ALL QUIET ON THE EASTERN FRONT: Ukraine’s Uncertain Future

Lincoln Pigman is a first year student of War Studies at King’s College London, and is currently running for Vice President of the War Studies Society.


Just under two years since the annexation of Crimea, Russian operations in Ukraine seem at first glance to be doomed. Sanctions have taken their toll on the Russian economy, and Kiev still stands, having checked the separatist advance in the east. Washington and Brussels have so far managed to avoid linking negotiations over Syria to sanctions over Minsk II and Crimea. However, observers celebrating the stalemate in eastern Ukraine as a sign that Russia has failed to attain decisive victory mistakenly assume that Russia’s aim is to conquer the former Novorossiya as it did Crimea. [1] Au contraire—Russia has much to gain from a frozen conflict. Preoccupied by war-induced instability, the Petro Poroshenko administration is certain to neglect demands for domestic reform, for which there exists little political will. Over time, Kiev will lose much-needed internal and external support, and in response its behaviour will grow desperate. The possibilities are endless, from state failure and escalation to acquiescence and a humiliating peace with the Russian-backed separatists. Ukraine’s future is uncertain—but what is certain is that there is little cause for self-congratulation.

Disenchantment with Kiev illustrates the success of Russia’s attritional strategy thus far. Recent polls indicate that Poroshenko currently enjoys an approval rating of 17%, a whopping 30% less than last year and over 10% less than that of former President Yanukovych before his ousting. He is not alone in his unpopularity: only 8% of respondents expressed confidence in the national government as a whole. [2] Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has also come under fire, from both ordinary Ukrainians, many of whom accuse him of corruption, and the government itself. On February 16, the Prime Minister became the second official this month to be called on by President Poroshenko to resign. He narrowly averted disaster as a no-confidence motion in Parliament fell short of success by 32 votes. But better days are far away, as Mr. Yatsenyuk’s bloc faces a 1% approval rating [3] and, as of February 18, a loss of its majority status in Parliament following the withdrawal of two factions. [4] The increasing suspicion that Mr. Yatsenyuk’s survival resulted from a secret deal between Ukraine’s political and economic elites does not bode well, either. [5]

Foreign institutions share the public’s dissatisfaction with their government. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) characterised the rule of law in post-revolutionary Ukraine as an ‘accountability vacuum. [6] The International Monetary Fund (IMF), on whose financial support Ukraine is increasingly dependent, has withheld a loan tranche of $1.7 billion, demanding that tax and spending reforms be undertaken first. [7] Even Ukraine’s key allies are growing wary. Addressing Ukrainian leaders in December, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden qualified Washington’s pledge of support by warning of the consequences of inaction: ‘Future Ukrainians,’ said Biden, ‘will ask about their leaders, “Did they deliver for us? Did they fundamentally change the nature of my country or did they not?” History will be a very, very harsh judge.[8]


There is much to judge, and only some of it can be placed on the shoulders of the Kremlin and its campaign of destabilisation. Poroshenko has undermined his own legitimacy—and that of the Revolution of Dignity altogether—by obstructing investigations into crimes committed by the Yanukovych regime. More generally, Poroshenko’s ties to Ukraine’s last three presidents, as well as the country’s political and business elites, erode his standing with a population now experienced in rising up against injustice and abuses of power [9] A lack of trust and credibility impacts more than just approval ratings: in February alone, Ukraine has lost its Economic Minister and its Prosecutor-General to disillusionment and division. [10]  To some extent, Kiev’s failure to satisfy demands for reform owes to the nature of Ukrainian democracy: relatively inchoate, with institutions tailored to authoritarian rule.[11] However, having risen to power on the backs of promises to truly democratise Ukraine, the current government cannot hide behind the institutional defects it pledged to correct.

Because it lacks the political will to enact reform, the Ukrainian government is forced to depend instead on military successes for domestic legitimacy. Such a politico-military strategy does not suit the reality of the war in Ukraine, since clear-cut victories and territorial gains are by definition absent in stalemates. In the year since the rebel conquest of Debaltseve in February 2015, the front has remained fairly static, disadvantaging Kiev and thereby playing into Moscow’s hands. Vladimir Putin can pin economic decline on Western conspiracies to ruin Russia, but Poroshenko can point to no one but himself and his administration when criticised over the continued occupation of Donbas and the absence of reform. Recent weeks have seen a ‘massive increase’ in violence in the east, according to observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). [12]  A large-scale separatist offensive would generate much political capital by giving Kiev a chance to compensate for political paralysis with military success. The likelihood of territorial gains in such a scenario is high. Ukraine’s international allies appreciate the relationship between domestic reform and war-induced instability, and are certain to provide no shortage of military assistance, in the form of expertise and hardware, to neutralise the latter. However, without a convenient opportunity in the east, confidence in the government is certain to continue falling.

Vladimir Putin


With early parliamentary elections certain to take place in September, and no major military successes in sight, the end is nigh for Mr. Poroshenko, Mr. Yatsenyuk, and all those aboard with them. So what could happen? Another government under Yulia Tymoshenko, who served as Prime Minister of Ukraine from 2007 to 2010 and withdrew her faction from Mr. Yatsenyuk’s bloc on February 19th, could be on the cards. Excluded from politics since her release from prison in the closing days of the Euromaidan, Mrs. Tymoshenko has said little on which to base predictions. Nor will the situation then be the same as today—the front may be static, but Ukraine’s descent into disorder is not. However, in any case, Ukraine is certain to be in as concerning a state as it is today. For its leaders face a terrible dilemma: maintain domestic and international support, both of which are contingent on domestic reform. Undertake reform despite the absence of political will and the drain of state resources that is the war in Donbass. Remain resolute in the face of Russian aggression, reinforced by support at home and from abroad. Fail in any one endeavour, and the whole house of cards falls in tow, bringing down Ukraine, regional stability, and perhaps even Europe’s resolve against Russia with it.



[1]The illusion is pervasive: see Shaun Walker, ‘As Russia Enters War in Syria, Conflict in Ukraine Begins to Wind Down,’ The Guardian, October 1, 2015; Matthew Bodner, ‘Russia Pushing for an Endgame in Ukraine,’ The Moscow Times, January 21, 2016; Alexander J. Motyl, ‘Lights Out for the Putin Regime,’ Foreign Affairs, January 27, 2016; and Stephen Blank, ‘In Ukraine, Putin Tries to Cash in Before Luck Runs Out,’ Atlantic Council, January 27, 2016 for examples.

[2] Julie Ray, ‘Ukrainians Disillusioned with Leadership,’ Gallup, December 23, 2015.

[3] ‘Ukraine Crisis: PM Yatsenyuk Survives No-Confidence Vote,’ BBC, February 16, 2016.

[4] Associated Press, ‘Ukraine: Governing Coalition Splinters,’ The New York Times, February 18, 2016.

[5] Oleksandr Holubov, ‘The Yatsenyuk Chronicles: How Ukraine’s Prime Minister Survived,’ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 18, 2016.

[6] Taras Kuzio, ‘Euromaidan Dreams Deferred: Poroshenko, Corruption, and Stalled Political Progress in Ukraine,’ Foreign Affairs, January 7, 2016.

[7] David Stern, ‘Ukraine Teeters a Few Steps from Chaos,’ BBC, February 5, 2016.

[8] Peter Baker, ‘Joe Biden Says U.S. Is Still Backing Ukraine,’ The New York Times, December 7, 2015.

[9] Kuzio, 2016.

[10] Maxim Eristavi, ‘Now We Know Who Really Runs Ukraine,’ Foreign Policy, February 17, 2016.

[11] Mikhail Minakov, ‘A Decisive Turn? Risks for Ukrainian Democracy after the Euromaidan,’ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 3, 2016.

[12] Associated Press, ‘Fighting Flares Up in Eastern Ukraine,’ The New York Times, February 5, 2016.

[13] Associated Press, ‘Ukraine: Governing Coalition Splinters,’ The New York Times, February 18, 2016.

[14] ‘Tymoshenko Party Quits Ukraine Ruling Coalition,’ RFE/RL, February 19, 2016.


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