Today, in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukrainian military forces are holding their positions along lines of contact against ethno-Russian separatists backed by Moscow. Along the 500-kilometer de facto border, both sides regularly violate the fragile cease-fire agreement brokered in Minsk three years ago by Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany. A clear political solution has yet to emerge, but Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and Germany’s Angela Merkel have publicly indicated they both support the establishment of a United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operation to set conditions for a political resolution. For Kiev, hopes to regain Crimea are rapidly deteriorating, as Russia continues to deepen its ties to the pro-Russian Crimean government while building a symbolic bridge connecting the city of Kerch to the Russian mainland. The humanitarian crisis is also dire. These conflicts have already claimed over 10,000 lives since early 2014 and displaced an estimated 1.6 million within Ukraine’s pre-invasion borders.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (Radio Free Europe)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (Radio Free Europe)

Ukraine seeks to reestablish its territorial integrity and its fate is largely dependent on the amount of hard and soft power assistance it receives from the West. Although the commitment of the United States to Ukraine is nothing short of noteworthy and aspirational, its limited military support and trickling arms sales seemingly fall short of anything that could tip the military scales in Ukraine’s favor, or dissuade Russia from holding the nation hostage by backing the separatist movement. The breadth and depth of the United States commitment will depend on how Washington strategically perceives the conflict in Ukraine and how much political cost it is willing to risk with Moscow. One approach to resolving the crisis in Ukraine is to examine how and why Russia manipulates frozen conflicts in its near abroad to meet its strategic ends.


Frozen conflicts are situations where armed conflict has virtually stopped, but a satisfactory political settlement has yet to manifest and terminate the conflict. Ukraine’s frozen conflicts are rooted in the Soviet policies of Joseph Stalin—where the Soviet Union would strategically relocate entire ethnic groups in its periphery so that ethnic Russians could resettle the vacated regions for geostrategic benefit. For the Soviets, this demographic insurance policy ensured that Moscow retained authority of crucial areas in the event of empire collapse or as a practical measure to clear the way for eventual military conflict with the West. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has operationalized these seeds of conflict by supporting pro-Russian secessionist movements with political, military, and financial support.


In the case of Ukraine, Russia views intervention as a matter of existential survival. In addition to expanding its sphere of influence to counter North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion and divert its resources, Russia believes that the pro-democratic color revolutions and the spread of liberal ideologies near its borders are transnational threats—one that could fundamentally undermine the stability of the Russian Federation. President Vladimir Putin cannot accept a successful democratic model to thrive on its borders. Thus, Russia’s hand in Ukraine’s frozen conflicts is both strategically offensive and defensive. In the near term, Russia’s support of the separatists provides Moscow a consistent mechanism to destabilize Kiev and their pro-democratic reforms. By manipulating the intensity of the conflict like a rheostat, Putin can disrupt Ukraine’s liberal agenda and undermine the credibility of Kiev at will. Of note, for nations like Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova who wish to escape the Russian sphere, political stability and territorial integrity are necessary for complete western integration. Regardless if the desire is to join the European Union or NATO, these frozen conflicts have manifested from Putin’s de facto veto of any further westernization for these Eastern European countries.

Western leaders and the United States should also consider the transnational criminal threats that have manifested out of these frozen conflicts. The lack of an effective government and corruption in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, as well as direct Russian exploitation, has transformed these frozen conflict regions into breeding grounds for organized crime, terrorism, human trafficking, and arms transfers. Not only do these threats destabilize an already vulnerable region, the migratory impact of these illicit actions depletes the political and economic resources of the already weakened nation.

Ironically, as Kiev and Moscow struggle to find a resolution on the national scale, Ukrainian criminals have partnered and collaborated with Russian criminal elements in its eastern regions and Crimea; a dangerous partnership that will only aggravate the nation’s “endemic corruption.” In Crimea—to add to the strategic benefits related to the Black Sea, ethno-consolidation, and natural resources—Russian criminal networks are also developing new maritime smuggling routes based out of Sevastopol. Illegal smuggling already permeates the Ukrainian port of Odessa, and now a new front is likely to develop in a weakly governed region of Crimea. Western leaders must recognize that the stalemate in Ukraine is breathing oxygen into transnational threats, which fuel criminal activities in all of Europe, incentivize corrupt militaries on the front lines, and reinforce Russia’s government with illegal funds.


The US-Ukraine Charter of Strategic Partnership underpins the mutual interests of these two countries along the lines of democratic values, economic freedom, and security. In 2017, Defense Secretary James Mattis also reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty directly to President Poroshenko at the Pentagon. According to the United States mission to NATO, the United States seeks to help Ukraine develop its defensive institutions and to “effectively preserve and enforce its territorial integrity.” Most recently, in March 2018, the Trump administration signaled to Congress that it planned to sell Ukraine 210 Javelin anti-tank missiles and 37 command units. Before this confirmation, Russia warned that any sale of armaments to Ukraine could destabilize the tenuous cease-fire they agreed to in Minsk three years earlier. Yet Washington expanded its commitment to Ukraine with “defensive lethal weapons” and risked straining one of its most contentious issues with Moscow. As a matter of strategic tit-for-tat rather than strategic posturing, Washington’s announcement came the same day Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had developed missiles that could defeat NATO missile defense systems.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis welcomes Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to the Pentagon. (DoD Photo/SGT Amber I. Smith)

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis welcomes Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to the Pentagon. (DoD Photo/SGT Amber I. Smith)

On the front lines, since October 2016, the public face of the Department of Defense’s support to Ukraine is largely spearheaded by the 350 personnel of the Joint Military Training Group – Ukraine (JMTG-U). They can train, advise, and assist up to five battalions (~1000 troops per battalion) per year and will be in Ukraine until the year 2020.The Joint Military Training Group focuses on training troops on basic military skills, advising their leadership on military operations, and modernizing their fighting doctrine. Through some simple arithmetic, the Joint Military Training Group – Ukraine has probably trained less than ten thousand Ukrainian troops – a fraction of Ukraine’s 250,000 strong military force. Today, Ukrainian forces are barely able to resist Russian advances, and they are in no way capable of coordinating strong enough offensives to regain lost territory against the Moscow backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. Perhaps the United States and its Allies are opting for a slow and measured strategy to compel Russia toward a peaceful resolution, however, they should take note that time is not on their side.  With every passing moment that Russia holds these occupied regions, the separatist challenges to Kiev’s legitimacy gain strength and will further complicate future political solutions.


The complexities behind Ukraine’s conflicts leave few good choices for the United States and NATO. Considering the state of affairs, the United States and its allies seem deadlocked in their ability to impose real cost on Russia, even with the most recent sale of Javelin missile systems. The United States and its allies could continue providing additional lethal arms to Ukraine or by increasing sanctions, but for the most part, the United States and the West have yet to develop the right combination of sticks and carrots to prompt Russia to change its behavior. Washington’s reluctance to impose additional sanctions hints that there is not a clear strategy on how it wishes to address Russia globally, let alone its specific role in Ukraine.


United States and Western leaders who wish to end this stalemate in Ukraine must recognize how Russia has exploited the region for strategic advantage. They should also take notice that Russia reduced its military budget by 25% in 2017 and that Moscow is facing financial strains by maintaining its forces in Ukraine. By expanding its military mandate to address the transnational criminal aspects of these conflicts, the United States and NATO may find new avenues to impose cost on Russia and reduce its incentives in maintaining its footprint. Ideally, by disrupting illicit activities, increasing sanctions, and enhancing Ukraine’s military, the West could steer Putin toward accepting a full UN peacekeeping operation instead of his suggestion for limited border monitoring by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Given these troubling conditions for Russia and political unity of effort by the West, a strategic opportunity to thaw the frozen conflicts in Ukraine may arise for all parties. Ukraine and the West must then decide the extent they are willing to sacrifice territory for stability, and Russia must come to terms on whether it can live with a semi-functional pro-Western government on its periphery. Kiev’s desire to regain its lost territories may not be realistic today, though its increasing interactions with NATO is a positive step in demonstrating Western resolve against Russian aggression. In the meantime, Moscow has few reasons to end these frozen conflicts and abandon its de facto veto on Ukraine’s western integration.

Adam Yang is a Marine Corps Communications Officer and an Advanced Information Operations Planner. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Armed men in military fatigues block access to government buildings in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk (Aleksey Filippov/AFP/Getty Images)