It’s not quiet on the eastern front. The media in Canada hasn’t reported much from Ukraine since separatists shot down a Malaysian passenger jet on July 17. But that’s a reflection of the media’s attention deficit disorder, not what’s happening. Government forces have succeeded in retaking most of the territory lost earlier, the rebels have had to hand over direction to the Russians, and the Russians are facing the choice of giving up or invading.
Since March of this year, when demonstrations in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine escalated into armed insurgency, there has been a war under way for control of the mostly pro-Russian, densely populated, heavily industrialized, and economically decaying region of Ukraine known as the Donbas which borders Russia. It’s been an open question whether Moscow would settle for some form of quasi-independence for eastern Ukraine, or wants to seize it as it did the Crimea in March.
At the start, things didn’t look good for the central government in Kiev. For one thing, there wasn’t really a government in place until after presidential elections on May 25 and Petro Poroshenko could begin to exercise some leadership. Meanwhile, rebels had declared “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk, had taken over several government buildings, and had seized control of a number of armouries. They were also getting advice and equipment from Russia, both the Russian security services and the military. When experts looked at the balance of forces between Ukraine and Russia, Kiev’s situation seemed quite hopeless.
Flash forward two months, and the picture has changed dramatically.
First, there has been no general uprising in the east. The government in Kiev is not well liked, but the separatist movement has not enjoyed widespread support and the general population has not taken to the barricades. That’s left about 10,000 rebels to do the fighting, only a fraction of whom are thought to have any professional military experience. Equipped with small arms, mortars, anti-tank missiles, and portable air defence systems, the rebels achieved some initial successes but are now on the defensive. They have appealed for reinforcements of 7,000 to 8,000 but the response from the population has been minimal.
Second, the Ukrainian army is now under new command, is organized, and is on the march, combining infantry, armour, artillery and air power to advance into contested areas and force the rebels to retreat. Operations in the east involve some 30,000 personnel including both regular forces and security services’ counter-terrorism units. There have been reports of dissension between the ministries of Defence and Internal Affairs, of corruption, and of desertions – but the bottom line is that government forces have recaptured some 60 settlements and have confined the rebels to two pockets.
Kiev has moved on three axes. The first was to surround and take back the city of Sloviansk in the western part of the contested area, the scene of heavy fighting before the rebels withdrew in July. This has allowed government forces to move eastward with the aim of surrounding and squeezing the rebels out of their strongholds in the cities of Donetsk in the south and Luhansk in the east. Government forces are now engaged in both tasks, but these will not be easy to accomplish. Donetsk is a large city, with a metropolitan population of about two million, whose defenders now reportedly include the rebel fighters from Sloviansk. Luhansk may be even more difficult to take. Its population is smaller, but the city is only about 25 kilometers from the Russian border (Donetsk about 100 kms) and considerably easier to supply.
In the final analysis, success for the government forces will hinge on their ability to check the flow of Russian supplies and munitions to the rebels from across the border. Ukrainian forces reportedly control only 17 of 30 border checkpoints along the Luhansk and Donetsk borders with Russia.
Nonetheless, Donetsk may be close to re-capture. On July 31, as Ukrainian forces shelled the city and urged civilians to leave, rebel forces declared a “state of siege” in Donetsk. A few days later, government forces occupied Yasinuvata, an important railway hub about 20 kilometers north of Donetsk. On August 8, the “prime minister” of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, said the rebel forces were “ready for a humanitarian ceasefire”.
Zakharchenko had just replaced Aleksandr Borodai as “prime minister”. What the shift implies is not clear, but it probably reflects some combination of both rebel and Russian dissatisfaction with Borodai’s handling of the rebellion (he recently spent several days in Moscow on a “business trip”) and Moscow’s desire to improve the optics of what may follow: a Russian military intervention under the guise of responding to a growing number of calls (including from the Germans and French) for an international peacekeeping mission in support of humanitarian relief. Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, has said Russia should lead this force. If so, better to have a Ukrainian native such as Zakharchenko call for the intervention than a Muscovite transplant such as Borodai who had previously “advised” Sergei Aksyonov in the take-over of Crimea. It was announced that Borodai would stay on as first deputy prime minister, and that another Russian Igor Girkin, with the nom de guerre Strelkov (“shooter”) and a former member of the GRU (Russian military intelligence) would remain as military commander in Donetsk.
Meanwhile, Moscow has removed several prominent Ukrainians from political and military positions and appointed Russians in their stead, signalling that Russia has effectively now taken control of the separatist movement. Russia has also upped its threats of direct military intervention, with US intelligence sources reporting that between 19,000 and 21,000 troops are at the border. Another 20,000 are stationed in Crimea and available, as are some 40,000 at bases deeper into Russia.
Putin is in a bind. He had hoped to “neutralize” eastern Ukraine through a combination of separatist sentiment, under-cover support for the rebels, and subtle military pressure. Instead, he faces the prospect of the central government in Kiev resuming full control over the eastern provinces and an ignominious setback which no “great power” could easily absorb without the knives coming out for those responsible. The Kremlin has been split internally over the issue, the business community is angry over taking the hardest hits from the Western sanctions, and public opinion appears resolutely set against Russia trying to take military control over any part of Ukraine. A “peacekeeping mission” offers a possible way out. Kiev, of course, has rejected the idea.