December 30, 2020
The Jamestown Foundation
From the earliest days of war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, some bloggers and security experts noted key similarities between the situation in the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk and that of Azerbaijan’s Karabakh and surrounding areas. In both cases, war had de facto created self-proclaimed and unrecognized republics, the separatists enjoyed quasi-unofficial support from a neighboring country, and popular desires have burned for liberating the occupied territories.
Even the international platform for solving the Karabakh crisis—the Minsk Group under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—superficially resembles the Trilateral Group for Ukraine, mediated by the OSCE and having negotiated two ceasefire documents in Minsk.
Those parallels have also extended to frontline efforts and results. As in the case of Karabakh, the war in Ukraine has long had no end in sight. In 2016, after another round of clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Ukrainian political analyst Evhen Zherebetskiy identified two main reasons for the lack of progress in solving the Karabakh crisis: the passive positions of the United States and the European Union in the negotiation process as well as Russian sabotage and “hybrid”-style policies toward the South Caucasus.
He also insisted that Moscow, as a major regional actor, exploits the Karabakh conflict for its own geopolitical goals—a fact likely to drag the war out endlessly. Likewise, in the Ukrainian case, Zherebetskiy sees the Minsk peace agreements reached with Russia as useless.
After the latest Karabakh offensive began on September 27, 2020, many Ukrainian defense and security experts quickly undertook to compare the situation there with the ongoing war in Donbas. A natural point of focus was on Azerbaijani tactics, which have emphasized the wide use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and active above-ground reconnaissance.
For example, in a piece for Petr i Mazepa, military expert Kirill Danilchenko analyses the successful record of modern Turkish-built Bayraktar TB2 strike UAVs, which Azerbaijan purchased and has actively deployed against Armenian forces. Danilchenko insists that such tactics could also be useful for Ukraine (which incidentally also wields these same Turkish drones). Moreover, he writes, the Ukrainian government should increase the number of similar UAVs in the army, while Ukraine’s defense industry should focus on developing anti-UAV weapons and electronic warfare (EW)–scramblers. Another famous defense blogger, Yaroslav Bondarenko, explicitly hopes that the Azerbaijan operation can serve as an example for the Ukrainian Armed Forces on how to go about liberating eastern Donbas.
Meanwhile, the issue of protecting ground forces from similar UAV strikes is being broadly discussed by Ukrainian bloggers and across online social networks and thematic military forums. In turn, Oleh Katkov, an expert from Defense Express, in analyzing the fighting in Karabakh, has underlined the importance of modern interconnected communication and control systems for the armed forces.
Artem Vyunnyk, the CEO of the company Atlon Avia, which develops the newest Ukrainian strike drone Grim (Thunder), has argued that this type of (loitering munition) UAV is uniquely suited for carrying out high-precision strikes against military targets such as radar installations. Notably, Azerbaijani forces fighting in Karabakh clearly demonstrated the capabilities of loitering munition drones, using them to destroy large numbers of Armenian tanks and convoys.
Yet aside from purely military issues, an important political question must first be resolved. For now, Ukraine officially remains committed to the Minsk peace process, which implies that Kyiv does not see a clear option for militarily retaking Donbas. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in his numerous comments on the subject, routinely underlines the importance of finding a peaceful solution via diplomatic negotiations in the Trilateral or Normandy (Ukraine, Russia, France, Germany) group formats.
He still stresses that there must be a workable ceasefire and withdrawal of forces from the combat zone, even despite a recent uptick in frontline violations and two Ukrainian soldiers killed in action. That said, it is worth pointing out that in mid-October, President Zelenskyy said that even though Ukrainian authorities continue to adhere to the Minsk agreements signed by his predecessor, “they must be flexible” .
And soon after the fighting in the South Caucasus broke out, he asserted that the Karabakh case shows there are no “frozen conflicts,” because they can explode at any time. That is why, in his opinion, Ukraine must solve its problem fast to avoid creating another “frozen conflict” in Donbas (Interfax, October 2).
Some Ukrainian opposition politicians support a review of the Minsk ceasefire agreements. During last month’s (October 23) virtual meeting of the Kyiv Security Forum, Kira Rudyk, the leader of the Golos political party in the Verkhovna Rada (parliament), declared, that the Minsk agreements do not work, do not fit Ukraine’s interests and need to be replaced by a new action plan.
Similar views were expressed by Ambassador Volodymyr Vasylenko, a member of the Strategic Council of the Movement Against Capitulation and a former judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (2001–2005). He declared that the act of Russia’s occupation of eastern Donbas is a sign that the aggression against Ukraine goes on.
Vitaly Portnikov, a political observer for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is convinced that the latest ceasefire in Donbas (agreed on July 27, 2020, and more or less holding to date) does not mean the war there is over by any means. Rather, any pause in the fighting allows the conflict participants to simply prepare for future battles, as Azerbaijan did recently.
A former Ukrainian parliamentarian, who prefers to remain anonymous, told this author on October 27 that the Minsk ceasefire agreements are political suicide for Ukraine. Nonetheless, in her view, if Ukraine tries to emulate Azerbaijan’s successful efforts to retake its occupied territories, that would end up being a suicide mission as well.
In such a case, Ukraine will be fighting not against a relatively weak enemy (like Azerbaijan against Armenia) but against disguised Russian military units pretending to belong to the so-called People’s Militia of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.” Ukraine, therefore, first needs to rebuild its own capacities—not only military (by developing or purchasing modern types of weapon systems) but also economic and diplomatic.