Lawrence Freedman: The Problem with the Donbas


In all the searches for a peace settlement it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there are no good outcomes for Russia from this war. It has inflicted massive human, political, and economic costs on itself, as well as on Ukraine. Nothing that Moscow can now achieve can outweigh those costs. If he is unable to muster a final offensive to achieve his original aims there is no formula that will enable Putin to pretend that this has all been worthwhile and he has achieved exactly what was intended. As Igor Girkin has observed, he will have lost as completely as he once hoped to win.

Lawrence Freedman


Sir Lawrence David Freedman, KCMG, CBE, PC, FBA is Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. He has been described as the “dean of British strategic studies” and was a member of the Iraq Inquiry. Wikipedia


Comment is Freed

The Problem with the Donbas

Lawrence Freedman
2 hr ago

Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, delivers a press conference on 28 July 2014 in Donetsk. (Source: BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2014 Igor Girkin, aka ‘Strelkov’ (the shooter), became the face of the rebellion in Ukraine’s Donbas region against the new government in Kyiv. He was not actually Ukrainian, but a Russian with strong nationalist views, who enjoyed historical re-enactments of past Russian wars, and had worked for the FSB (the successor to the KGB). He was a veteran of the conflicts that erupted in the former Soviet Union after its collapse, including in Chechnya. In February 2014, after a popular movement had led the pro-Russian president Yanukovych to flee, Girkin helped to create the conditions for the annexation of Crimea before moving on to the supposedly Russophile Donbas, becoming the Defence Minister of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk Peoples Republic’.

He did enough to help turn what might have been patchy unrest into a violent conflict but then fell out with Moscow for two reasons. First he was attracting too much attention, especially after he was implicated in the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner – MH17 – for which he is now being tried (in absentia) in the Netherlands. Second, he disagreed over political objectives. He wanted the territory of the Donbas (and more if possible) to follow Crimea into becoming part of the Russian Federation. But then Putin held back. Militarily this would certainly have been easier for Russia then than it is now, but Putin’s preferred strategy then was to integrate the Donbas back into Ukraine under a new constitution that would guarantee it extra rights and an ability to influence Kyiv’s future political direction. Girkin thought this was a lost opportunity. His readiness to speak his mind, and the publicity surrounding him, irritated Moscow, and so he was told to get back to Russia and shut up.

Putin’s Donbas Dilemma

To follow his preferred strategy Putin first had to stop the separatists losing to Ukrainian forces. He did this in August 2014 by inserting Russian regular forces into the battle. Then, having inflicted some heavy blows on Ukrainian forces, he agreed to ceasefire talks, which led to the Minsk agreements of September, which were revised slightly after more fighting the next February. In principle these agreements achieved his objectives but in practice they failed because they were never implemented. He was stuck with subsidising the two enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk, who were left in limbo, while Ukraine continued, from Putin’s perspective, on its alarmingly pro-Western course.

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