As Russian jets started striking targets in Syria, Moscow’s other foreign intervention went strikingly quiet. The war in Ukraine’s Donbass, which has killed nearly 8,000 soldiers and civilians since the Russian-backed separatist revolt began in March 2014, has rapidly de-escalated since the signing of a new interim ceasefire on September 1.
The near-simultaneous timing of Russia’s deployment of troops to Syria and de-escalation in eastern Ukraine is hardly coincidental. The war in Ukraine and the resulting Western sanctions are becoming increasingly problematic, and Moscow’s intervention in Syria provides the Kremlin with an opportunity to divert attention and resources away from the stagnant war. It also gives Russia the chance to deflect the waves of patriotic mobilization sparked by the seizure of Crimea and intervention in Donbass. Indeed, Moscow increasingly needs to find a face-saving exit from the Donbass conflict that does not precipitate a domestic backlash. The Syrian deployment can help the Kremlin square this circle.
After more than a year and a half of fighting between the Ukrainian government and rebel groups within the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk (DNR and LNR in Russian, respectively), months of fruitless diplomacy have given way to significant progress toward ending the fighting. At the end of August, the Trilateral Contact Group comprising representatives of the Ukrainian government, the rebels, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reached agreement in principle on the interim ceasefire. More than a month on, the September 1 agreement has largely held. It was followed by additional agreements between the parties to first withdraw heavy artillery and then smaller caliber arms from the front lines. Denis Pushilin, chairman of the Donetsk People’s Republic, announced that the agreement to pull back weapons “could mean the end of the war.” Although this statement is likely premature, the willingness of both Moscow and the rebel groups to negotiate seemingly in good faith—and to follow through on their commitments—stands in stark contrast to their approach earlier