Four Scenarios for the Future of Donbas

shutterstock 186654410Under the current conditions, all parties to the conflict in eastern Ukraine are advocating for its speedy settlement. But, should all the parties in the conflict, including Russia, have these frank intentions, neither party is equipped to deal with the situation quickly and fully. As of today, the Kremlin alone holds the leverage over the settlement of the situation in the conflict zone. It should not be overlooked that the domestic political situation and internal reputation risks do not allow Vladimir Putin to refuse backing the separatists in the east of Ukraine outright. For this reason, he will most likely prolong the conflict, while at the same time putting a substantial lid on the funding for the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) projects.


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Despite Russia’s military concentrations close to the front line, it is our belief that the increasing military preparedness of the Ukrainian army, the level of equipment, as well as that of command and control, has reduced the Russian Federation forces of their tactical advantage observed at the first stage of Russian involvement in the conflict. The forces of the so-called DPR and LPR are now unable to counter the Armed Forces of Ukraine on their own.


According to our estimations, in case Russia withdraws support for the given separatist groups and pulls out, Kyiv would be able to regain control over the occupied territory of the eastern regions within one and a half to two weeks. At the same time, practical control of the groups within the territory of Donbas by Russian handlers and presence of the Russian active armed forces in the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) zone, balanced supply, weapons system and ammunition support chain undermine the opportunity to regain control over the territory of Donbas without substantial losses on the part of the Ukrainian forces and the local population.


In that context, we think that the decision of Ukraine’s top leadership to follow the Minsk agreements is a rational approach as things currently stand, thus enabling the diplomatic discussions, sanctions’ pressure and avoiding substantial losses on the part of Ukrainian troops.


The Russian Federation is seeking not to admit the presence of its forces on the territory of Ukraine. That is what, according to our estimations, determines the absence of air power use on the part of Russia. But in case an offensive action on the part of Ukraine resumes, the Kremlin may take advantage of the previously shelved decision of the Federation Council on using Russian troops in Ukraine. In that case, the situation in the ATO zone could deteriorate for the Ukrainian army with the open use of Russian armed forces.


Today, there are four scenarios that pave the way out of the stalemate for Russia:


1. to build up independent pseudo-state formations at a faster rate;

2. to enlarge the DPR/LPR territories and recognise their independence;

3. to “yield up” the DPR/LPR as fully autonomous formations under the jurisdiction of Ukraine (in this case Moscow is “saving face” as a peacekeeper, having settled the “civil war” in its neighbouring country);

4. to freeze the conflict at its current phase of activity.


1. Accelerated build-up of independent pseudo-state formations.


According to our estimations, several important trends ought to be noted over the last two months:


- Russian troops build-up;

- more frequent military clashes between the Russian troops and local armed gangs;

- the liquidation of groups’ leaders from among local separatists; and

- the replacement of some political leaders.


These trends could speak to the fact that, according to Moscow’s estimations, the plan of building up a state formation within the occupied territories has practically broken down. The reasons for this include the lack of discipline and action coordination of various groups within the territories of the LPR/DPR; high criminalisation of the groups from among local population; mass theft of supplies provided by the Russian authorities for the LPR/DPR; a low level of involvement in establishing peaceful life within the occupied territories on the part of the armed groups’ leaders making money in the war; the inability of the local “leaders” to start up the political process and establish political representation of the pseudo-state formations; personnel resource shortage in the occupied territories; and the complexity to engage the population motivationally in the official capacity over the long-running conflict.


We are of the opinion that the given conditions will urge Moscow to change tactics within the occupied territories without delay.


According to our estimations, Moscow is now facing the problem of building up the political basis for the pseudo-state formations. Active combat actions have triggered the withdrawal of people capable of ruling the political process on the part of the DPR/LPR from the conflict zone. Local armed groups’ leaders are unable to become political leaders capable of representing at the external level. This problem demands the infiltration of Kremlin-controlled outsiders into the political leadership of the groups. But the diversity of the armed groups and the trend of their regionalisation alongside gaining control over the certain localities undermine such attempts and nail the Kremlin down to mop up certain groups beyond its control. Moscow has not succeeded in an adequate assessment of the regional specifics and psychological state of the local population, thus terminating the plan of a quick move from the military phase to the pseudo-state build-up phase.


Things could have moved differently, if the Kremlin had placed its stake on local political elites known in the region. But this scenario will not work today anymore due to a large number of competitive forces operating in the region, including those having come from other countries. This means that in this scenario, the Kremlin will have to take control over the local fringes from among the armed gangs, as well as to solve the problem of foreign mercenaries and volunteers in the region. These solutions will most likely be carried out by force, similar to the liquidation of Alexander Bednov (“Batman”) and his group in LPR.


The objective of creating political leaders with a view to further legitimise the LPR/DPR in the region could hardly be carried out. First, placing a stake on the current actors will trigger stiffer competition among the groups. Striking a compromise under a practically idle regional economy is hardly probable. Second, an attempt to bring in a leader from the outside will result in growing discontent on the part of the local groups and inevitable conflict with them. Third, an attempt to bring back somebody from among the former regional elite as a leader demands disarmament and liquidation of uncontrolled armed gangs as well.


Consequently, this scenario could be implemented just at the point of Russia’s acting army bayonets, accompanied by severe suppression of uncontrolled groups. At a later stage, it will demand constant protection from the new “leadership”, subjected to the attacks in a 1990s shoot-out style.


2. Enlargement of the DPR/LPR territories and recognition of their independence.


According to our estimations, as of today, the people acting as the leaders of the LPR/DPR are putting pressure on Moscow. They seek to gain control over Mariupol, Artemivsk, Sievierodonetsk, Lysychansk and Kramatorsk with the aid of the Russian forces, thus enhancing the economic capacity of the self-proclaimed republics. But neither the LPR or the DPR, nor these two republics combined, will be able to come to a level close to self-sufficiency even under such a scenario. At the same time, a grab for these territories will enable the gaining of control over some strategic resources, rock salt in particular, as well as over some important machine engineering enterprises. That would increase the economy’s underlying strength and enable the provision of resources for just another short period. But the crucial thing is that it would enable the engagement of the separatist groups into action, as well as get new resources for property expropriation, plundering and looting, which is all critically important under the current low resource availability for the rebel groups.


But gaining control over these localities demands reopening full-scale hostilities and changing over to an offensive by the Russian forces. It is no question that both demands will cause tougher sanctions against Russia. As the population size will not permit to create an “Abkhazian” concept of regular humanitarian aid, Moscow will have to assume direct support of these regions, which contradicts the Kremlin’s interests and seems hard going under the pressure of sanctions. Gaining control over these cities could provide an opportunity for the Kremlin to distance itself from further direct participation in the conflict for the time being and try to solidify in the region as a “peacekeeping” group, as it happened in Transnistria, administering law and order while disposing of uncontrolled war lords and their armed groups.


3. “Yielding-up” the LPR/DPR as fully autonomous formations.


It is our belief that the Kremlin is seeking to put the burden of Donbas infrastructure recovery on the shoulders of official Kyiv. This scenario would cause an enormous gap in Ukraine’s budget, thus exerting influence on the political life of all of Ukraine. Moreover, it would enable the integration of the leadership of the pseudo-state formations into the political system of Ukraine.


Despite the fact that this scenario is the most advantageous for the Russian Federation as it makes economic sense, it is a failure from the point of view of the Kremlin’s internal policy. Meanwhile, considering the level of Russian media influence on the population, Moscow could make this step look as if it were the results of agreements between Donbas secessionists and official Kyiv; brokered by the Russian Federation. In this case, that would preserve the Kremlin’s attitude of non-involvement in the conflict within the territory of Ukraine.


Nevertheless, this scenario, according to our estimations, is absolutely unacceptable for Ukraine. The result is that Kyiv will regain the territory with a high level of weapons, pockets of resistance, frequently emerging terrorism that could exceed the bounds of the anti-terrorist operation area, and an increase in pressure on the state budget under the weakness of the national economy. Aside from that, this scenario evidently foresees the militia’s integration into the governmental system and sweeping amnesty.


4. Conflict freeze at the current phase of activity.


Freezing the conflict at its current phase of activity could be considered a stop-gap measure for further implementing the scenario of building up the pseudo-state formations with or without enlarging the territory. The uncontrollability of certain groups to Russia, the threat of the criminal world flowing into Russia, the territories’ failure of self-sufficiency, infrastructure, health, and other conditions prevent the various parties from speaking about a long-term standstill.


The only acceptable scenario for Ukraine and its allies is for Russia to withdraw troops from the territory of Ukraine, stop weapons and ammunition supply for the separatist organisations in Donbas, establish control over the whole length of the Ukraine-Russia border, close the “windows” for the militia, mercenaries and smuggling, and restore control without setting any conditions. But our analysis proves that the Russian leadership is not ready to follow this scenario.


Consequently, it is fair to say that the Russian Federation is not in a practical position to calm the situation in Donbas under these scenarios. The further development of scenarios may include the conflict’s escalation. The only scenario acceptable for Ukraine and its allies has not yet been considered by the Kremlin. This implies the need to keep international pressure on Russia’s leadership tasked with forcing to restore peace, law, inviolability of Ukraine’s territory and stopping the supply of weapons and secessionism in the country and in the region.


This article was written and prepared by Da Vinci AG - an analytic, consulting and intelligence company based in Kyiv.