Forcing Kiev’s Hand

Why Russia Won’t Accept a Frozen Conflict in Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists collect parts from a destroyed Ukrainian army tank in the town of Vuhlehirsk, west of Debaltseve, February 2015.  BAZ RATNER / REUTERS

Viewed from Washington, the conflict in Ukraine's east seems to have reached a plateau. Despite several cease-fire agreements, fighting along the frontlines has never ceased completely. Yet the intensity of the violence has markedly decreased, and the Russian military and its separatist allies have not launched a major offensive in over six months. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin seems unwilling to withdraw his forces from the east, some now hope that the conflict will freeze—that is, that the bloodshed will come to an end even in the absence of a formal political settlement—allowing Kiev to move on with reforms, economic recovery, and European integration. Such an outcome, the German Bundestag member Rolf Mützenich argued in a February essay for Foreign Affairs, should satisfy the West.

It is easy to see how a frozen conflict scenario might appeal to the current government in Kiev.

This hope has induced a potentially dangerous complacency about the crisis. A frozen conflict is actually the least likely medium-term outcome for Ukraine. Far more likely is that Russia will use force to achieve a settlement on its terms, involving a reincorporation of rebel-held Donbas into Ukraine that would endow the country’s Russophile regions with a disproportionate influence over national politics. Rather than pushing for a frozen conflict scenario that will likely never materialize, then, the United States, the European Union, and Ukraine should do all they can to minimize the economic and human costs of this more probable outcome.  


It is easy to see how a frozen conflict scenario might appeal to the current government in Kiev. Such a scenario would effectively separate rebel-held Donbas from the rest of the country, turning the conflict's current frontlines into a de facto border. As a result of this separation, the Donbas would lose its influence in Ukraine's national politics, thus drastically reducing Moscow’s sway over Kiev. Russia, meanwhile, would be forced to foot the bill for the massive reconstruction effort needed to prevent the

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