"Ukraine Sepratists Crisis Slovyansk ATO" by Sasha Maksymenko. CC BY-NC 2.0. Via Flickr.

US President Donald Trump’s decision to withhold $250 million in military aid to Ukraine has once again drawn attention to the rationality of Ukraine’s war in the east, which has been variously represented as “antiterrorist operation,” a “joint forces operation,” a war on separatism and an opposition to the Russian “aggression.” Be it what it may, one thing is certain: it is not good for the country.

Ukraine has nearly 50,000 troops, heavy weaponry and artillery engaged in the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) against the pro-Russian separatists in the south-eastern Donbass area. Little has been achieved on the ground, however, in terms of “reintegration” of the territory that Kiev claims is occupied by Russia.

Strangely enough, no definite proof of Russian deployment of its regular armed forces on the separatist-controlled lands has been produced in five years of the war. Even stranger, Ukraine continues trade negotiations with the “aggressor country” and focuses its military efforts on its own towns and villages without attempting to, say, disrupt the command and control structures of the alleged aggressor, bomb its supply routes or attack its forces when they allegedly cross into the Ukrainian territory. While no definitive proof of Russia is deploying its regular army formations in Ukraine has emerged, the war has already claimed more than 13,000 Ukrainian lives on both sides.

President Zelensky has promised to stop the hostilities, which have raged since 2014 over the Donbass Ukrainians’ demand for home rule. However, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine registers numerous ceasefire violations predominantly by the government forces. Civilians are periodically injured and killed because of continuous use of the artillery and mortar fire in heavily populated regions. Heavy weaponry remains in the security zone on both sides.

President Zelensky has promised to stop the hostilities, which have raged since 2014 over the Donbass Ukrainians’ demand for home rule

Russia does provide financial, military and diplomatic aid to the separatists. Even so, pinning all responsibility for the conflict on the “Putin regime” distracts attention from what Ukraine itself can do to bring a lasting peace to its people. Reviving the Normandy format talks and actually attempting to implement some, if not all, of the Minsk II peace agreements would be a big step forward. The US joining the France-Germany-Russia-Ukraine talks, as President Trump suggested, could potentially move the process forward.

Russia insists that the conflict in Donbass is Ukraine’s internal business. In practical terms, it means that President Vladimir Putin will not try to annex the so-called “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk the way Russia did to Crimea. At the same time, Moscow will prop up the separatists by whatever means necessary short of direct military intervention. This means that Kyiv will hardly succeed in reconquering Donbass by force.

Giving the JFO a mandate to stay in action until Donbas and Crimea are fully reintegrated into the Ukrainian state goes beyond brinkmanship and into the realm of pure state adventurism. The JFO cannot accomplish the task it was given without engaging Russia directly. Yet, should Ukraine try a war on the world’s second-most powerful military, it will be finished as an independent state.

The only solution, then, is to negotiate with the Donbass separatists while remembering that not all people dying in the conflict are foreign agents. Most of them are, in fact, Ukrainian citizens. Civilians who live and work in the secessionist territory controlled by rebels should not be punished for their misfortune.

Russia’s support of separatists notwithstanding, it is not the Russian army detachments that lay the landmines along the contact line in the government-controlled territories or bombard Donetsk with mortars. Continuing presentations of Ukraine’s civil war as a Russian intervention fails to explain why more than 3 million people that find themselves on the territory of self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk “people’s republics” have not yet attempted mass protests against the “Russian occupying forces” and their  local “collaborationists.” If anything, a significant plurality of the Donbass locals have actually rallied behind the separatist cause.

The 2014-2015 Minsk peace agreements signed by Ukraine, Russia and representatives of the self-proclaimed “republics” remain the only reasonable solution to the conflict.

The military solution is bound to fail.

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