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What's to be done in the Donbas?

By Matthew Parish

The situation in the Donbas on the ground is subtly different in certain ways to elsewhere along the front line in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is a common understanding of the front line of this conflict that the parties are divided by the waters of the River Dnipro, the Russians being positioned on the southern and eastern banks of the river and the Ukrainians on the northern and western banks. Elsewhere along the front line, it is said, the parties are divided by a series of trenches into which they are dug in and therefore there is a “hard” front line along the entirety of the conflict zone. However this turns out only partially to be true.

There are some areas in which the parties are separated by a segregated series of offensive and defensive trenches with a no man’s land in between them, and examples of this sort of formation include in the region south of Zaporizhzhia and in certain areas around Sloviansk. However for the most part there is in fact no front line between the parties, in the sense that there are some cities / settlements under Ukrainian control, such as Lyman, Kramatorsk and Kostyantynivka; some under Russian control, such as Bakhmut and Horlivka; and some that the Russians once occupied but since withdrew which are mere scenes of devastation with no obvious control by anyone and very little in the way of population.

Between these rival population centres there is a sort of no man’s land in which abandoned cities have simply been left to rot. In these abandoned cities, and Siversk is a good example, there may be an occasional Ukrainian flag flying but really there is no military or civilian government presence of any kind. Hence these are no-man’s land cities in which very little is happening and it is possible to drive around between the various cities in these regions more or less unrestricted. At some point you will reach a checkpoint at which you may be stopped if your vehicle has the wrong look about it or the wrong licence plates; but the region is remarkably porous. It is not possible in many places to say that there is a front line per se. There are just the abandoned ruins from previously fought battles that the parties have withdrawn from.

This renders the movement of people between free Ukraine and occupied Ukraine far easier than one might imagine. All you need to do is to travel to one of these abandoned settlements by one means or the other and then walk into the territory of the other side and be collected by someone. There is no impermeable barbed wire fence or solid and immovable set of trenches. There are periodic trench positions, to be sure, to assist soldiers in taking cover from periodic drone strikes and the like; but there are no firm borders.

This presents a challenge for any future peacekeeping operation, as have similar ambiguities in civil conflicts in the past. The first priority for a peacekeeping operation - when it arrives - is to separate the parties; and it is not entirely clear what line to separate them along because the river and the trenches around Zaporizhzhia aside, the conflict in the Donbas in particular is one of inertia in which to a significant extent the parties have voluntarily partitioned themselves along a dividing line the location of which is not set in stone and therefore it is not possible to designate what a “de-militarised zone” for peacekeepers ought to be. What has been seen in previous wars, in particular in the Bosnian war, is that where the apparent front lines are set in sand rather than in stone as appears to be the case here, at the first talk of armistice negotiations there is a sudden scramble for the terra nulls no man’s land standing between the parties, and the fighting erupts again.

This was the origins of the infamous Srebrenica massacre in July 1995. Srebrenica was a Bosnian Muslim civilian pocket deep within Serb-held territory that had been tolerated notwithstanding the so-called “front line” between the warring parties during the Bosnian conflict. As soon as the facts on the ground presented the possibility of being fed into hard legal realities such as a ceasefire line (in Bosnia this was known as the “Inter-Entity Boundary Line” or IEBL), people started fighting for settlements that had hitherto been forgotten or overlooked amidst the chaos of war because in wars front lines are not generally hard, immutable things but just areas in which the fighting parties have withdrawn from one-another in the second stage typical of a civil conflict which is stagnation. The parties separate not because they are physically prevented from fighting but just because they lack the desire to die at one-another’s hands.

Then when any sort of armistice negotiations begin (and I believe that those sorts of negotiations will begin in Ukraine only once NATO troops enter military theatre) the parties suddenly start fighting again over the no man’s land or abandoned or forgotten parcels of territory - the Ukrainian versions of Srebrenica - because they enter the final stage of the war in which they see their military efforts potentially transformed into legal documents. The result in the Bosnian war was an atrocity involving the mass murder of thousands of civilians just to claim a geographical land pocket unambiguously on one side of the iEBL. The same sorts of events could take place rapidly in the equivalent parts of the Donbas once there is talk of NATO troops entering Ukraine in serious numbers.

To prevent these sorts of atrocity, there are two options. One is to depopulate the buffer zone areas now, which is something the Ukrainian Armed Forces appear to be encouraging in some of the settlements east and south of Kostyantynivka, so that the civilian populations cannot be subject to generalised slaughter once the final decision day of NATO peacekeepers arrives. But this is by no means easy; not anticipating the danger because they do not understand the political dynamics of how wars tend to end, civilians refuse to move. Another is to insert NATO troops by surprise; but moving hundreds of thousands of soldiers and associated armour is something it is very difficult to do by surprise. Therefore neither option is without danger.

The conclusion is that as the second Russian invasion of Ukraine inevitably at some point enters its third and final phase, in anticipation of armistice negotiations with the assistance of NATO, the Donbas will perhaps uniquely be a renewed source of the most violent confrontation as the parties attempt finally to draw a front line for some legal purpose or other. The front line in the Donbas region is extremely fungible, and that spells severe future danger for the civilian populations remaining in the area howsoever this war is ultimately brought to an end.


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