August 27, 2014

Minsk Meetings and the Rising Costs of War

On August 26, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko met twice in Minsk: both within the Customs Union-EU-Ukraine format, and more importantly, in a separate one-on-one session. While Minsk may now become a permanent location for Ukraine negotiations, and while the parties promised to continue trade talks, there were too few key results from these meetings. On the military conflict, the parties seem to have reached an agreement to resume talks within the “contact group” format, i.e., with separatist representatives but without either the EU or the US, notwithstanding the fact that prior talks in this format have already proven ineffective.

On August 26, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko met twice in Minsk: both within the Customs Union-EU-Ukraine format, and more importantly, in a separate one-on-one session. While Minsk may now become a permanent location for Ukraine negotiations, and while the parties promised to continue trade talks, there were too few key results from these meetings. On the military conflict, the parties seem to have reached an agreement to resume talks within the “contact group” format, i.e., with separatist representatives but without either the EU or the US, notwithstanding the fact that prior talks in this format have already proven ineffective.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of substantive results, with both the Russian and Ukrainian presidents holding seemingly strong positions, the momentum in the Ukrainian – Russian conflict is such that the two states may be close to reaching a deal. It is the increasing costs of the war that prompts Poroshenko and Putin to pursue such an outcome.

Remarkably, before the Minsk meetings, it seemed that Russia had chosen to escalate the conflict through the “humanitarian invasion” of the aid convoy that illegally crossed the Ukrainian border on the eve of Ukraine’s 24 August Independence Day. Just two days later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended the public humiliation (in violation of the Geneva Conventions) of Ukrainian prisoners of war by Donetsk militants; he also threatened to send more “white trucks” to the Donbas region. Russian expert Andrei Illarionov warned of a “Putin-Merkel Pact”, of a “Putin-Merkel Pact”, citing a Reuters report of German diplomats trying to talk Poroshenko into slowing down the Donbas offensive so that Putin could save face.

Indeed, the costs of conducting Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine are on the rise. First of all, Russia failed to reach a quick victory in a “no-contact” war – a type of war favored by some military strategists in which the objective is to destroy the enemy without exposing the regular military to potential casualties, using instruments such as precision weapons and economic, information, and cyber warfare. On August 26, the Ukrainian media aired interrogation videos of captured Russian paratroopers who were allegedly not even aware they were sent to war in Ukraine. While Putin’s suggestion that the unit crossed the border by mistake may sound laughable, nonetheless worrying was these paratroopers’ disappointment with the Russian authorities as well as the Kremlin’s attempts to cover up reports of Russian casualties in Ukraine. These developments increase the risks of domestic dissatisfaction and further international sanctions against Russia.

Also remarkably, in addition to the Ukrainian military having narrowed the circle of insurgent-controlled territories, evidence continues to build that, contrary to some insurgency warfare theories, the separatists are not gaining popular support among Donbas residents. This explains the array of Russian-directed changes in the leadership of the so-called “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk.

On the other hand, the costs borne by Ukraine are also enormous—and rising: in addition to over two thousand civilian and military fatalities, the country’s GDP is projected to decline by 6 percent or more. Indeed, one can argue that causing the destruction of the region’s economy and infrastructure is an element of the Russia-led insurgents’ “exit strategy”, while also acknowledging that in some cases Ukraine’s offensive has been accompanied by collateral damage. Ukraine also risks further population losses; several hundred thousand people have fled to Russia and might permanently become part of that country’s workforce. The political support of Donbas residents for the Kyiv government is also a potential issue; the October 26 parliamentary elections might increase domestic instability.

It is important, however that any deal is reached on acceptable and possibly fair terms. Vladimir Putin’s position in Minsk seems to be ambiguous. On the one hand, he is was trying to state that the conflict was Ukraine’s internal business, while also insisting on a dialogue with representatives of the “south-east.” This usage is of course incorrect, as insurgent-controlled territory is a tiny fraction of the south-east of Ukraine. Meanwhile, separatist leaders continue to speak about the “Novorossiya” project. All these are signs that the Russian vision of a peace deal could well become unacceptable to Ukraine and Europe, leading to further escalation of the conflict.

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