As previously mentioned, a conference about the war in Ukraine took place at the University of Ottawa this past Thursday. There was a full house, and the debate was civilized and in keeping with the academic venue. All in all, I considered it a great success.
My own paper was on ‘Russia’s role in the war in Donbass’. The conference was filmed, so once the video has been posted online, I will provide a link. For now, though, here are the key points of what I said:
- Russia’s annexation of Crimea mistakenly encouraged anti-Maidan protestors in Donbass to believe that if they were to hold demonstrations and occupy some buildings, the Russian Army would invade as it had in Crimea. In this way, Russia is indirectly responsible for the uprising in Donbass. We lack evidence, however, to prove that the Russian state was directly involved in provoking it. Most of the demonstrators were locals, and it cannot be shown those who came from outside, e.g. Strelkov and his men, were operating under orders from Moscow; indeed there is some reason to doubt that they were.
- There appear to be perhaps 3-4,000 Russian citizens fighting in Ukraine, most of whom are civilian volunteers, but some of whom are members of the Russian Army on ‘extended leave’. Some of the latter have provided training to the rebel forces. Nevertheless, 90% of the rebel fighters are Ukrainian citizens.
- Russia has provided weapons and ammunition to the rebels, although I conjecture that this has been more in the form of concealable items such as anti-tank weapons, man-portable air defence systems, and shells, than of big-ticket items such as armoured vehicles. Large quantities of the latter have been captured from the Ukrainian Army. The evidence tends to indicate that deliveries of military supplies from Russia were small in volume until late July, after which the quantity sharply increased.
- There is no good evidence that units of the Russian Army were directly involved in the war until mid-July, at which point it seems likely that Russian artillery did sometimes fire across the border at Ukrainian units located in the so-called ‘southern cauldron’. Large-scale Russian units did not appear in Donbass until the offensive of 24 August, in which they played an important role. They came and went very quickly, and there do not appear to be large units in Donbass at present.
- The purpose of the August offensive Army was not to save the rebels from military defeat, as commonly supposed, since the Ukrainian Army was not in fact on the verge of winning the war. By late August, capturing Donetsk and Lugansk was probably already beyond the capacity of the Ukrainian Army, and attempts to do so would have caused massive destruction and thousands of civilian casualties. The purpose of the Russian offensive was to forestall such a humanitarian catastrophe and to force the Ukrainian government to the negotiating table in order to bring the fighting to an end.
- The Russians did not at first have much control over the rebel forces or the rebel political leaders, many of whom pursued agendas contrary to that of Moscow. Russia therefore engineered a change in political and military leadership in mid-August designed to put into power people more amenable to compromise with Kiev. The political changes and the military offensive were, therefore, part of the same strategy, designed to halt the war.
- This strategy has not been successful. Kiev still shows no sign that it is willing to compromise, while rebel forces retain a good deal of independence. It is becoming clear that Moscow is not likely to achieve its preferred outcome – an autonomous Donbass within Ukraine. Russia is, therefore, having to deal with the reality of two independent quasi-states on its border. There is a need to establish proper centralized authorities in Donetsk and Lugansk, as well to provide humanitarian and economic support. Since the notional ceasefire of 5 September, Russia has been making efforts in this direction.
Much of this is, of course, speculation, albeit informed speculation. As I pointed out in my talk, Russia’s relationship with the rebel republics in Ukraine is shrouded in mystery.