A Closer Look at Ukraine’s Donbas after Russia’s Occupation
A Closer Look at Ukraine’s Donbas after Russia’s Occupation
Report 235 / Europe & Central Asia

Eastern Ukraine: A Dangerous Winter

Winter in Ukraine is injecting further uncertainty into an already volatile conflict. After well over 5,000 deaths and eight months of war, eastern Ukraine – particularly the separatist-held parts of Donetsk and Luhansk – now runs the risk of a humanitarian crisis. All parties involved in the conflict should refrain from offensive operations, concentrating instead on helping the population survive the winter, and laying the groundwork for a political settlement.

Executive Summary

Winter in Ukraine is injecting further uncertainty into an already volatile conflict. Concerns are increasing about the strong risk of a humanitarian crisis in the south-eastern separatist-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. The separatists have a rudimentary administrative structure, few competent administrators, ill-trained militias and little in the way of a long-term strategy. They will be hard pressed to survive the winter without major Russian aid – financial, humanitarian or military. Ukraine, meanwhile, is dragging its feet on implementing reforms to address its manifold economic problems. Both Kyiv and the separatists are under pressure from their war lobbies. The near-term risk of further hostilities is high. There is an urgent need to halt the conflict, separate the troops, deploy substantially larger numbers of international monitors across the warzone and the Russian-Ukrainian border, as well as take immediate steps to assist civilians on both sides.

The separatists are clearly aware of their vulnerability, both in terms of security – their militias are a bewildering array of uncoordinated and poorly led military units – and in political terms – their inability to provide basic services for the population could seriously undermine their support base. They also admit an ambiguous relationship with Russia. They say that Moscow will intervene to avert major military or humanitarian catastrophes, but has no plans to recognise the separatist entities or provide major development or reconstruction aid. And they say that while Russia is playing a long game for the control of Ukraine, they are trying to stay alive for the next six months.

Renewed hostilities could take a number of forms. A Ukrainian offensive would almost certainly trigger a Russian military response, as Russian forces showed when in August 2014 they inflicted a devastating defeat on Ukrainian troops in Ilovaisk, near Donetsk city, stopping their hitherto successful offensive. The geographical status quo has prevailed since then. A ceasefire brokered in September has been largely ignored. A powerful group within the separatist leadership feels that they will not survive without more land, and clearly wants to resume offensive operations, in the belief that this would also bring in the Russians. Separatists are hoping for another “Russian Spring” – their term for Moscow-encouraged and fomented seizures of power in other south-eastern oblasts. And, should weather conditions impede resupply of Crimea by sea this winter, Moscow may intervene to open up a land route from the Russian border through Ukrainian territory. Either move would undoubtedly be viewed by the EU, U.S. and other supporters of Ukraine as a major escalation and lead to further sanctions.

EU and U.S. sanctions may well have deterred a further Russian advance along the Black Sea coast after Ilovaisk, and seem at the moment to be deterring any substantial separatist advance beyond the current frontline. They have also added to the pain of Russia’s economic downturn. The EU’s tough line on sanctions surprised Moscow, which assumed that consensus in Brussels would quickly disintegrate. But there is little sign that either the U.S. or the EU have thought about ways to de-escalate when the need finally arises. Russia is following a similar improvisatory path. It underestimated the implications of annexing Crimea or intervening in eastern Ukraine. It protects the entities from Ukrainian attack, but seems reluctant to do much more than that.

Improvisation needs to be replaced by communication between all sides. This would help defuse tensions, perhaps prepare the ground for consultations between the main warring parties, and allow all sides to concentrate on humanitarian assistance in the coming winter. Russia could confirm that it has no plans to recognise the separatists. It could reject the idea, often floated in Kyiv, of a major Russian offensive in the spring. Kyiv could similarly promise to refrain from offensive military operations during this period. It could spell out publicly and clearly to the people of the east what political solution it has in mind for their areas after the war, and offer a clear assurance that it will, with Western assistance, help rebuild the east. Such an approach by all sides would not only help Ukraine weather a dangerous winter, but also allow it to emerge in the spring with hope for the future.

This report concentrates largely on one of the lesser known aspects of the crisis – the thinking and capacity of the separatist leadership, their relationship with Moscow and their views of the future. It does not present an overall analysis of the U.S., European Union and member states’ policies on the crisis.

Podcast / Europe & Central Asia

A Closer Look at Ukraine’s Donbas after Russia’s Occupation

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Elissa Jobson talk with Brian Milakovsky, an expert on economic development in eastern Ukraine, to take a closer look at Russia’s occupation of territories in the Donbas and what’s next for residents of areas now liberated by Ukraine.

If war reached most of Ukraine in February of 2022, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion, the country’s eastern Donbas region has been torn apart by war since Russia, having occupied Crimea, undertook operations there in 2014. Since February, Russian forces have occupied even more territory in the region, some of which Ukrainian troops have now liberated. But having done so, Kyiv must grapple with the question of how to govern in the face of deep societal divisions and suspicions that at least some of the local residents collaborated with occupiers. 

In this episode of War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Elissa Jobson talk with Brian Milakovsky, an expert on economic development in eastern Ukraine, to unpack what’s been happening in Russian-occupied regions in Ukraine’s east throughout the war and what’s next for people living in those territories that have now returned to Ukrainian control. They talk about the simmering conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas before Russia’s February full-scale invasion, and how it shaped perceptions of national identity in the region. They discuss how Russia’s expansion of its occupation in these regions played out this year, and why Moscow misjudged the popular support for its invasion, expecting a friendly welcome it decidedly did not get. They also address how Ukraine is dealing with alleged Russian collaborators, how they are identified and what kind of treatment suspects can expect. Finally, they discuss whether there are lessons to be learned from the past to overcome societal divisions in Ukraine in the years to come.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more in-depth analysis on Ukraine and the Donbas, make sure to check out Crisis Group’s Ukraine regional page and our Donbas Visual Explainer.

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