Russia’s political influence over Ukraine and its ability to divide its Western allies have faded. With the EU having extended sanctions on Russia and Kyiv’s determination to continue a pro-Western course unaltered, the threat of the further use of military force in the Donbas is one of several levers remaining for the Kremlin to produce a favorable outcome in Ukraine. From this standpoint, it looks like it might be a hot summer in the Donbas: escalations like the recent battle for Marinka may become more frequent. Yet a major offensive is unlikely, as a military solution for Moscow would push Ukraine further away while driving up costs for Russia.
With more than 400 killed since the Minsk II peace agreements were signed in February, the ceasefire appears all but dead. The rebels clearly initiated the fighting at Marinka, unlike in April, when violence seems to have been instigated by both sides. The resignation of Heidi Tagliavini, the OSCE’s Swiss special representative to the trilateral contact group, signals that Minsk II is on its last legs. Her decision might be connected to the fact that the rebels (and Russia) have been using the agreement for small gains in Donbas instead of complying with it.
This isn’t entirely Putin's fault. Since the signing of Minsk II, neither party has been willing to compromise on their principal goals. Military escalation has been the only instrument the sides have used to achieve their goals, suggesting that Minsk II is not a viable framework for political resolution of the conflict. The Russians and separatists—justifiably—blame Ukraine for delaying the implementation of political aspects of Minsk II. Kyiv`s position is that withdrawal of weapons and troops should come first, while there is plenty of evidence this is not the case. The constitutional process has slowed down what seems to be an effort to strengthen the president`s power. Recently, the EU position seems to have shifted to encourage the unilateral implementation of Minsk points by Kyiv, such as granting special status to the separatist-held parts of the Donbas. Yet this does not mean policy change in the EU, as sanctions against Russia were just extended. But the Ukrainians—also justifiably—cannot recognize the legitimacy of the current separatist leadership; doing so would constitute political suicide in advance of local elections, which are scheduled for October 15. A recent BBC interview with Viktor Yanukovych could be seen as an attempt to portray him as an alternative political figure for the Donbas. This sounds very unlikely, but so was his return after the Orange Revolution.
One of the fundamental barriers to peace is that neither Russia nor Ukraine wants the Donbas. Little money is flowing to the separatist republics in part because of Kyiv’s economic blockade, and also because the government in Moscow is more concerned with destabilizing the Donbas than with supporting it.
Russia wants Kyiv to implement the Minsk agreements on its own terms. Moscow has changed its representative, tone, and attitude at the Minsk talks: its goal is now to move towards direct Kyiv-rebel talks. To achieve this, Moscow has been “nudging” the separatists towards compromise: there is some indirect evidence that the Kremlin is trying to clean up the rebels’ operation to make sure there is more authority and less anarchy in the separatist statelets. Ukraine and the Europeans have rejected the Russian plan.
Importantly, Russia’s military option seems like it is running out of steam. Ukraine`s “war with Russia” proved to become a mobilizing factor for the West. A concentrated Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine would result in massive casualties, further sanctions, the cancellation of local elections in Ukraine, and further concentration of authority in the hands of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. It would also have serious repercussions for the West’s relations with Russia, which seem to have thawed, if only slightly. Indeed, Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov in Sochi in May marked the highest-level meeting of Russian and American officials in Russia since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis.
As prolonged war becomes increasingly unattractive, Russia and Ukraine have begun to look for new pressure points. Ukraine’s decision to cut Russia’s ability to resupply its troops in Transnistria could be viewed as a legitimate casus belli for Russia to move against Ukraine. Ukraine’s (rhetorical) hesitation in repaying Russian debt is part of Kyiv’s strategy (it made its latest coupon payment of $75 million on the Russian Eurobonds). Ukraine has also started to pressure Slovakia, re-opening the issue of the so-called big reverse of gas from the West to Ukraine. Kyiv`s self-victimization and emotional pressure toward the West may backfire, both on Ukraine as well as on desired Western unity. What the West clearly expects from Ukraine is fewer big statements and more small steps on its home front.
Meanwhile Moscow will continue with its aggressive tone, continue to destabilize the Donbas and elsewhere, and give hope to the oligarchs who are beginning to be divested from the new Ukrainian polity.
Therefore escalation of conflict is only one of several possible summer eventualities. It looks like there will be neither war nor peace: Minsk implementation will continue to be discussed—if only abstractly—while both Russia and Ukraine will look for alternative ways to get the upper hand in the Donbas.
But Russia can play the waiting game, holding out for old ghosts to haunt Ukraine again. Indeed, Ukraine has fallen back into the infighting that characterized its political system in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution. Billionaire Dmytro Firtash’s attack on the government acutely described old new Ukraine: Russian gas based oligarch at a Russian TV channel accusing Kyiv of failing to implement the EU`s Association Agreement. Oligarchs` “solidarity” along with the firing of Ukrainian Security Service head Valentyn Nalyvachenko smacks of 2006, when then-President Viktor Yushchenko nominated the villain of the Orange Revolution Viktor Yanukovych as prime minister. Pressure is now growing on Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and his “war cabinet”: his approval rating remains extremely low, and he has begun to face criticism at home and from the West for the slow pace of reforms.
Still, a government re-shuffle is hard to imagine without snap elections. Today, the oligarchs are weaker and, given Russia`s potential to back some of them, their attacks may have the opposite effect, perhaps strengthening Yatsenuk’s “de-oligarchization” credentials. A snap election, or at least a government re-shuffle, could be a way forward to re-enforce the neither peace nor war scenario and serve as a social filter instead of continuing the war.
Russia's influence over Ukraine throughout Donbas is waning. Though it still has escalation dominance in the east, the risks of another offensive outweigh the benefits. It still has a number of other levers, however, which it will employ to destabilize Ukraine in the coming months. Ukraine's old structural challenges are returning though, which present opportunities for the Kremlin to further exert influence over Kyiv. Ukrainians will survive the summer heat in their dachas, but the autumn will certainly bring back existential issues. Both for people and in politics.