Will 2018 bring renewed attention to Eastern Ukraine?

While the conflict in Donbass has been largely off topic this year, a perfect storm is brewing: continued violence, an upcoming Russian election, a determined Canadian foreign minister and a Ukrainian front that can’t hold forever. 

By: /
December 14, 2017
A woman walks past a store damaged by shelling in the rebel-held city of Donetsk, Ukraine, November 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

The past year has been one of chaos and upheaval.

At the outset of 2017, the Islamic State still controlled huge swaths of Iraq and Syria and aimed to make new land claims world-wide; now, it has virtually no territory to speak of. At the beginning of the year, the threat from North Korea felt dormant; now, Pyongyang is flexing its muscles with wide-reaching intercontinental ballistic missiles. Over the past 12 months, optimism for a democratic state in Myanmar has fallen to horror, as the plight of the Rohingya minority became increasingly public.

But as those threats have sat front-and-centre throughout the year, the situation in Eastern Ukraine deserves the unenviable distinction of being the world’s smoldering crisis, with a steady drone of fighting continuing along the front lines of what have become, effectively, trenches. And that’s not a good sign. Because it seems increasingly likely that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) — perhaps Canada in particular — is going to have to step up to implement a lasting solution.

In the first few days of December, reports from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine recorded roughly 1,600 explosions and hundreds of instances of small arms fire traded between government-held and rebel-controlled areas. Compare that to the first days of December 2016, when the OSCE reported just a few hundred instances of ceasefire violations.

While flare-ups and renewed fighting don’t follow schedules, the data shows that fighting in Donbass hasn’t gotten better since this time last year. It has sparked and sputtered sporadically over the past 12 months.

When this conflict began in 2014, it was hard to imagine that it would remain as protracted as it currently stands. Vladimir Putin’s foray into Crimea, and his covert effort to stand up Russian interests in Donetsk and Luhansk, finally forced NATO to confront his kleptocratic ambitions. The world’s attention honed into those occupied territories, with Western leaders vowing to never recognize the seized land. And yet, any hope that Crimea will be returned to Ukraine appears to be dissolving entirely, and a solution in Donbass appears to be always just out of reach.

Rutgers University professor Alexander J. Motyl had an insightful perspective in Foreign Policy magazine in 2015 when he wrote, quite accurately, that Kyiv’s military objectives were more about holding its ground and frustrating Russian advancements than they were about victory or recapturing territory. As Motyl put it: “Continued stalemate — or even a lasting cease-fire — is therefore dependent on Ukraine’s remaining strong enough for the foreseeable future.” Perhaps despite the odds but thanks to NATO support, Kyiv has stayed strong enough as diplomatic efforts have come and gone.

The initial Minsk Agreements — a brief mark of optimism — were signed in 2014, but fell apart less than a year later. A second ceasefire agreement, as the OSCE reports have shown, has failed to do much to stop the fighting — although the reporting requirements of the treaty have provided useful insight into the level of the violence.

While this deadlock can’t last forever, it has shown amazing stubbornness. Not even the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014, and the mounting evidence that it was hit by a Russian-controlled missile system, seemed to phase Moscow’s resolve to support the rebels. Just last week, a joint Bellingcat-McClatchy-Insider investigation identified a Russian general as a likely culprit in the disaster. A Ukrainian court has ordered the arrest of another suspect, a veteran of the Russian Armed Forces.

NATO’s 2016 decision to install multinational battle groups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland — which became fully operational in 2017 — is an extraordinary ratcheting-up of Western military presence along Russia’s borders. Canada is leading the Latvian battlegroup, is conducting aerial and naval patrols throughout Eastern Europe, and has continued to run training facilities for the Ukrainian army.

As General Petr Pavel, chairman of the NATO Military Commission, told me in an interview in November: “It’s always better to deter than to get into a fight and defend.”

And that might be true, but NATO’s moves have consistently been countered with Russian shows of force — through military exercises, like the Zapad war game in Belarus; provocative taunts, like Russian bombers encroaching into Canada’s North; and through outright defiance of Western foreign policy objectives, like Moscow’s aid of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime in Syria.

To that end, NATO’s deterrence objectives may have hit a point of diminishing returns. There is, increasingly, less of a fear of where Russia may go next and more of a concern around what parts of Ukraine Russia may try and keep.

However, despite the current stalemate, there is ample evidence to suggest that something will finally give in 2018.

"There is, increasingly, less of a fear of where Russia may go next and more of a concern around what parts of Ukraine Russia may try and keep."

In September, Putin floated a hypothetical peacekeeping deal, suggesting that providing armed support for the OSCE monitoring mission would be “quite appropriate.” While there has been some optimism in D.C., Ottawa and Kyiv over the idea of a peacekeeping mission, Putin’s vague language was met with heavy skepticism everywhere else. Putin’s comments suggest he would only allow a mission with an incredibly narrow mandate, patrolling only the front line between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military.

Kyiv has kept the door open to peacekeepers in Donbass, but is envisioning a mission that exists well outside of what Putin appears to be envisioning.

“The peacekeeping, under the mandate of the Security Council of the United Nations, should be of the whole part of the occupied territory, to put under control the integral part of Ukrainian/Russian border,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told me when I asked about the proposal in September. He added that any peacekeeping zone should keep out “regular Russian troops, Russian weapons, Russian ammunition.”

Standing next to him, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opened the door to sending Canadian personnel on that hypothetical mission. “I think this is a situation where there is definitely a very strong potential role for peacekeepers,” he said.

As unlikely as an actual peacekeeping deal may be, the wheels nevertheless seem to be spinning — albeit slowly.

Washington, for its part, may welcome a deal, sooner rather than later. The Trump administration is in need of wins on the world stage. On the other hand, mixed messages have emerged regarding Washington’s efforts to improve relations with Moscow, and few are sure how that narrative will play out.

Ottawa’s peacekeeping pledge, made by Trudeau during the election back in 2015, remains largely unfulfilled. Canada’s lack of commitment to a specific destination, and its plan to craft a 200-strong contingent of Canadian Forces personnel, with air support, to allow for rapid-deployment peace operations, could give Canada the flexibility to get involved if and when an international presence in Donbass is required. And now that Ottawa’s ill-fated plans to improve relations with Moscow, pushed by former Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion under his quixotic position of “responsible conviction,” has given way to Chrystia Freeland’s hard-nosed resolve on the file, Canada may have the gall to get involved in a more serious way.

Indeed, there are already inklings of that. Canada, this week, quietly announced plans to add Ukraine to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List, which would permit the export of certain prohibited firearms, weapons and devices to the Ukrainian army.

In Russia, Putin faces an election in March. There is little doubt of the final outcome of that poll, although anything less than his previous support — 64 percent, a number likely padded by vote-stuffing — would be a slight against the pseudo-democratic strongman. Large events, foreign and domestic, that play into Putin’s image as a leader often come conspicuously near election day.

Crucially, if there is a play that allows Putin to save face in withdrawal, and gives him relief from the Western sanctions that are taking a toll on the Russian public, Putin may see an opportunity, in 2018, to take it.

Alternatively, a show of defiance may fit more into the president’s ethos. A further challenge to NATO to either stand up or stand down will almost certainly result in the former, embroiling the region in further tension and violence for the year to come.

So while the media may have glanced over Ukraine in 2017, it would be remiss to do so in 2018. And, if Putin’s domestic credibility is on the line, NATO nations may not have the option of ignoring Donbass at all.