Ukrainian separatists have withdrawn from a number of their strongholds in recent days, retreating to, and fortifying, the regional capital of Donetsk and a few other cities, in what is being described as a tactical decision. After Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko gave up on a cease-fire with the pro-Russian rebels, a Ukrainian offensive, facilitated by an apparently revamped military and American aid, has effectively cornered the separatists in what has been called the People’s Republic of Donetsk.
As the Ukrainian government has bound itself more closely to the EU and Western powers, Russia and President Vladimir Putin have eased off explicit support of the separatist movement, leaving the rebels out in the cold. Although initially armed with Russian materials, made up of many Russian volunteers, and led by Russian military intelligence officer Igor Girkin, the pro-Russian revolutionaries have resigned themselves to a defensive slog against Ukrainian forces if Russia does not take direct military action. The Wall Street Journal reports that Fedor Berezin, a science fiction novelist turned rebel deputy defense minister, said of Moscow’s aloofness, “I’m very disappointed. That means it will be a long and bloody war until we all die valiantly on the barricades.” The Russian Emergencies Ministry does claim to be operating 297 “temporary accommodation centers” housing more than 18,600 refugees in Crimea and the Russian Rostov region. Meanwhile the Ukrainian military is attempting to return recaptured territory to a state of normalcy with the administration of relief packages.
Despite recent advances by Ukrainian forces, the military’s position in the contended regions is still precarious. While they have the numerical and material advantage, they would have little chance against a Russian invasion of any significance. For now that event seems unlikely, as Putin has ignored mounting demands for action and asked the Russian Parliament to revoke the resolution giving his military the right to intervene in Ukraine. State media, however, is still unabashedly sympathetic to the pro-Russian separatist movement, and, like the rebels, considers the government in Kiev little more than a Western puppet. But, as the separatists buckle down for siege, the urban warfare that retaking Donetsk and uprooting the rebellion movement will require awards them the advantage. If the rebels commit to fighting to the last man and continue to make the kind of tactical decisions that led them to apparently blow up bridges leading to Donetsk, then they can make this fight very costly for Kiev.
Russia’s early support of the separatist movement in Ukraine following its own annexation of Crimea led many, including myself, to view the conflict as a proxy war between East and West, as EU and NATO interests were brought to bear and Eastern Europe became more sharply divided between the European and Eurasian economic unions. Putin’s recent detachment from the situation is troubling, not only for the rebels, but also for those attempting to read the region’s trajectory. With all quiet on the Eastern front, some are saying Putin has blinked under the threat of sanctions and this silence signals a real de-escalation by Russia. An opinion piece in the Moscow Times says that Putin and Poroshenko should both take the opportunity to save face and broker peace along current territorial holdings, and expects further action to result in either loss of perceived strength or war. Poroshenko’s rhetoric makes that seem unlikely, but then again, only a couple of weeks ago the same could have been said of Putin’s.
Both men have goals. Poroshenko’s are localized and consumed with retaining what territorial integrity is possible post-Crimea’s annexation. Putin plays a larger game, though his Eurasian Union experiment is not proving the resounding success he may have hoped it would be. Who knows what his attempts to change his public persona to a peaceful and non-interventionist figure mean? He even sent President Obama Independence Day greetings. It’s clear Putin’s Russia still desires to be a global power player and that the balance of power in Ukraine remains precarious.