and pro-Russian population. Had Russia not occupied the Donbass after the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, Kiev would not have been able to adopt systemic reforms and construct an increasingly stable and democratic state enjoying the support of its patriotically inclined citizens. Since Russia’s occupation of the Donbass — and of equally anti-Ukrainian Crimea — has forced Moscow to bear the economic costs of both depressed regions, it is small wonder that Ukraine has been in no hurry to implement the Minsk accords and bring the Donbass back into the fold.
By contrast, Russia’s enthusiasm for the Donbass has declined precipitously since early 2014, when its “little green men” seized Crimea, fomented unrest in eastern Ukraine, and planned on transforming several of Ukraine’s southeastern provinces into “New Russia.” The New Russia project quickly foundered on the lack of enthusiasm of most Ukrainians in the region for secession and the ability of the Ukrainian armed forces to push back the separatists into the enclave they currently occupy. The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 demonstrated the political perils of conducting a destabilization process via proxies. At the same time, Moscow has been disinclined to pull out entirely, seeing the conflict as a way of ensuring it has a lever to maintain control of Ukraine’s future. And so Moscow continues to support economically and militarily an ongoing conflict that has lost its promise and become a liability.
Donald Trump’s election throws a wrench into this stable, if less than ideal, equilibrium. His affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin bespeaks a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy toward understanding Russia’s perspective — and away from understanding Ukraine. No less troubling is that Trump’s opposition to the EU and NATO, his endorsement of Brexit, his demonization of Germany, and his support of right-wing populists threaten to undermine Europe and its institutions, sever the transatlantic relationship, and destroy the notion of a coherent West. These moves will encourage Putin to seize the initiative and search for a new solution to the current Donbass quagmire.
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A military escalation, in which Putin uses the new administration as an excuse for a full-scale invasion to claim eastern Ukraine, seems unlikely — but it is not impossible. Putin could read Trump’s unqualified support of him as a green light to settle the nettlesome Ukrainian problem with one blow. During the phone call between Putin and Trump on Jan. 28, the two leaders reportedly discussed “partnership” on a range of issues, including Ukraine. As many have noted with alarm, the days following the phone call have seen shelling in the town of Avdiivka and the city of Mariupol.
But Putin surely recognizes that a frontal assault would not only produce enormous Ukrainian and Russian casualties and destroy a significant portion of Ukraine. It would also deplete Russia’s human and economic capital, create a massive Ukrainian resistance movement, produce millions of refugees, and force Russia to institute a long-term occupation regime that could overtax the economy and destroy the Russian state. Few rational leaders would embark on such a suicidal course of action – unless ideology or personal ambition gets in the way.
What seems more likely is that the escalation is a prelude to discussions of a grand bargain between Trump and Putin that involves eastern Ukraine in some way. In what’s often described as a best-case scenario for Ukraine, Putin could use the occupied Donbass to acquire concessions on other issues, whether the lifting of economic sanctions, or cooperation in the preservation of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Putin would then withdraw his troops from Ukraine, cut off assistance to the separatists, and inform Kiev that it can have its territory back.
Such a move would win Putin points with the United States and Europe, enabling him to portray Russia as a peace-loving and magnanimous country committed to stability and friendship with the West. Domestically, Putin would have to frame the withdrawal as a victory for Russia, but, given the effectiveness of his propaganda apparatus, he should be able to persuade a majority of his public of the wisdom of such a move, especially in light of Russians’ growing Donbass fatigue and the Russian money and lives that ending the occupation would save.
Kiev couldn’t turn down such an offer, because it has continually insisted that the Donbass must, and will, be brought back into the Ukrainian fold. But the consequences of this gift would be ugly. Kiev would likely face an all-out war with the abandoned separatists, one that it would probably win, but then have to follow with enormous investments to fix the devastated region and try to win the hearts and minds of its anti-Kiev population. Estimates of how much it would cost to undo the damage done by Russia start at $20 billion, according to economist Anders Aslund; Ukraine’s entire budget amounts to about $26 billion.
No less debilitating for Ukraine would be the political consequences of reintegrating the occupied Donbass. Several million anti-Western voters would be brought into the fold, to vote against Ukraine’s pro-Western reforms. The pro-Russian political forces that ruled and still rule the region would get a second life. And the oligarchs and thieves who mismanaged the Donbass for decades would return to power. The Donbass would then play the same retrograde role it has played in Ukrainian politics since independence in 1991. Political tensions would increase, East-West polarization would return, Kiev would be rendered politically and economically impotent, and Putin would have achieved what he wanted all along — a thoroughly unstable Ukraine, minus the cost of funding a low-level conflict in an economically doomed enclave.
Of course, it’s impossible to say just which of these scenarios — ranging from all-out war to dumping the Donbass to some other intermediate move — will happen. The point is that, with Trump’s unpredictability, radicalism, and pro-Russian sympathies, all of them are now possible or far more possible than they were before Trump’s election. Since the status quo that has held for the past two years is unlikely to do so for long, Ukraine needs to develop a realistic strategy toward the occupied Donbass — one attuned to the new geopolitical circumstances — and prepare for all of Trump and Putin’s possible faits accomplis.
The good news is that Ukraine is prepared for all-out war with Russia; it is also prepared for and could cope with aid cutoffs from Washington and the end of sanctions. The bad news is that Kiev is thoroughly unprepared for the one scenario that could destroy Ukraine at little cost to Putin: Russia’s return of the Donbass.
Whatever Kiev decides to do, Ukrainians must first decide what they believe is more important: independence or territorial integrity. The Minsk accords enabled Ukraine to enjoy the first and aspire to the second. This state of affairs could not have lasted forever, but Trump and Putin have brought it to a premature end.
Before Trump, Ukrainians could avoid making too many tough decisions about their strategic priorities. After Trump, they cannot.
Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images