After a period of stagnation, the Ukrainian conflict has found a way back into the headlines after the death of the designated prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the DPR and one of the primary parties to the Minsk II Agreement, was recently killed by a bomb explosion at a restaurant. However, based on statements by his replacement, the death of the DPR’s prime minister is unlikely to have any significant impact on what is now deemed a frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
Zakharchenko rose to prominence following the resignation of the previous prime minister of the self-proclaimed DPR, Alexander Yureivich Borodai, a citizen of the Russian Federation. According to Russian news outlets, Zakharchenko was promoted as a man of the people. In his own perception, he was a mine electrician who decided to take arms against “the fascists from Kiev.” He often expressed nostalgia for the Soviet Union and commented that the forces in Donetsk were Americans fighting through Ukrainians. More importantly, Zakharchenko admitted to the presence of thousands of Russian citizens within DPR’s separatist factions fighting for freedom.
Numerous Russian outlets have reported that Denis Pushilin has been appointed the new Prime Minister of the DPR by its parliament, and has scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections for November. Before the appointment, Pushilin served as DPR’s self-appointed Speaker of Parliament. He gained fame in 2014 for the independence referendums in the DPR which both Moscow and Kiev rejected. Overall, Pushilin is one of the DPR’s founders and his comments echo Zakharchenko’s sentiments regarding Washington’s influence in Kiev.
Pushilin’s statements indicate that Zakharchenko’s death will have little to no impact on the war in the Donbass. As Kiev and Moscow pass on the blame for Zarkharshenko’s death, the Ukrainian conflict may be stalled until Ukraine’s 2019 elections.
Regardless of the new leadership in the DPR, Kiev, players on the battlefield refuse to implement the ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons in accordance with the requirements of Minsk II. On top of this, the Donbass region continues its dependency on Moscow’s economic aid using South Ossetia as a banking sector. While Kiev’s economic blockade tightens around its borders in hopes of squeezing the separatist regions dry, Russia continues to succeed at influencing the Donbass and its turmoil.
Meanwhile, President Viktor Poroshenko recently mentioned an increase in Ukraine’s defense budget and commented on how peace could only be achieved with a strong Ukrainian army. Poroshenko’s comment signals the stances and campaign promises he will make if he runs for reelection in 2019. He also reasserted Ukraine’s willingness to join NATO and its desire for European integration.
At the same time, Russia finds itself dealing with the expansion of sanctions by its Western counterparts. Russia continues to pay a steep price for its incursions into Ukraine, U.S. election meddling, and the Skripal attack—but not necessarily a steep enough price to encourage a change in behavior. Adding to the costs, the separatists’ growing dependence on Russia has become a burden to Moscow due to the tightening of Western sanctions. However, Russia’s refusal to reach a viable solution signals that Moscow finds high value in keeping pressure and grip on Ukraine. As oil prices drop and sanctions heighten, the Putin administration has begun to implement a Pension reform to deal with Russia’s economic situation citing that inaction would lead to a sharp increase in poverty. Regardless of numerous protests in Russia in response to the Putin administration’s pension reform, the Levada Center reports that President Vladimir Putin’s ratings stood at a 70% approval rate for the month of August. More importantly, Moscow has shown no signs of any change in foreign policy towards Ukraine, therefore signaling that it finds Ukraine’s NATO aspirations nonnegotiable.
Though a serious NATO bid is unlikely in the near future, the U.S. has increased its weapons sales to Kiev, indicating the U.S. continues to target Russian aggression in the region. However, it is unlikely that defense aid to Kiev, the death of Alexander Zakharchenko or the appointment of Pushilin will contribute to a meaningful de-escalation of the Ukranian conflict. None of these actions on their own are of enough significance to tip the scale of conflict. As John Dale Grover suggests, steps toward a solution to the Ukrainian conflict will only be reached after the perspectives and national security interests of Russia, Ukraine, the separatists, and the United States are considered when crafting long term resolutions.