Opening of second front as peace talks flounder indicates a military stalemate is developing in eastern Ukraine

28 August 2014

(Left to right) Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, Russian president Vladimir Putin, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, European Commissioner for Energy Guenther Oettinger, and European Commissioner for Trade Karel De Gucht before the Ukraine Summit on 26 August. Source: PA

Key Points

  • Peace talks were held between Russia and Ukraine in Minsk on 26 August, although little progress was made in finding a solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, as separatist fighters apparently launched a new offensive towards the city of Mariupol.
  • The poor organisation, logistics, and training of Ukrainian government forces make it highly unlikely they will achieve a military victory over the rebels in eastern Ukraine before the onset of winter, while Russia's direct but unofficial military support to the separatists is likely to intensify, with the aim of forcing the Ukrainian leadership into talks with the insurgents.
  • The establishment of a military stalemate in eastern Ukraine is increasingly likely, which will ensure fighting is prolonged, but will conversely make an agreement to end the conflict more likely.


Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko held talks in Minsk with Russian president Vladimir Putin, Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbaev, and Belarus president Alexander Lukashenka (the three countries form a customs union) along with senior-level EU representation, on 26 August.

The talks were held to defuse the military conflict with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Bilateral meetings between the leaders also took place for the first time since June.

After the Minsk meeting, Putin revealed to the media that a ceasefire agreement in eastern Ukraine was not specifically addressed. "This is an issue to be discussed between Ukrainian authorities and the leadership of Donetsk and Luhansk", Putin said. However, he insisted that nothing could be solved if Kiev would not take into account the interests of the eastern regions of Ukraine. This is a strong signal that Russia will continue to invest its efforts for at least maintaining the status quo.

Following the talks, Poroshenko announced that a "roadmap" for peace will be prepared, although he did not provide the exact details of what this would include.

Prolonged stalemate

The meeting came after some recent successes for the Ukrainian military, who earlier this month regained control of a large part of the territory that used to be under the control of the separatist insurgents. It included the town of Slavyansk, which became a symbol of pro-Russian separatism in eastern Ukraine. However, as the commander of the Ukrainian volunteer paramilitary, Donbass Battalion, recognised in an interview, approximately 90% of the territory was recovered without fighting because the rebels simply withdrew, primarily to the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

From a military standpoint this is a very important fact, as it suggests that what looked like a breakthrough in the violent fighting between the Ukrainian military forces and rebel forces was misleading. Numerically, the rebels are inferior to Ukrainian forces, and they are at a considerable disadvantage in terms of heavy firepower such as artillery and air power. However, over the past week, there have been reports of large groups of Ukrainian military and security personnel and equipment was being encircled by advancing separatist forces. While the leadership of the Ukrainian government's Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) has denied that, the ATO previously failed to publicly recognise the so-called Izvarino encirclement, when a few thousand Ukrainian forces were surrounded by separatist fighters in the early stages of the conflict.

The apparent separatist advances have also been accompanied by reports of a fresh insurgent offensive towards the port city of Mariupol, with heavy fighting reported around Novoazovsk, to the east of the city. This area had previously been under the control of government forces, and an advance there would suggest an attempt to open up a second front, with Kiev suggesting that the attack had come from over the Russian border and included heavy equipment such as main battle tanks and BM-21 Grad multiple launch rocket systems.

The halting of Ukrainian government advances, or even the re-taking of territory by separatist forces, would likely lead to the conflict in eastern Ukraine moving into a period of stalemate, with neither side able to decisively end the fighting.

Military weaknesses

One of the key factors that has led to this situation is the fact that the Ukrainian military and security forces are poorly trained, with regular forces often playing a supporting role for the heavy preference for using artillery and airpower to target separatist positions, even in built-up urban areas. The high casualties suffered by Ukrainian government forces, which now number into the hundreds (although reliable data is not available), is another indicator of poor training.

In addition, the numerical difference between the rebels and the Ukrainian forces is not significant enough to assure military success, especially due to the unconventional nature of aspects of the fighting. Both sides prefer to use small mobile units at usually company-level, supported occasionally by armoured vehicles and tanks to conduct missions. The Ukrainian government forces are disadvantaged by the fact that they have to maintain military deployments at other segments of the border with Russia, as well as with Crimea, and the separatist Transdniestrian region of Moldova, which diminish their ability to concentrate forces against the rebels. Moreover, Ukraine cannot financially and logistically sustain a larger fighting force, as it is already struggling to afford the ongoing operation. A significant part of funding for the ATO is shouldered not by the government but through donations and certain powerful businessmen. Ihor Kolomoisky, for instance, is reported by domestic media sources to be spending around USD10 million a month on the salaries and equipment of volunteer militia forces.

Logistically, the Ukrainian army has also been extremely poorly supported. For instance, the fighting troops continue to lack tactical armour vests. Many troops in the area of operation receive them from civil society groups that raise money to buy them. On 26 August, the Ukrainian cabinet ordered the Ministry of Defence to urgently provide armoured vehicles and other military equipment from its depots to forces in the field. Considering that fighting has been going for months, there are clear problems in the supply chain for such a decision to have to be taken by governmental decree. Moreover, the cabinet has also ordered that all military equipment produced by and stocked at state-owned military concern Ukroboronprom to be sent to the area of military operations. This is an extreme move, given that much of this equipment had been produced for export.

Due to the very active and successful anti-aircraft operations of the rebels, which has led to the downing of several military helicopters, transport and combat aircraft, logistical air support for government forces has been limited. In early August, more than 400 Ukrainian military personnel surrendered their positions and crossed into Russia after they ran out of munitions, medical supplies, food and water, while encircled. The commanders of the volunteer paramilitary forces that fight alongside the regular troops have been very critical of the Ministry of Defence, indicating that the civilian population has been more successful in providing supplies.

There are also interoperability problems between pro-government forces on the ground. There is virtually no communication between official military and security force units, and the various volunteer battalions. The commanders of the volunteer paramilitary forces are often not invited to the planning of the operations, they act independently and without co-ordinating their actions. Volunteer battalion commanders also claim that when they communicate their planned movement to the military, they often get ambushed by the separatists, meaning they avoid doing so due to the perceived risk of the information being leaked.


While both Poroshenko and Putin have stated that a military solution in eastern Ukraine is impossible, neither leader is currently motivated to pursue a political settlement. Kiev has made significant progress in its military offensive in eastern Ukraine, and despite some recent setbacks, is still currently of the opinion that it has the upper hand. Indeed, the content of Poroshenko's peace "roadmap" will give important indications on how far he is willing to negotiate. Similarly Putin is unlikely to pursue negotiations in light of the rebels' current weakened state. Instead, while Kiev will continue to press for a decisive military victory in Donetsk and Luhansk, Russia will continue to step up its military support for the separatists, allowing them to consolidate their control of their remaining territory and launch counter-offensives and open new fronts. Such efforts will keep the government forces off balance, and could effectively halt their recent progress, and even rollback some of their advances. This is particularly true if a land bridge can be re-established to Luhansk city. Such a development would effectively lead to a stalemate in the conflict over the coming months. While Ukraine's military problems could be resolved through a serious financial investment into the military, given that the country is close to bankruptcy, it is highly unlikely to be able to sustain a sufficient military force to defeat the separatists in the next couple of months. Although this scenario is likely to lead to extended heavy fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, the establishment of a military stalemate will conversely give greater impetus to peace negotiations. With Kiev facing bankruptcy and an unsolvable conflict in the east, it will be increasingly likely to agree to Russian demands, including greater federalisation of the county and guarantees that it will not seek full NATO or EU membership.

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