Ukraine is on the road to re-establishing its control of the East, but serious issues still remain, making it vulnerable to Moscow’s wishes.
On August 4th, Ukrainian forces began operations to retake Luhansk and Donetsk, the last two key remaining separatist strongholds in the east of the country.
Over the last four months, the central government has fought pro-Russia rebels, incurring heavy loses. However, the conflict appears to have recently reached a tipping point in favour of Kyiv, with a demoralized rebel force fighting a more capable and larger Ukrainian military.
As Kyiv begins to wind down large-scale operations and begin the process of re-building, the future of the region is still far from guaranteed. The socioeconomic and cultural makeup of the Donbass region and Russia’s capacity to exhort pressure through military and economic means, pose a considerable challenge to the Ukrainian government.
From a security perspective, Moscow will continue to pose an existential threat to Kyiv. In the event of an invasion, the Donbass region poses a far more complex military scenario relative to Crimea.
At least for now Moscow might not be willing to bear these costs. However, this risk is ever-present with Russia’s vastly superior military capabilities and active deployment of its forces just across Ukraine’s eastern border and the recently annexed Crimea.
Volunteer military units such as the Donbass Volunteer Battalion have been very effective in fighting the insurgency and are squeezing their supply lines from the east. The army has regained several border control posts and it is slowly containing separatists.
Nevertheless, there is still considerable cross-border movement of people and arms, both countries share lengthy border, while Kyiv does not yet posses the necessary capacity to implement full surveillance. Time and resources will be needed to develop an effective border force that can deter smuggling.
From an economic perspective, in addition to heavy dependence on Russian gas, Russia and the Donbass region are very interconnected. There are significant business and industry ties that shape the region’s socioeconomic outlook and politics of the country.
In the short term, it will be very difficult for Kyiv to cut ties without incurring severe costs. Steps have been taken towards reducing dependency from Russia; nevertheless, it will take some time to shift the country’s course and these would require support from the West as well as key oligarchs in the region.
Most recently, the oligarchs have shown acquiescence to Kyiv, but their support depends on how closely aligned government policies are to their specific political and economic objectives.
A key figure is Rinat Ahkmetov, and since the beginning of the conflict he has been a major ally to Kyiv. Nevertheless, he has also been credited for the rise of the recently ousted president, Viktor Yanukovich.
These oligarchs will play a decisive role in the region’s political and economic future all within the new balance between Kyiv and Moscow.
It is not only the close economic links but also linguistic and cultural similarities which make Donbass look more towards Russia than to Kyiv. Several polls show a shift among the younger and more educated population, adopting a post-Soviet Ukrainian identity; however, this is less so the case for the more pro-Russian older generation.
Added to this mix is a long history of regionalized political patronage and chronic corruption that has increased distrust and animosity against the current government.
Russia involvement in the East has been diametrically opposite to Crimea, with Moscow choosing for indirect engagement by supporting the rebels through covert means.
As of now, this strategy has been mostly unsuccessful. Separatists seem to be rapidly losing territory, local support and any remnants of legitimacy. In addition to this, Moscow is facing ever-increasing number of international sanctions that are putting considerable political and economic pressure. Nevertheless, Russia continues to be very active.
As the government in Kyiv regains control of the East, it will face a region with a local population savaged by conflict with limited economic opportunities, and a neighbour equipped with the capacity and intent to reassert its control. Ukraine faces a very difficult road over the coming months.