In a paper published on New Eastern Europe, Cyrille BRET assesses three scenarios for the evolution Ukraine in the run up to the end of 2015 when the Minsk 2 agreement implementation will be under scrutiny.
Mariupol, the city of all desires
At least since last autumn, the Ukrainian city of Mariupol has become a military goal of prime importance both for the separatist forces of Eastern Ukraine and for their Russian supports. Located on the shores of the Black Sea (more precisely on the northern edge of the gulf called the “Sea of Azov”) Mariupol is still controlled by the Kiev government and the Ukrainian armed forces even though it borders Russia and Crimea. That city is a decisive point in the ongoing battle of Donbass in many respects.
From a territorial point of view, it is a real “wedge” between the separatist self-proclaimed Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, to the North, and Crimea annexed by Russia in March 2014, to the South. The taking of Mariupol would extent and strengthen the territorial control of the separatist forces by providing them a contiguous territory bordered by their Russian supports in all directions save for the West. By taking over the Mariupol region, the separatists would male their state like Republics more credible, more audible and more viable.
Moreover, Mariupol is of crucial logistical value: situated near on the road between the Russian Federation, to the East, and Crimea, to the West, it’s a vital milestone on the road from Moscow to Simferopol. By gaining the control over that strategic road, the separatists could provide their Russian sponsors with a vital land communication strip, for example for convoys. Lastly, thanks to Mariupol, the separatists would ensure their control over the Sea of Azov and hence on the maritime routes between Russia and the Black Sea Fleet located in Sebastopol. Mariupol would be a useful bridge between the Peninsula and the Fatherland.
In short, being a crossroads between all the political, military and economic lines in the region, that city has long been identified as the next prize of the pro-Russian forces in the region. The Kiev government is fully aware of it as demonstrated by the military exercises in the zone. The desires of both parts have long been focused on the city.
In the weeks to come, Mariupol is likely to be Putin’s next goal. However, the question remains as to when the seemingly inevitable attack will take place. As of today, three main scenarios are now on the table. Let us assess their respective plausibility.
A midsummer attack: a tactical dream?
Several tactical considerations can feed the dream – or the nightmare – of a decisive attack in the midst of summer.
First, the occasion is “too good to be missed”: the summertime is one of the few periods of the year (along with Christmas) when the Western public is distracted from the international scene. The “vacation syndrome” make the people less sensitive to military operations and the governments less prone to fight its best enemy. The Russian Federation government knows that fact extremely well: the fights in Donbass resumed dramatically in August 2014 and in late December last year. Moreover, the war with Mikhail Saakachvili’s Georgia took place in August 2008 at a strikingly similar period of the year.
Second, a preemptive strike on Mariupol would reinforce the territorial positions of the separatists precisely in the run up to the last months of 2015 when the implementation of the Minsk-2 agreement will be assessed by the “Normandy format” partners. Entrenched in their Republics, boasting of their victories against the Kiev army, the separatists had the upper hand for the last months. The control over Mariupol would reinforce their position if new negotiations were to take place at the end of 2015. This tactic has long been favored by the separatists: they intensify their attacks precisely when the opening of talks is at hand so that they can improve their negotiation position.
Third, a quick attack on Mariupol would exploit the poor state the Ukrainian army is in before any US technical or equipment support could produce any effect. It goes without saying that victory is more likely when your enemy is on his knees. It would not be useless either for the pro-Russians to display their force at a time when NATO is flexing muscles in the Baltic Sea (BALTOPS in early July) and in the Lvov region over the last days.
This scenario enjoys a certain level of plausibility, yet it attracts many objections. First and foremost, a summer attack would surely raise many official criticisms from Russia’s European partners which endorsed the Minsk 2 agreement. France and Germany would put the blame on Russia for the failure of the Minsk 2 agreement. It would deprive Russia from any status of bona fide partner. Second, a summer attack would trigger, in Kiev, a renewed fight against the separatists. Discredited, they would probably less likely to be included in further talks. Third, a summer attack would exacerbate the US temptation to deliver arms to Ukraine. President Obama would hardly resist a Republican hawkish campaign in the event of a summer attack.
The scenario of a summer attack on Mariupol is perhaps a summer dream for some of the separatists but certainly not a diplomatic ideal.
The case for an autumn campaign
A campaign in late November would be more easily justified in front of public opinion. It would take place after the parliamentary debates in Kiev Rada initiated mi July where the anti-Russian distrust has been vividly expressed. It would also follow the next local elections in October. They will probably be criticized by the separatists on the grounds that they did not involve the Easter regions.
An autumn campaign is likely to start with a media operation denouncing the obstructions by the Ukrainian President on the implementation of the decentralization promised by the Minsk 2 agreement. It would continue with a denunciation of the local elections and would be achieved by the takeover of Mariupol. In that scenario
A late November scenario, even though less easy from a transportation point of view would be less vulnerable to criticism than a summer plan. It would also definitively bury the already ailing Minsk 2 agreement. As of today, the case for an autumn attack is easier to make than the one for a summer initiative. It is nonetheless more predictable and less proactive.
Inaction as a victory: towards a “rotten conflict”
A third plausible scenario would be a relatively quiet second half of 2015, a least on the military front in Mariupol. If Russia can contain its turbulent “proteges” in the Donbass, it might be rational to refrain from attacking Mariupol before 2016.
Indeed, the Russian Federation President has a huge advantage over the other Western leaders: he can achieve his goals gradually, at a relatively slow pace and in the long run. His Western counteparts are either close to the end of their mandates (the “lame duck” syndrome for Obama), either entangled in pre-election campaign (Hollande). Considering the weakness of the Ukrainian army, the reluctance of its allies to support militarily the Kiev government, and the situation of Mariupol (already controlled but from the outside), it is almost pointless to start a campaign.
President Putin is good at and masterfully enjoys taking his partners and adversaries aback. An attack on Mariupol would surprise no one. It would thus miss the point of making Europe dance to Russia’s tune once more. In addition to that, Mariupol will inevitably fall like a mature fruit in the months to come. There is no need to attract attention to it at the cost of prematurely killing the “zombie” agreement of Minsk 2. Inaction can be a way towards the real victory in the region: create a long lasting situation of uncertainty on the fringes of Europe.
Rather than a “frozen” conflict, the pro-Russians might prefer to install a long lasting “rotten conflict” and abstain from attacking Mariupol in the short term. That scenario will raise some doubts among those who deny any strategic rationality to the pro-Russian side of the conflict. But temporization can pay off in late 2015 for those – and I side with them – who think that de pro-Russian side of the conflict is highly rational.
During the second Punic War, the Roman consul Quintus Fabius Maximus aka the “Cunctaror” or the Delayer based his tactic on a paradoxical principle: inaction can lead to victory. It is likely to be the case in Mariupol.