With a rather shaky ceasefire in place in eastern Ukraine, there are still small pockets of fighting, and the withdrawal of the majority of Russian forces the question has to be, what happens next?
The situation is far from resolved, the separatists control large parts of Donbass region which includes the cities Donetsk and Luhansk, on the other hand they haven’t been able to yet take control of Mariupol which would put them well on the way to creating a land corridor between Crimea and Russia. Crimea has no physical link to Russia and there are now talks of constructing a bridge across the Kerch Strait between the two. Since Crimea’s annexation, Ukraine has severely restricted drinking water supplies to Crimea and the only options left for the time being are a polluted unused reservoir and a river which is also polluted. Not a good situation for the inhabitants to be in.
Apart from a frozen conflict there are other dangers facing Ukraine. A lot of the fighting against the Russian separatists has been done not only by the regular Ukrainian military but also far right Neo-Nazi groups, in particular the Azov Battalion. In fact Azov have often been at the forefront of the fighting and have proven themselves to be a tough bunch, more so than the regular army. Russia has always portrayed the new Ukrainian leadership of having a Nazi element and the fact that Ukraine has allowed Azov to fight and supplied them with weapons adds to this. This recent article in The Guardian touches on this also.
As Russia no longer has any political influence over Ukraine since the overthrow of President Victor Yanukovych, the rights and wrongs of which I don’t get involved in, Russia has been seeking to destabilize Ukraine. Understanding the growth of the far right Neo-Nazi movement in Ukraine is I believe, a part of Russia’s strategy to weaken its neighbour. Azov and other far right militia groups see the current government in Kiev as useless and have the attitude that Ukraine needs to have a strong dictatorship to control the country. By freezing the conflict now, Russia understands that these far right militia, who are well armed and battle hardened, can seriously destabilize the rest of Ukraine, in particular the capital Kiev. It hasn’t happened yet but the probability is high. Foreign Neo- Nazis have travelled to Ukraine to join them, not many yet but I can see the numbers increasing, in particular from Germany where there has been huge growth in far right organizations who are looking for a fight.
Ukraine fell into the trap of arming these groups and now Russia is backing away, it knows it can now sit back and watch as instability spreads. I don’t know if this was Russia’s plan from the start but it sees the benefits of taking advantage of the situation by freezing the conflict so all these militia can direct their anger towards Kiev. It is bound to happen over time, they pretty much admit it themselves in the article I linked to.
So what is Russia’s strategy here? It has been wanting to complete its South Stream gas pipeline for some time and hence avoid supplying gas to Europe via Ukraine but the EU has been holding things up for fear of becoming over dependent on Russia for energy. This pipeline bypasses Ukraine, coming through the Black Sea, entering Europe via Bulgaria, well that’s the plan but the EU hasn’t given permission for the final stage to be built yet. Russia seeing that these far right militia groups have the real potential to destabilize Ukraine and possibly the energy supply which Europe depends on, could be used as a strong pressure point to allow completion of the South Stream pipeline. Europe’s distaste for Russian actions in Ukraine may well have to be swallowed if Ukraine becomes unstable and the supply of gas with it. It simply needs the energy too much.
With European and American sanctions against Russia being increased it has become a game of chicken, who blinks first, Russia is totally reliant on the income from its gas exports to Europe and Europe is trying to put Vladimir Putin back in his box. Who has the greater will to win?