This article was first published by the European Leadership Network. It can be accessed here
It’s already been two years since the signature of the Minsk 2 ceasefire agreement in Eastern Ukraine, yet the lack of genuine diplomatic advances at the last “Normandy Format” meeting in Munich speaks volume about the reality of the conflict in Donbas.
Forget about the Donbas coal blockade. Forget about the Artemenko scandal. Forget about the February 18 recognition of “People’s Republics” passports by Russia. Not that these events are not important – they are. It’s just that they represent a setup to the bigger picture: the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is freezing up, Minsk 2 is stalling, and everybody seems to be happy and content about it.
Clausewitz would probably not approve but the “fog of war” surrounding the conflict in Donbas is still thick and heavy on many aspects, in three areas in particular.
First, military and tactical aspects. The battle of Avdiivka (January 28-February 5) perfectly embodies the current situation along the contact line in Donbas. For the past few months, both sides have been assertively trying to resorb the negative consequences of the Minsk 1/Minsk 2 conundrum by “nibbling” on the frontline – for lack of a better word – through targeted military operations aimed at gaining control of contested territory. Whereas Kyiv acknowledges the Minsk 1 (September 2014) frontline as the valid one, Russia insists on keeping the separatists’ territorial gains enshrined within Minsk 2 (February 2015). As two frontlines (un)officially exist, the situation cannot advance other than through low-level military escalation along the contact line, constant ceasefire violations, and tactical “nibbling”. This situation seems to rule out, at least for now, any potentially massive offensive coming from one side or the other aimed at changing the present status quo.
Second, the diplomatic side of things. If the war in Donbas is slowly freezing, conflict resolution at Minsk 2 has already reached an ice age. After several months of fruitless negotiations, the dialogue is completely mired, without any real hope the situation can be unlocked, due to maximalist positions and an unwillingness to compromise on both sides. The heart of the problem lies in the diverging narratives and interpretations of the sequence of implementation of the agreement. Kyiv insists on the prioritization of the implementation of the military clauses (withdrawal of troops and heavy weapons, a full and comprehensive ceasefire, and access to the border). Moscow and its separatist proxies seeks to impose a political settlement of the conflict and enshrine a “special status” for Donbass and the organization of local elections into Ukrainian law. Hence, both parties do not speak the same language nor do they compute on the same level of understanding. Without unwanted compromises, no advances will come from this stalemate.
Third, in terms of any possible evolution of the situation, both Ukraine and Russia offer competing narratives and have divergent expectations. Externally, Kyiv is operating a “victimized” persona, clearly playing for time in order to foster increased international assistance and generate overall interest and sympathy for the fate of Ukraine. Internally, the country – at least in the Rada and among politicians – is divided into three major currents that cancel each other out in terms of influence: those wanting to fight until full military victory; the disillusioned proponents of “soft capitulation” and compromise with Russia; and the “positivists” seeking isolation or ”de-occupation” of Donbass  in order to pass the poisonous pill to Russia.
Moscow is using the full spectrum of its “grey area diplomacy” (namely the use of the territorial control as a weapon and the instrumentalization of separatism therein) and its shrewd knack at piloted chaos to fulfill its strategic objectives in Ukraine: keep Kyiv away from Euro-Atlantic structures. One might also wonder to what extent the war in Donbass is simply just a smokescreen aimed at shifting the attention of the international community away from the annexation of Crimea.
Ultimately, what could be the future of the conflict in Ukraine?
As the Minsk 2 process is now merely a self-sustaining diplomatic fiction, it has consequently become pointless; but it has also become indispensable. The present status quo and “neither war nor peace” scenario is benefiting everybody, including the international community, as it justifies its lack of deeper involvement.
The question remains whether Donbas will be inscribed into geopolitics textbooks as yet another “frozen conflict” in the post-Soviet space, certainly as a category of its own but alongside the likes of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria or Nagorno-Karabakh.
Yet, talking about a “Transnistrization” of the conflict would be too much, or at least too early. The present “neither war nor peace” situation can go on for years, at least until the Kremlin decides that “giving back” the deadweight separatist territories to mainland Ukraine will not endanger its aforementioned strategy on Ukraine – namely keeping Kyiv weak and away from NATO and the EU.
One thing is certain: conflict settlement in Donbass and the full implementation of Minsk 2 would be an inverted Pyrrhic victory, namely whoever will inherit the separatist territories will, in fact, have lost the conflict. The implementation of Minsk 2 will not mechanically bring a “natural” form of stabilization and pacification of Donbass. The region will undoubtedly remain a source of insecurity and instability. Certain political conditions of settlement – such as political amnesty for separatist leaders, if applied, as well as the financial cost of rehabilitation and reabsorption might be prohibitory high, especially for Kyiv. The human cost of addressing grievances, starting confidence-building measures, and altogether healing a wounded country might also prove too much to bear.