Eight scenarios of the conflict in the Donbass

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US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) —  All scenarios for resolving the conflict in the Donbass remain open – both those that Ukraine affects and those that can run in the Kremlin. Therefore, it is important to understand what consequences this or that choice will entail.

“European Truth” publishes an excerpt from a study conducted by our partners, the center “New Europe”. Here the scenarios of the development of the situation around Donbass for the coming year are analyzed, on the basis of the fact that the Ukrainian authorities set a deadline for Russia and itself to choose a strategy for resolving the conflict.

What was analyzed and how?

In what scenario can the conflict develop in the Donbass?

Of course, the development of events cannot be predicted in detail. All kinds of scenarios are possible, their branching and so on. This article highlights the key, most discussed options for the development of events. The New Europe Center analyzed their consequences, threats, as well as opportunities that may arise in Ukraine.

The study details six main scenarios and two sub-scenarios:

1) the status quo;
2) freezing the conflict;
3) the reintegration of Donbass on the principles of decentralization;
4) autonomy or special status of Donbass;
5) the military operation of Ukraine to return the occupied territories;
6) Russian offensive (full-scale invasion of Ukraine);
7 *) Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Minsk agreements;
8 *) the introduction of a peacekeeping mission in the Donbass.

It is worth emphasizing once again that the last two options are rather sub-scenarios or tools for implementing the remaining scenarios – but because of their importance and the fact that they are a topic of discussion, both in Ukraine and in the partner states, they deserve special attention.

In addition to the analysis of the scenarios themselves and their consequences, we conducted a survey of 65 experts (38 Ukrainian and 27 foreign) to determine the most likely, according to experts, the most or least acceptable scenarios for Ukraine.

This study proceeds from the assumption that in the near future the Western sanctions policy regarding Russia will not change, that is, it will not become an independent factor determining the development of events in the Donbass. And if our optimism does not materialize and Western governments weaken sanctions, this, according to the CNE team, will launch the most negative scenarios in the Donbass. European Truth shares this assumption.

This analysis does not take into account unforeseen events that can rapidly and significantly change the balance of power on the continent.

Such events are usually called the “black swan.”

Also, we cannot rule out that in the longer term, Russia will resort to steps that now seem the least likely – for example, to recognize the “independence” of the occupied territories on the model of recognition of the occupied RF of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are components of Georgia, or even the next annexation of these territories, as happened with the Crimea.

However, this falls under our “status quo” scenario, according to which Moscow will retain its influence in the occupied territories and will strengthen it.

So, let’s start with it.

Scenario number 1. Status quo

Experts consider this option to be the most probable of all other possible models for the development of the situation in the Donbass.

To a certain extent, Ukrainian society has already adapted to the situation in the east, and Russia does not experience significant financial and political losses from the upkeep of the “republics” (the budget of the Russian Federation costs about two billion dollars a year). And therefore, this scenario, with a high probability, will “work” for another year. However, this scenario cannot be called optimal for Ukraine.

Experts rated its “desirability” at 4.09 out of 10. It means the continuation of hostilities, further human losses and the possible deterioration of the security situation in the frontline zone.

This scenario is costly for the state. In addition, Ukrainians may perceive the extension of the status quo as a demonstration of the insolvency or unwillingness of the authorities to resolve the conflict, contrary to election promises. Pro-Russian political forces may take advantage of a drop in confidence in the authorities. In addition, the longer the resolution of the conflict drags on, the more difficult it will be to reintegrate the Ordlo, because every year the inhabitants of the occupied territory only move away from Ukraine.

Since compliance with the status quo depletes the Ukrainian budget, the question is raised how Ukraine can withstand the continuation of this scenario. Active and effective implementation of reforms (anti-corruption, decentralization reforms, law enforcement reforms, etc.), attracting foreign investment and a significant improvement in the economic situation will contribute to the financial stability of the country.

On the other hand, the status quo provides for an insignificant probability of a significant escalation of hostilities with a rapid increase in human losses.

What should Ukraine do if this scenario becomes a reality?

It is necessary to build such communication with the population that would explain that, despite Ukraine’s compliance with the agreements (withdrawal of troops, compliance with the regime of silence, etc.) and readiness to make certain compromises, the situation cannot be moved from the dead point. For this reason, it is necessary to continue military operations aimed at protecting the unoccupied territory.

The status quo also does not exclude the possibility and necessity for Ukraine to establish a dialogue, to support those citizens who live in the occupied territories.

Scenario number 2. Conflict freeze

Freezing the conflict in eastern Ukraine has both advantages and disadvantages. The biggest plus is a stable ceasefire and the absence of casualties among military and civilians. The ceasefire will also help normalize life in eastern Ukraine and reduce the flow of immigrants from the region. Against this background, the support of the current Ukrainian president is likely to increase, since the cessation of hostilities (not necessarily the resolution of the conflict!) Was one of his main promises in the election campaign and the largest engine for certain concessions in the dialogue with the Russian Federation (for example, the signing of the Steinmeier formula).

It would also make it possible to strengthen social and political cohesion in society if the contradictions due to the course of the conflict in the Donbass decrease. Also, a ceasefire will allow Ukraine to better focus on the reform process instead of focusing on daily military operations. However, the freeze scenario has significant drawbacks.

Russia can use a stable ceasefire to shift the responsibility for non-compliance with the Minsk agreements to Ukraine. Russia will be able to adopt the argument “do not shoot – elections can be held.” Some Western countries are likely to support such a demand.

Among other shortcomings are the likelihood of lifting sanctions against Russia. There are already EU countries that would like to ease the sanctions regime, despite the lack of progress on the issue of conflict. The ceasefire on the Russian side may be an argument for countries such as Italy, France and others, which will lead to a split within the pro-Ukrainian coalition. And if this step is taken, then with a ceasefire and the lifting of sanctions, the conflict in Ukraine may lose relevance on the international agenda, which will weaken support for Ukraine in international forums and may reduce funding programs for Ukraine.

Freezing a conflict can create a gray zone and a protracted conflict for decades. The experience of other regions, the same Transnistria, proves that the zone of frozen conflict is turning into a region of shadow business and illegal schemes, with the smuggling of not only goods but also weapons. Moreover, a long frozen conflict could make Ukraine’s EU and NATO membership even more distant than today.

How to act Ukraine to prevent this scenario? To stabilize the ceasefire and freeze the conflict in Ukraine, a peacekeeping mission should be deployed. For Ukraine, of course, the most desirable scenario would be a mission with access to the entire occupied territory and to the Ukrainian-Russian border.

Scenario number 3. Reintegration of Donbass on the basis of decentralization

Such reintegration is the scenario that Ukraine insisted on during the Geneva talks in April 2014. However, six years of hostilities have shown its low effectiveness, since Russia requires not only the provision of additional budget preferences to the regions, as provided for by the current decentralization process, but also the transfer of some national level competencies to Donetsk and Lugansk.

“Decentralization” in accordance with the Russian vision should provide for the creation of “people’s militia” in the de-occupied territories; the right of local authorities to influence the formation of the judicial branch. Therefore, if decentralization is real in the medium or near term, it is most likely on the conditions of Russia.

And this means de facto that autonomy and federalization of the region is another scenario that is extremely undesirable for Ukraine (more on this later). It is also important to take into account the fact that in Ukraine there is no opportunity for an examination and insufficient strategic vision of how decentralization should take place in de-occupied territories, therefore, even under the most favorable conditions, errors are likely that can lead to unpredictable consequences.

The armed leaders of Donetsk and Lugansk, who are under the influence of Moscow, will in every way resist the full inclusion of territories in the legal field of Ukraine. One of the key threats to this scenario is that a large part of Ukrainian society will not perceive the individual stages of reintegration based on decentralization, even based on the Ukrainian vision.

Surveys of 2019 show that even the unoccupied part of the eastern regions of Ukraine favors a special status or federalization of the region. Therefore, reintegration based on general decentralization can be frustrated by local residents of Donbass, incited by Russia. It should also be borne in mind that in wider sectors of society there is no full support for all the elements of this scenario. The most talked about may be a decision on an amnesty for former militants.

The scenario provides for the gradual restoration of a full-fledged dialogue between Russia and Western countries. Sanctions that do not concern the annexation of Crimea will be lifted. Significant burden will be laid on Ukraine to restore reintegrated territories – according to preliminary estimates, we are talking about at least three hundred billion hryvnias.

Ukrainian support for the country’s course in NATO and the EU may decrease somewhat due to the return to the legal field of the state of millions of Ukrainians who do not perceive the western vector of development. It is possible that the ruling elites will temporarily abandon rhetoric about integration into the EU and NATO in order to restore public consensus.

At the same time, Russia will retain its political, economic, cultural, informational influence in Ukraine – especially in the eastern and southern regions.

Scenario number 4. Autonization or special status of Donbass (federalization of Ukraine)

This scenario is one of the least desirable, as it poses considerable threats to the social and political stability of Ukraine and will strengthen Russia’s influence. and at a certain stage, the Ukrainian government can promote de facto federalization under the guise of “decentralization,” but prolonged maneuvering is hardly possible.

The company generally does not perceive the option of “federalization” or “decentralization” according to the Russian model with the vesting of certain regions of Ukraine with the level of competencies that are usually characteristic of the central government. Surveys conducted in 2019 showed that no more than 25% of citizens support the special status (autonomy) of the territories now occupied. In this scenario, mass protests are almost inevitable in the country. There is no doubt that this can happen in Kiev and the western regions.

All this means that in the event of an attempt to implement such a scenario, Russia – even if it does not bring to completion the idea of ​​a special status for the Donbass – will be able to create serious lines of public split in Ukraine. A special status or autonomy can provoke a “parade of autonomies”, when other regions of Ukraine will demand such a status for themselves – thus, new centers of instability will appear.

Western countries will gradually establish dialogue with Russia, there will be a transition to business as usual. The annexation of Crimea de jure will not be recognized, but it will not interfere with cooperation. And because of the “influx” into the legal field of the country of almost three million voters of Donbass, who have not participated in the elections in Ukraine over the past five years, the pro-Russian presence in the political establishment will grow.

It is likely that, as part of the reconciliation, trials in international instances on disputes between Ukraine and Russia will be curtailed (first of all, we are talking about the UN International Court of Justice).

The only possible advantage: relative stability can contribute to the flow of Western investment in Ukraine, but in reality this prospect is rather doubtful. An investor will not go to a country with significant internal turbulence.

There is a possibility of Ukraine receiving international assistance to restore the destroyed Donbass, and this factor should not be overestimated, using international experience – Western elites quickly lose interest in supporting post-war societies.

Scenario number 5. Ukrainian military operation

The offensive operation to return the occupied territories is one of the most difficultly predicted scenarios. It is difficult to execute because it requires jewelry work and can lead to unpredictable consequences for any mistake.

The scenario could include a “blitzkrieg”, that is, a short-term special operation (offensive in certain areas), rather than a full-scale long war. A military operation is more likely not a scenario itself, but a tool for moving from the status quo to other, more positive scenarios.

The purpose of the scenario is to demonstrate strength, raise rates and create an element of surprise in order to bring the Russian Federation off balance and restart the negotiation process on more favorable terms for Ukraine.

The complexity of the implementation of this scenario is due to the need for negotiations with Western partners (separately from the EU and the USA), the development of a powerful communication and military strategy, the development of its own “alternative to Minsk” and so on.

In addition, for a successful implementation, the following scenario will be required:

1) the unwavering position of the president and diplomats of Ukraine in negotiations with Western partners and Ukrainian society;
2) preparation of the operation in a top-secret environment;
3) significant economic costs;
4) the creation of a reliable system of territorial defense (providing defense in the north and south of Ukraine);
5) cohesion and coordination of all involved structures (OP, Verkhovna Rada, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense, General Staff, etc.);
6) a long time for preparation.

According to experts, the likelihood of such a scenario is extremely low and not least, given the high price and duration of its implementation. The feasibility of such a scenario, according to experts, also received a low score.

Risks (loss of military and civilian populations, domestic economic and political destabilization, loss of Western support, the possibility of a full-scale war with the Russian Federation, etc.) significantly outweigh the possible benefits.

Scenario number 6. Russian offensive

Maintaining the current status quo with the gradual depletion of the Ukrainian economy, when Ukrainian citizens are dying, and Russia still has a chance of getting out of international isolation, is a relatively inexpensive and advantageous option for Moscow. In addition, political transformation in Russia is a deterrent to the escalation of the conflict, because the latter can worsen relations between the Russian Federation and Europe and, most likely, will not contribute to Putin’s rating growth.

However, it is also impossible to exclude a new full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. It would be logical to assume that the Russian Federation can begin to intensify hostilities only when it feels a significant change in the situation in Ukraine – some kind of active movement in NATO and the EU, stable economic growth and the like.

This scenario is by far the most dangerous and one of the least desirable. It can lead to another political instability in the country, to disappointment of the population, to a deep economic crisis. Integration into the EU and NATO, obviously, will disappear from the agenda for a long time, which, in fact, is the goal of Moscow’s policy towards Ukraine.

We are talking about the development of events according to the Georgian scenario of 2008 – an open military operation under the guise of “peace enforcement.” However, such a scenario will contribute to the cohesion of Ukrainian society. And, most importantly, it will lead to Russia’s forced recognition of its participation in the conflict.

This change in the status of the Russian Federation can cause reputational losses, cause a rollback in relations with the West, lead to the cancellation of Minsk and the search for new formats for resolving the conflict. Such a political price is one of the important factors that make a full-scale offensive not too profitable for Russia and, therefore, less likely.

However, in the event that Russia feels the need to intensify hostilities, it will be more likely to use less radical means than a full-scale offensive, such as exacerbating undeclared operations, the use of “green men”, “separatist movements” and the like.

Scenario No. 7 * (first sub-scenario). Exit of Ukraine from Minsk

The Minsk agreements in recent years have been at the core of all international negotiations on the Donbass. But are they indestructible? What happens if their action ceases?

The exit from Minsk will have the greatest impact on relations between Ukraine and the West, primarily with Germany and partly France, while this step will not have significant consequences for the state of affairs in Ukraine itself. There are three conditions under which an exit from Minsk would be understood.

First, an alternative settlement plan, coordinated and approved by Western partners, will be needed.

Such an alternative scenario would be especially appropriate at the time of the change of power in Germany – the new chancellor does not have such a link to the Minsk agreements as the current one. One of the alternative scenarios could be the scenario of introducing a peacekeeping mission with the creation of an international transitional administration in the Donbass. The potential allies in this matter for Ukraine could be the United States, which does not have a sufficiently clear link to Minsk, like its European partners.

Today, in key EU countries, almost everyone is skeptical of Ukraine’s ability to offer an effective alternative to Minsk.

Secondly, Ukraine must demonstrate a serious violation of the Minsk agreements by the Russian Federation, which would prove the impossibility (or reluctance) of the Russian Federation to comply with them.

It is worth noting here that Ukraine already had such grounds even after the so-called “DPR or LPR” elections, which were a clear violation of the agreements, but they did not use this right in Kiev.

Thirdly, there should be a willingness to lift sanctions against the Russian Federation by the European Union, which are formally “tied” to the implementation of the Minsk agreements.

It is worth noting that the withdrawal from the Minsk agreements, even under favorable conditions, should be accompanied by serious preparatory diplomatic, coordination and communication work.

With a deeper analysis, Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Minsk agreements is more beneficial for the Russian Federation than for Ukraine.

Therefore, the interviewed experts consider the best scenario for Ukraine not a way out of Minsk, but its modernization, which is generally positively perceived by Western partners. Accordingly, now the strategy of Ukraine should be reduced to the following statement of the question inside and outside: “either the modernization of Minsk, or another dead end.”

And Putin’s reluctance to adjust the Minsk agreements should be communicated as a reluctance to resolve the conflict.

Scenario No. 8 * (second sub-scenario). The introduction of a peacekeeping mission throughout the territory of the Ordlo

The appearance of peacekeepers in the Donbass, including, at the Ukrainian-Russian border, is considered the most popular of all other possible models for the development of the situation in the Donbass.

Given an optimally selected mission mandate and effective distribution of responsibility between the Ukrainian authorities and the leadership of peacekeepers, the likelihood of a lasting peace in the occupied territories can be high.

Ukraine will be able to begin the process of reintegration of the Donbass and pay more attention to European and Euro-Atlantic integration, in particular, the implementation of reforms. The scenario may increase confidence in government.

On the other hand, the introduction of a mission may lead to a partial lifting of sanctions against Russia. In addition, Crimea may disappear from the international agenda for a long time, because the “Ukrainian crisis” can be considered resolved. There is also a risk that Ukrainians will have high expectations from peacekeepers who, contrary to misconception, will neither be able to fight on the side of Ukraine, nor complete peace in a short time.

And due to the length of the mission, the de facto mission may have the consequences of freezing the conflict.

Despite the fact that 59% of the Ukrainian population is positive about the introduction of the mission, supporters of the peacekeeping scenario may have a different, sometimes mutually exclusive understanding of which mission mandate is optimal for Ukraine.

For example, the part of the HLS electorate that generally welcomes the introduction of peacekeepers into the ORDLO (32%) is more likely to support the “Russian version” of the mission (peacekeepers exclusively on the contact line), as well as the composition of the mission favorable to the Russian Federation (for example, representatives of Moscow’s CIS countries )

Therefore, when communicating the scenario with the general public, it should be clearly defined which mandate is most desired and why.

However, the likelihood of such a scenario being realized is so far assessed as low.

Russia is unprofitable for such a peacekeeping mission that would help Ukraine regain control of the Ordlo. Judging by the latest statements, Russia is no longer interested in the peacekeeping mission in the Donbass, even in the format that Vladimir Putin spoke in September 2017 (only on the front line).

At the same time, Western experts believe that the transitional administration format, with full control over the ORLDO, to the special representative of the UN Secretary General, can create certain threats for Ukraine, because Russia will try to control the work of peacekeepers at the UN Security Council level. At the same time, a “supervised transition” format is proposed, according to which the mission and Ukraine will jointly make decisions on all key political and administrative issues in the Ordlo.

This scenario cannot be considered separately from other conflict resolution models and is rather a tool to enhance their effectiveness.

Given the “flexibility of Minsk,” the peacekeeping mission should try to fit into the current format of negotiations with Russia or propose a format for the transitional international administration (UN and OSCE) as an alternative to Minsk.


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The article is written and prepared by our foreign editors from different countries around the world – material edited and published by Ordo News staff in our US newsroom press.

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