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Strategic Stalemate Guarantees the Conflict Will Continue In Ukraine

The Harvest Ceasefire in Ukraine failed almost as soon as it began. Implemented to provide locals with the opportunity to gather crops, it was just another one of the many ceasefires to have failed since the conflict began in 2014. None provided more than a brief respite from the fighting that has killed more than 10,000. Peace agreements, too, have failed to end the conflict. The problem remains that the strategic situation limits prospects for peace and encourages all sides to continue fighting.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, © 2015

The primary instigator in the conflict is Russia. Following its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia supported and stoked an insurgency in eastern Ukraine. The insurgency, at least as portrayed by Russia, is a fight by local militants who want greater independence from the central Ukrainian government. Through both direct support to local insurgents and introduction of its own soldiers, Russia provided the resources necessary to sustain the fight against the Ukrainian government. Despite sanctions, international condemnation, and the loss of its soldiers, Russia has decided that it is in its strategic interest to continue the conflict, seemingly out of a desire to prevent Ukraine from drawing too close to western Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The problem for Russia is that it cannot end it the conflict militarily. Russia’s army is superior to Ukraine’s. Vladimir Putin’s boast that he could be in Kiev in two weeks is also likely accurate. A full invasion and occupation of Ukraine is beyond the capabilities of the Russian army. This forces Russia to limit the scope of its involvement, causing havoc in the far east while leaving the rest of the country relatively untouched.

Ukraine is trying to move west. The ouster of its previous government was prompted by an uprising of those wanting closer contacts with Europe. It is negotiating an agreement with the European Union and has welcomed support from NATO members in its battle. Barring electoral outcomes that swing the government back to the more pro-Russian stance it previously held, the shift west will continue. This will keep Ukraine at odds with Russia.

Ukraine also lacks a military option to end the conflict. Its own army is poorly equipped and trained. Even with support from the west, it has not been able to make gains against the insurgency. In the far east, Russia possesses what is called “escalation dominance.” Even if Ukraine were to receive more powerful weaponry from the west, Russia could match and exceed anything fielded by the Ukrainian military. Ukraine cannot defeat the insurgency. Ukraine cannot stop fighting either, which would effectively cede even more territory to Russia.

What could end the conflict? On the Russian side, the government would have to dramatically shift policy and end all support for the local insurgents. Russia’s support is the only mechanism sustaining the fight. Even the weak Ukrainian army would be able to defeat any militants who tried to continue the fight without a supply of arms and additional fighters. As noted above, given the already heavy toll the conflict has taken on Russia, it seems that very little could force this type of change in policy.

For Ukraine, it would take an outside intervention of western or NATO forces to match the military might of Russia. The Russian military can counter western outside support to the Ukrainian army; a fight against a western military force on a large scale would be too much. Western countries have provided aid to the army and there is discussion of providing weaponry to the Ukrainian military. It is unlikely, however, that NATO is willing to put its own soldiers into a direct conflict with the insurgents and the Russian soldiers also in the war zone.

Neither side can win, nor can either stop fighting. The West can argue that Russia is acting as the aggressor and violating the sovereignty of a nation-state. Russia will complain that NATO is attempting to move into its sphere of influence, presenting a threat to its national security, while simultaneously denying it is supporting the insurgency. Regardless of the preferred narrative, strategic interests of both sides encourage intransigence and guarantees that the conflict will continue.


Michael Dworman

Michael is an international affairs/national security professional working in Washington, D.C. He focuses on international conflict, terrorism, and crime, along with a regional focus on Russian affairs, where he has spent time living and working. Michael graduated with an MA in Security Studies from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a BA in Political Science from the University of Washington. You can connect with him on Twitter @mikedworman.
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