America Is Back—but for How Long?
Political Polarization and the End of U.S. Credibility
Continued violence between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine is dashing hopes about last month’s Minsk II cease-fire agreement. February’s terrorist attacks in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and the continued threat of a separatist assault on the strategic port city of Mariupol suggest no real pause in violence anytime soon. But that might not be eastern Ukraine’s biggest problem: the region is now broken. The rise of an ungoverned, violent Donbass—which had a prewar population of six million—is likely to be one of the war’s most important lasting legacies. This grim reality is a problem that few in the West are ready to acknowledge, let alone confront.
The human costs of fighting are obvious: at least 1.5 million people—one out of four residents—have fled the region. Over 6,000 people have been killed according to official numbers, but actual numbers are likely higher. Local infrastructure such as roads, bridges, schools, power stations, sewers, water pipes, and apartment buildings are damaged or have been turned into rubble. Legitimate economic activity in Donbass, once an industrial powerhouse, slowed to a halt as workers fled, electricity supplies became sporadic, and violence made the shipment of goods to Russian and Ukrainian markets impossible. Instability and the rise of criminal groups in the region scared off investors, who are not likely to return. A vast humanitarian crisis is growing, and painfully few resources are being directed toward fixing it.
There are other, less obvious costs of war in the region as well. Administrative bodies in separatist-held regions function poorly, if at all. This is not new, however, as governance in eastern Ukraine has never been efficient, and corruption in local administrative structures is a persistent problem in both Russia and Ukraine. Neither country created transparent and accountable institutions over the past 20 years. Rather, eastern Ukraine has long been ruled by a nexus of political power, business interests, and criminal groups. An important power figure before the war was Ukrainian businessman Rinat Akhmetov, who enjoyed greater authority than many local governors or law enforcement officials. After the conflict erupted, corrupt local institutions collapsed as prewar officials and business leaders fled west or threw in their lot with separatists, leaving the separatist-held territories to devolve into lawlessness.
Many of the residents who stayed behind in eastern Ukraine appear dissatisfied with the government in Kiev, but they do not necessarily sympathize with separatists, either. Instead, they are stuck in the deadly crossfire of a geopolitical game they do not control. The separatist officials controlling the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (Donetskaya Narodnaya Respublika, DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) generally have little experience governing and even less interest in taking responsibility to meet the needs of the residents of territories under their control. Proclaimed DNR Prime Minister Alexander Zakharchenko, a former electrician, was a member of a militant group, Oplot, before being catapulted to a leadership role last summer. Since then, his group has turned into a militia.
In fact, most of the higher-ups in the separatist movement are pure opportunists trying to advance their own political or economic interests even if those interests do not always align with the Kremlin’s. This will complicate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ability to turn off the conflict quickly, if he ever decides to do so.
The separatist forces in DNR and LNR are ideologically incoherent. Russia’s hybrid approach to the war—using irregular, often unruly militias and criminal groups with limited Russian regular forces and security service personnel—stems from the Russian public’s distaste for direct military intervention in eastern Ukraine. Russia empowered a ragtag group of paid mercenaries, Cossacks, Chechens, organized crime groups, and radical Russian aggressors bent on building Novorossiya by destabilizing the region. As Western sanctions begin to take their toll on the Russian economy, which likely faces a recession within the year, Putin has doubled down on his strategy, hoping that persistently denying Russia’s hand in the conflict will undermine Euro-Atlantic unity and temper Western outrage over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.
The problem with hybrid warfare, however, is that deniability comes at the cost of complete control. Moscow had to give up some control over individual separatist elements that have divergent, conflicting agendas. Putin purged some of the most unreliable separatists after the Malaysia Airlines disaster but has struggled to rein in others. As the International Crisis Group noted late last year, separatist groups demonstrated serious divisions during the signing of the Minsk I agreement—some recognizing the need for peace as a precondition for building a functioning state on the territory they hold, others pushing to escalate the crisis in order to expand their territory and continue to work toward building Novorossiya.
For their part, criminal and militant groups, although united formally against the Ukrainian state, truly desire to reap the spoils of war. The commanders of these groups are not unlike warlords seen in the Balkans, Georgia, and Tajikistan; they have little incentive to build a peace that weakens their power over the small dominions of land they now control through brute force, corrupt patronage systems, and threats against local populations. Militia commanders have been accused of a wide variety of criminal behavior, including kidnapping, theft, drug trafficking, smuggling rackets, and summary executions. Akhmetov’s business empire in eastern Ukraine has taken a hit from these groups, and some of his assets being threatened with expropriation by separatists. In response, Akhmetov established a private militia of his own, consisting of steelworkers and coal miners who patrol Mariupol, a city frequently under separatist attack that is home to a significant number of the oligarch’s business interests.
Since then, many separatist leaders have actively sought to undermine the September and February Minsk agreements because of the negative impact that peace could have on their war profiteering and dreams of expansion. Some separatists involved in taking Debaltseve publicly rejected Minsk II and have made repeated claims that a larger buffer zone between the city and Ukrainian government–controlled areas is needed. Others have called to push farther westward, a worrying sign that they plan to advance deeper into Ukrainian government–held territory regardless of what Moscow tells them to do. Although Putin himself has not been negotiating in good faith, the actions of his proxies make it unclear if his doing so would swiftly end this conflict.
The potential for long-term insecurity is not confined to rebel-held areas: Ukraine too has its share of independent and semi-independent battalions, some of which descend from Ukrainian nationalist groups, extreme elements of the Maidan self-defense forces, and criminal groups. For example, the Kyiv Post indicates that one volunteer battalion in Luhansk Oblast is composed mostly of former convicts from the Donbass jailed for everything from extortion to murder and has since been implicated in looting charges. Some brigades have been accused by Amnesty International of human rights abuses similar to those committed by Russian-backed separatist groups and criminal gangs.
Other Ukrainian militias fighting in the east are financed by, and likely ultimately answerable to, Ukrainian oligarchs rather than the government itself. In addition to Akhmetov’s army, Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky has provided supplies and personnel to pro-Kiev fighters by way of Privat Group, his multinational holdings corporation. Kolomoisky’s critics, including Akhmetov, fear he is using these groups to advance his economic interests and political power inside the country.
Some of these independent and semi-independent groups already bemoan Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s signing of Minsk II and have been critical of civilian and military officials’ handling of the war, particularly the unorganized Ukrainian retreat at Debaltseve. One probable loser in the continued violence after the February cease-fire agreement is Poroshenko himself: his prospects for political survival, not to mention the hopes for political and economic reform inside Ukraine, depend in part on how these oligarch-funded and nationalist-oriented groups react to the loss of the city. Poroshenko should worry, as should the West, particularly given that members of an ultranationalist brigade last autumn called for a junta against the Ukrainian president to install a stronger and more decisive leader.
Putin appears to be in a stronger domestic political position than Poroshenko, but he faces his own critics from the far right who claim he is not doing enough to defend Russian interests in Ukraine. Several former separatist fighters from Luhansk, now in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, have violently threatened antiwar activists. Some of them roughed up at least one of those critics before attacking a group of migrant workers in a racist assault. And while the public may never know who ordered the assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, there is speculation in Russia that right-wing groups—perhaps with ties to rogue security service elements—could have been involved in the attack. In other words, Moscow’s decision to evoke ethnic chauvinism to justify its intervention in Ukraine is causing violence at home. If separatist fighters return from combat with radical views and military-grade weapons, Russia could become just as much a mess as Ukraine.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has moved into its second year with no sign of resolution ahead. What has become clear, however, is that neither Russia nor Ukraine needs any more thugs with guns.