STOLYPIN: The Slavyansk crossroads

By bne IntelliNews July 8, 2014

Mark Galeotti of New York University -


There is the what, there is the how, and there is the why: and they are all important in assessing the success and prospects of Ukraine’s current offensive against the pro-Russian separatists of the east. The fall after three months of symbolically-rich Slavyansk, cradle of the uprising, is a turning point – but in which way?

The ‘what’ is, of course, Kyiv’s newly-invigorated effort to strike back against the separatists, which led to Slavyansk’s seizure on July 5. It is hardly surprising that the government of President Petro Poroshenko would be eager to reconquer its fractious eastern provinces. No state can accept a regional coup and the rise of independent warlord principalities and, to be honest, it was the very meekness of Kyiv’s initial response that emboldened the insurgency.

But of course the ‘how’ matters. Slavyansk fell to a massive, hammer-blow attack, heavy on the use of airpower and artillery, with very little evidence of finesse or restraint. Although the subsequent provision of emergency relief for hungry, scared and in some cases homeless locals was an encouraging sign, any serious concern for hearts and minds seem to have been very much a last-minute and peripheral aspect of the operation. In purely military terms, this makes sense: the government forces played to their strengths and avoided getting bogged down in the kind of close-in street fighting at which the insurgents have often excelled and which favors the defender.

Nonetheless, this also meant that the rebels were able to withdraw in good order and relatively unscathed, marching their men and driving their armored vehicles to Donetsk to fight another day. It also left a legacy of anger and dismay that will be a problem for Kyiv in the future — and also handed Moscow a potentially valuable political card, of which more below.

Whether or not these are costs worth incurring depends very much on the ‘why.’ Is this simply an all-out effort to win a military victory over a recalcitrant and often pretty toxic fraction of the east Ukrainian population (and their Russian comrades-in-arms), regardless of the immediate human and long-term political cost? If so, it may prove to be a dangerous act of bravado. After all, Moscow is unlikely to be able to accept with equanimity the defeat of their Ukrainian proxies. Even though the administration of Russian President Vladmir Putin has recently been trying to distance itself from them, it has sunk too much political capital into the adventure not to look weak if the rebellion fails.

The Kremlin, after all, still has options. It could simply step up the supply of volunteers and materiel to Donetsk, as Kyiv is unlikely to succeed in its aim of closing the border. That may not be enough to prevent the city’s fall, though. As Igor Strelkov, ‘defense minister’ of the Donetsk People’s Republic rightly asserted in a video appeal: “If Russia doesn’t agree a ceasefire or intervene with its armed forces for us… we will be destroyed.” And if Donetsk is taken, then although small-scale local violence will continue, the insurgency will be beaten.

Humanitarian operation

However, even short of a full-scale invasion — still not something Moscow views with any enthusiasm — the Russians could certainly intervene more directly. The damage done to Slavyansk and the stream of refugees heading into Russia — there are already some 110,000 according to the UN —c ould be used to justify a “humanitarian operation” whereby Russian jets enforce a no-fly zone over eastern Ukraine, and air and artillery strikes hammer Ukrainian armor and heavy weapons on the ground. There is very little Kyiv could do about this, as the Russians have a clear advantage in the air. While the West would condemn and complain, Moscow would simply claim Libya as precedent (even though the 2011 campaign was backed by a UN Security Council mandate).

In that situation, if Kyiv really wants to take Donetsk, it faces the risk that it will have to do it the old-fashioned way, in the kind of messy, close-quarters urban brawl that would see more and more body bags heading home. Ultimately, the government forces would win, but not without serious casualties — and also at the expense of the civilian population of the city and its fabric. It’s worth remembering, after all, that once the guns are silent, Kyiv wants to be able to govern the east without having to spend a fortune on reconstruction.

Alternatively, this could be a ham-fisted and ruthless attempt by Poroshenko to alter the basis for negotiation with Moscow. Having taken Slavyansk, having demonstrated that Kyiv has a credible military machine that could — albeit at considerable cost — reimpose its writ over the east, he might well be in a better position to reach terms with Putin.

A military victory can be a heady thing for a civilian leader, though, and Poroshenko is clearly aware of the challenge he could face from the nationalist wing in Ukrainian politics, especially recent “give war a chance” demonstrations in Kyiv.

So far, there is no real evidence that the contact group peace talks being held in Europe are making any progress and whether any common ground is emerging on which Kyiv and Moscow can meet. Meanwhile, the latest reports of airstrikes on Lugansk, the next obvious government target, do not suggest a willingness to pause for talks.

One way or the other, Slavyansk is likely to prove crucial. Either it will allow Kyiv to negotiate from a stronger position to secure a working arrangement with Moscow, or else it will embolden it to the point that it puts Putin in the position of either allowing the rebels to be beaten on the battlefield or escalating. The former would not only be a serious political blow to a leader who has made something of a fetish of infallibility, it would also jeopardize Russia’s standing in Eurasia and also lead to lasting embarrassments. What, after all, will happen to all those Russian “war tourists” who would face capture, trial and public display?

Putin clearly does not want to shoulder the political, economic and military costs of more direct intervention, but he would hardly be the first leader who sees escalation as better than capitulation.

Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SCPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University, who writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows

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