Donbas war will be won by force of example, not arms - expert

17:40, 16 October 2017
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While the Ukrainian armed forces have been rebuilt and reformed at an impressive rate – not least thanks to the $750 million of “non-lethal” military aid it has received to date - it is doubtful whether a re-conquest of Donbas would be an easy task, Mark Galeotti writes in his op-ed for ECFR.eu.

Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

It must be remembered that Moscow retains ‘escalation dominance’ in Ukraine, and could easily raise any bet made by Ukraine forces, the piece published by ECFR.eu reads.

It could, for example, provide more and better heavy weapons to its proxy fighters (contrary to some claims, much of what has been deployed is actually quite dated) and move them right up to the front line. It could surge more regular forces into the region (when Ukrainian regulars have met their Russian counterparts rather than local militias, they have generally fared badly). Russia could take advantage of air power (a crucial asset it has not yet used), scale up its sabotage and terrorism campaign behind the front lines, impose new economic sanctions, or open fronts elsewhere.

Read alsoLethal aid for Ukraine way to resolve Donbas conflict – MEPThe expert suggests that any claims by the Ukrainian military of a possibility to retake Donbas by military means creates probably unrealistic expectations in a Ukrainian population who are already feeling impatient with a political elite that promises much and delivers little.

Donbas is a debilitating political and economic drain on Russia, and will return to Kyiv’s control in due course, but better by force of example than through force of arms, Galeotti believes. There will have to be a political process of some kind, a recognition on the part of the region's population that international law and practical interests align. Trying to reconquer Donbas, with the associated human loss and material destruction, will only back up Putin's pernicious narrative of a brutal and clumsy Ukrainian state.

Read alsoRussia not to go for concessions on Donbas: StratforMeanwhile, those who advocate arming Ukraine, generally with the very best of intentions, risk distorting the political calculus for Kyiv by encouraging the belief that there can be a purely military solution to Donbas.

Besides, even if Kyiv's shopping list of weapons were provided tomorrow - the Javelin anti-tank missiles, the additional counter-battery radars, the anti-aircraft systems - it will take time for distribution, training, and tactical recalibration to make them effective. Meanwhile, the Russians will take countermeasures - from upgrading their armor to increasing their use of drone-guided artillery.

Admittedly it is hard to imagine Vladimir Putin accepting anything that looks like a defeat, especially in view of the 2018 presidential elections. Yet even if he did, Kyiv would find its victory a Pyrrhic one. A devastated region, awash with illegal weapons, in which an impoverished and brutalized population have become dependent on smuggling and subsidies, would be hard to police and harder yet to assimilate. Russia has spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting the region while Ukraine can hardly afford the same.

Read alsoUkraine hands over to U.S. list of weapons required – Chief of Gen. StaffOf course, some day Donbas and Crimea must be returned to Ukrainian control. And it is entirely right and proper for Kyiv to build armed forces proportionate to its needs. So long as Putin is in the Kremlin Russia will remain a threatening neighbor. There is thus nothing intrinsically wrong with arming Ukraine, especially as most of the weapons being discussed are essentially defensive. The Javelin, for example, would be most useful in repelling Russian armored offensives. As there seems little likelihood of Moscow launching such operations, it is fair to argue that they pose no genuine provocation – but also naive, as to Putin they will represent a challenge and a provocation.

Likewise, there is nothing wrong with Ukraine’s generals making contingency plans for retaking Donbas. That is what generals are meant to do. However, it is wishful thinking to believe that this is a conflict that can be solved in the near future with the military means at Kyiv's disposal, even including whatever new weapons the West may provide.

Creating a working, law-based, economically-vibrant and genuinely pluralist Ukraine is the only way Kyiv can truly have the last laugh over Moscow.

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