Op-ed: Remobilization in the Donbas: Wider implications of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
On November 10, 2020, the month-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh reached its apparent conclusion. However, the effects of this short engagement are not over and are being felt well beyond the borders of either country. The Azeri experience of reclaiming territory once considered lost to separatism has strongly resonated in Ukraine, a country that has struggled to contend with its own separatist movements since 2014 when pro-Russian militants established two unrecognized states in the Donbas region.
In early 2015, the conflict in Ukraine degenerated into a protracted stalemate along a demarcation line, referred to as the anti-terrorist operation zone. From that point forward, the Donbas War began a transition from a hot conflict into something that increasingly resembles the “frozen conflicts” long considered a trademark of the post-Soviet space. Not unlike the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Donbas War has been well characterized by outside involvement, cease-fires that experience frequent lapses, and, on occasion, the complete collapse of peace talks. We are now seeing that recent events are threatening to plunge the current “frozen conflict” in Ukraine back into an active “hot conflict.” On each side, media and military experts have observed sharp increases in the preparations being made for war, possibly jeopardizing the already fragile truce set in place on July 27, 2020.
It appears that while both sides are preparing for future military engagements, the reasoning behind why they are pursuing these military policies may differ. It is common practice in the separatist-held territories to hold training exercises each year to assess their preparedness for a possible military escalation. In years past, these training exercises have received the participation of approximately 30,000 able-bodied individuals, demonstrating the separatist's capacity to field a sizable force. It should be noted, however, that many participants were individuals brought in against their will. Conscripts are formally registered with the Donbas People's Militia and then assigned to military units to carry out control measures where needed. Yet, the last training exercise where these types of numbers were achieved occurred in 2017. Since then, military analysts have observed that the numbers are steadily decreasing year after year, exposing critical inadequacies in the separatist's ability to deploy a sufficient defensive force if conflict were to reignite.
There are reasons for this decline in military capacity among the separatist forces. Chief among these reasons is the consistent outflow of individuals leaving for Russia, where there exists more economic opportunity. Outside of military service, few possibilities exist for earning a steady wage in the Donbas. Additionally, with Russia's policy of expediting citizenship for those living in occupied Ukraine, the temptation of leaving is more than many can resist. This past year has seen the worst military exercise turnout since the conflict began, a statistic that came to the immediate attention of separatist leadership. The identification of this resource problem can perhaps explain the separatists' current efforts to engage in the large-scale remobilization we are witnessing.
According to Vadim Skibitsky, a representative of Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate, the structure of the militant forces in the Donbas over the last few years has remained relatively the same. Military hardware, much of it provided by Russia or taken from captured Ukrainian army depots early in the war, has likewise remained the same. These numbers include some 500 tanks, twice as many armored vehicles, and around 1,000 artillery systems. Lack of equipment and hardware is not the primary concern in Donetsk. The chief dilemma facing the separatists is finding ways to fully staff the military hardware they have. Mobilization has become the solution to this problem.
In Donetsk, military-age males have been strongly advised to voluntarily register for military service at local enlistment offices. Over the last month, those men already on record have received text messages from the police requesting they show up by a designated date with the proper documentation. However, this news raises additional concerns. If this information is accurate, it would suggest that Donetsk has been going through the process of remobilizing for a month now, despite only having officially announced this policy last week. Secretly mobilizing amidst an ongoing truce does not lend comfort to Kyiv that Donetsk is negotiating in good faith. According to Sergei Garmash, a journalist who reports on the Donbas, if the separatist government is attempting to hide their mobilization, we can assume that
“the purpose of the mobilization is not for propaganda purposes, but as part of a technical strategy - an action in anticipation of a possible violent conflict.”
The prospect of this remobilization can have possible political ramifications too. If the separatist government begins general conscription of local populations, the need for foreign-born fighters in the Donbas will decrease, and we will likely see fewer Russian mercenaries. The nature of the conflict would change on a political level. As the conflict currently stands, many political actors approach the War in Donbas not as a civil war but as a military occupation by Russia. The narrative that the War in Donbas is a fight against Russian aggression rather than a domestic issue, promulgated by an outside force, has allowed particular political agendas to persist. For example, throughout the Minsk Dialogue, negotiating parties have insisted on addressing Russia but not the separatists directly, as such an action would be seen as providing legitimacy to their self-rule. By decreasing the presence of Russian fighters in Eastern Ukraine, it would become more difficult to treat the War in Donbas as a military occupation by Russia, thus changing the nature of future peace talks.
Furthermore, it should be noted that this political flexing is likely also a result of the upcoming mandatory vote to extend the law on the special status for the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk. The bill on the special status for the occupied territories was first proposed in 2014 in order to address certain measures included in the Minsk Protocol. The law, originally intended to be in effect for three years, would ensure de-facto autonomy for the “occupied territories” once all conditions in Article 10 of the law had been met. Principally, this would require the removal of “all illegal armed formations, their military equipment, as well as fighters and mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine.” To this date, however, de-facto autonomy in the occupied territories has not been recognized as the requirements of Article 10 were never met. Because the law on special status expired in 2017, it has become procedural for the Ukrainian parliament to vote on the extension of the bill each December — a process that has now been repeated for three consecutive years.7 With the Donbas region's status in question each December, escalation has become a routine tool intended to exert pressure on the Ukrainian parliament to grant de-facto autonomy to the occupied territories. It is, therefore, not only in the military interests of Donetsk to pursue such a policy of rearmament but also within their political interests too.
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- Pagulic, Roman (2020).
- Pagulic, Roman (2020).