Conceptualizing the War in Donbas

October 24, 2015
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Conceptualizing the War in Donbas

Dominique Arel and Jesse Driscoll have been collaborating for nearly a year on an effort to understand, in a theoretical capacity, what precisely is happening in Donbas. In this panel of the 2015 Danyliw Seminar, they presented the evolution and some of the conclusions born from this collective project.

They began by referencing the work of political scientist Strathis Kalyvas, who developed a taxonomy of wars that occur where actors do and do not have parity and were states do or do not have capacity to act. They especially drew a distinction between ‘conventional warfare,’ where in there is parity between state actors who have high capability, and ‘irregular warfare,’ which occurs in contexts with low state capacity and low parity between actors. Irregular warfare is defined by multiple, unofficial combatant groups, such as can be observed during guerilla warfare and wider campaigns of civilian terrorism.

Driscoll observed that there are few examples of ‘conventional’ warfare; the American civil war is such an example, but there are few more. For this reason, most practical work on warfare revolves around building theories and policies for responding to irregular warfare. Nevertheless, Driscoll and Arel argue that conventional warfare is what is taking place in Donbas. 

Though the term ‘civil war’ is a contentious one in popular discourse about the war in Ukraine, a fact which Arel and Driscoll both acknowledged, they argued that the war in Donbas is, in a technical sense, a civil war—though it is a very strange one. The end of February 2014, saw the largest mass defection from a single Ukrainian political party in years, with the majority of national police forces as well as most Party of Regions deputies aligning themselves with other power structures in a matter of days. By the end of the month, the officials who remained with Yanukovych’s Party of Regions were almost exclusively from Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Arel emphasized that the collapse of the regime in the center caused a collapse of the state structure in Donbas. These conditions directly facilitated Russia’s interference in this region. 

Driscoll returned to the topic of irregular warfare, arguing that the war in Donbas did not fit this definition. He acknowledged that great loss of life—including civilian—had been suffered in the region, and emphasized that his assessment was in no way meant to downplay that real human tragedy. However, he argued that a distinction should be drawn between the gross devastation meted out in truly irregular warfare, where citizens are targeted, warlordism proliferates, and the death toll crosses over from high into absolutely devastating. “I am a student of the Georgian and the Tajik civil wars,” Driscoll stated, “I have a dark and nuanced model in my head of what state failure looks like, and we haven’t seen that yet [in Ukraine.]”

The speakers acknowledged some disadvantages of using the term ‘civil war’ to describe the events in Donbas. The first and most common, that the term allegedly obscures the fact of Russian involvement; neither speaker found this a compelling reason to stop using it, as the term has a very specific meaning in political science, and this is a semantic issue. The next two reasons, however, were more serious. The term ‘civil war’ evokes a specific set of theories that inform how we think about war. Driscoll is concerned that we may soon find ourselves in a place where new, emergent things are taking place that do not fit into this model, leaving us with nothing but bad science in hand with which to respond to real life conflict. “There has been a lot of theory building in the ‘civil war’ space,” Driscoll observed, “but we have built a knowledge space that does not work really well for what we re trying to describe.”

Lastly, Driscoll expressed concern that the term might lead to the conflation of the situation in Crimea and the conflict in Donbas. He defended the establishment of a clear distinction between these two events. “Donbas is dripping with ambiguity,” Driscoll said, but argued that it was representative of crass violation of international law. Russia’s territorial seizure of Crimea, on the other hand, was a major transgression of the post 1945 world order. 

In discussion, Mychailo Wynnyskyj argued that a distinction should be made between the war in Donbas prior to August 2014 and after. He argued that the conflict at that time, marked especially by the battle of Ilovaisk, changed from something that could potentially be called a civil war into a very different situation. At that time, Russia stepped up its level of involvement by moving ordinary troops across the border, boosting the capacity of the separatist state apparatuses in the DNR and LNR. Some sources are reporting that there are as many as 45 thousand armed troops in the separatist regions, but that less than 15 thousand of those are passport-holding Ukrainians. 

Arel replied that if this were true—if a full two-thirds of the armed forces in Donbas were Russian—then there is no question about civil war. That is a foreign invasion—full stop. However, he disagrees with the assessment that this many troops are Russian nationals. Instead, he puts his faith in accounts that indicate the vast majority of armed troops in Donbas are, in fact, nationally Ukrainian. While there is clearly a chain of command that reaches into the Russian Federation, there is never the less a significant civil component to the war.

Megan Metzger responded to an earlier observation that civil wars rarely, if ever, occur without some sort of foreign influence fomenting that conflict, and asked whether the seat of major operational and strategic decisions existing outside of the conflict region (as Russia is making operational decisions for Donbas) was the norm, or whether this is a unique feature of the conflict in Ukraine. 

Driscoll suggested that the answer to this question depends on the scope of the comparison being made. In Iraq, for example, US leaders, not Iraqi leaders, were making strategic choices, so that could be a parallel example. In peacekeeping efforts, as well, there is often an elite state making strategic decisions for the group. An element that is coloring their current analysis, however, is that the Ukrainian state is acting with a capacity that no one, a year ago, was sure they would be able to maintain. There is certainly, therefore, some uncharted territory in this conflict, and certainly more unknowns remain to be played out.


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Anna Colin Lebedev's picture
Anna Colin Lebedev October 24, 2015, 05:28 pm

One of the points that raised discussion was the argument that the relatively low level of violence against civilians, as compared to wars in Chechnya or former Yugoslavia, supported the idea of a conventional warfare in which two armies faced one another. Amandine Regamey suggested in discussion that the comparison of scales was not necessarily the most relevant; one should rather question the similarity of practices of warfare. These practices, according to Regamey, transfer from one war to another (for example the use of pits to keep prisoners).
Is there evidence of massive attacks targeting civil population with non conventional warfare in Eastern Ukraine?
A very detailed presentation of warfare against civilians - on both sides of the conflict - is available in the report that has just been published by two NGOs, FIDH (France) and CCL (Ukraine):
The report states that "Crimes against humanity are crimes committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population. In the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the CCL and its partners have documented crimes of murder, imprisonment, torture, enforced disappearance and persecution on political grounds (...) Indeed, preliminary evidence of incidents involving armed groups of the so-called DPR and LPR suggests these crimes may also form part of a policy to direct such attacks against the civilian population, consistent with the qualification of crimes against humanity. (...) Cases of killings, torture or inhuman treatment, the wilful commission of great suffering or serious injury to body, arbitrary arrest and detention, and the taking of captives in Eastern Ukraine may fall within the definition of war crimes under Article 8 of the Rome Statute. CCL and other observers have documented evidence consistent with these crimes from both sides."

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