The Russian speaking East of Ukraine appeared to have a plurality opposed to being ruled by what they call the Kiev “Junta.” Locals, Russian adventurers, and possibly a smattering of Russian covert agents, arranged for their declarations of independence only several months ago. It seems they hoped Russia would annex these regions in the same fashion as nearby Crimea. But Russia has apparently remained aloof, providing, at most, some small arms and turning a blind eye to the entry of mercenaries, volunteers, and heavy weapons from Chechnya and other places. Russia likely sees some benefit in continuing disorder in Eastern Ukraine, and, even if the rebels lose, there will be an even more radicalized pro-Russian minority in Ukrainian politics, which is to Russia’s advantage. It is fairly clear that Crimea had stronger historical claims to reuniting with Russia, and Crimea had important Russian strategic value as the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
What appears almost certain now is that the rebels are losing the battle and are going to lose this war. The rebels have lost almost all of their strategic cities, are in a tiny enclave in Eastern Ukraine, and depend on foreign fighters, such as the Chechen Vostok force and various Ossetian and Serbian volunteers. While the rebels have some air defense capability, they are on a small, flat part of Ukraine, lack large quantities of artillery, and are outnumbered by the large numbers of Ukrainian forces that have been brought to bear in the region.
The way the rebels have fought also has a lot to do with their strategic ineffectiveness. A small enclave like that rarely can go “toe to toe” with a professional military, even one thrown together on the fly such as the Ukrainian National Guard or the Donbas Battalion. The usual advantage for a regional separatist force is to fight a guerilla campaign, and one may easily contrast the relative success of the Iraqi insurgency relative to the quick defeat of the conventional Iraqi Army in the 2000s. But Ukrainians, unlike the tribal peoples of Iraq, clearly have some respect for law and order. The rebels set up a government, complete with police cars, twitter accounts, elections, and the rest. Unlike the ragamauffin Arab insurgents–whether in Iraq or Syria–they tend generally to carry their arms openly, wear some kind of uniform, have a chain of command, and have not engaged in gratuitous atrocities. That is, they are anything but terrorists, as commonly understood, and their desire to create a real statelet that Russia could annex has carried forward to their manner of combat. While this made some sense at the beginning, now that Russian annexation appears unlikely, this structure of things is to their strategic disadvantage.
For now, Ukraine is following the Russian example from Chechnya and bombing whole cities into smitherenes. And, in spite of demands that Russia stop aiding the rebels, it is financially mismanaged Ukraine that depends on large amounts of western aid, but it is getting a lot of it. Ukraine’s forces were unnerved and incapable after the Crimean event. Now, filled with highly motivated and politicized former teachers, programmers, engineers, and other ordinary citizens from the Maidan protests, it makes up for in enthusiasm and good equipment what it lacks in experience and operational art.
It is possible this war will transition into one of guerilla war over the next few months. But the qualities that make a good army often make for a bad guerilla. For Donetsk People’s Republic Defense Minister Igor Strelkov–who is a Russian Army veteran and all around military buff–the very different and less honorable tools of the trade for guerilla war may not be his cup of tea. On the other hand, he has been around to some rough spots including Bosnia and Chechnya.
Now that the main Ukrainian military has gone into full pursuit and crush mode, it appears as if these “countries” will be short lived and either return to the Ukrainian fold or continue as restive provinces crawling with disaffected guerillas. My money is on the former; guerrilla war, while having a long and storied place in the imagination of Soviet peoples, appears to have been the result of the earlier pre-Soviet nationalist and localist passions. The partisan campaigns of WWII went hand-in-hand with the locals being a somewhat ungovernable people, exemplified by the storied free-spirited ethos of the Cossacks. 70 years of Soviet rule diminished much of that spirit, and without the state-type structure of the Donetsk People’s Republic, it does not appear this conflict can last much longer.