This is a terrible thing to say, but three weeks after a ceasefire was declared in Donbass it’s the way I’m feeling. While the ceasefire has ended the large scale fighting, there has been a slow trickle of casualties ever since, with seven Ukrainian soldiers killed on Monday. With the two sides as far apart as ever, I’m starting to think that the current situation is the worst possible one for the region. I know this needs some explaining, so here goes.
While Donbass may be at ‘peace’ for the moment, it is in a terrible situation. As I’ve talked about numerous times, its leaders have zero legitimacy and rule over an area that broke away from Ukraine in one of the most farcical referendums ever held. Most of the forces fighting in the area are not even locals. While many of the Russian soldiers there seem to have withdrawn for now, there are still plenty of Russian and even Chechen ‘volunteers’ ruling over Donetsk like warlords. The infrastructure of the area is in ruins, just two years after it was built up so much for EURO 2012. Thousands, including many friends of my family, have been forced to flee. The danger now is that this terrible situation solidifies into a frozen conflict.
The ‘frozen conflict’ is a Russian speciality, and a weapon they have used against many of their neighbours. It basically means that Russia intervenes in another nation’s war to support a breakaway region, and then proceeds to do absolutely nothing. They simply station troops there to keep the ‘peace’, locking the region off from the outside world. This has happened in the Moldovan province of Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and in Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. In each of these places Russia protects a local ‘government’ which is entirely reliant on Russia and has no real relations with other countries. In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, an area fought over by Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Russian have used the conflict as an opportunity to sell weapons to both sides.
If the situation in Donbass goes on like this, it could soon become a frozen conflict. The separatists are determined not to return their territory to Ukraine, and their numerous militias are unlikely to settle for mere autonomy within the state of Ukraine. Instead, peace talks could drag on for years, with the region being a constant threat to the rest of Ukraine, a barrier to ever joining the EU, and an ever present sign to the world that Russia is not to be messed with. For the people of Donetsk and Luhansk this would be a life cut off from investment, from foreign visitors, from prosperity and from any chance of normal interaction with the outside world. And that is why I am beginning to hope the ceasefire breaks down and fighting starts again.
If Ukraine resumes its campaign to retake the East, one of two things can happen. The first and best scenario is that Russia backs down and Ukraine eventually succeeds. Reconstruction would be a long and hard process, but it would enable the country to begin looking to the future. It would require concessions, such as possibly accepting the loss of Crimea, but the Donbass region would be part of a functioning country again.
The second option would be that Putin’s hand is forced, and Russia invades to ‘protect its own’. Just like Crimea, this intervention could eventually lead to the annexation of both Donetsk and Luhansk. This would be an unbelievably aggressive act, and would (one hopes) lead to huge sanctions as well as showing the world the true nature of Putin’s Russia. However, it would also mean that the two provinces become part of an actual country. While they would still be cut off from international investment, it would mean that Russia begins to provide basic services and security that have been sorely lacking under the separatists. It’s a bizarre idea, but if Putin won’t let Donetsk and Luhansk ever be part of Ukraine, then anything is better than being trapped in the twilight zone of a ‘People’s Republic’.
This feeling hit me hard today as I stared at a photo of Donetsk’s destroyed airport. I was there often before it got its big makeover for EURO 2012, and I’ve always had trouble imagining it as anything but the Soviet style lump it used to be. But now I don’t have to, because this beautiful new building has been smashed beyond repair by artillery and gunfire. This disgusting, wasteful, pointless war is tearing apart all the potential Donetsk had, and replacing it with the grinding existence of a frozen conflict. It has to end, and the people of Donbass must get their lives back – whatever that may take.