Ukraine loses the war against Russia

Ukraine analyzes

Petro Burkovskyi

To person

Petro Burkovskyi is a Senior Fellow of the Democratic Initiative Foundation in Kiev. He was the head of the Center for Russian Studies at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, where he worked since 2006. Since 2004 he has been working for the media observatory "Detector Media", which records political propaganda, influencing and manipulation. He holds a Masters degree in Political Science from the National University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy (2004) and is an alumnus of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (2007). His expertise covers the areas of history, comparative analysis, constitutional law, political decision-making processes, security policy and energy policy, international relations.

The presidency of Volodymyr Zelenskyj represents a new starting point for negotiations with the Kremlin. Which scenarios could end the armed conflict in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine? What behavior would be possible and necessary on the part of Russia and Ukraine for this? And which solution appears most likely in view of current events?

Residents of the village of Golubovskoye in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine stand in front of a house destroyed by shelling. (& copy picture alliance / Russian Look)


The present analysis presents five basic scenarios describing the expected behavior of Russia and the possible reaction of Ukraine from April 2020 until the end of the term of office of the current President of Ukraine in May 2024.


The starting point for the creation of the scenarios are some assumptions about how the Kremlin assesses its military-political opportunities and risks resulting from the current situation in the Donbas and the negotiation process with the team of the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Selenskyj.

It is understood that only in the event of a blockade of Russia's most dangerous actions and the prevention of manifestly flawed initiatives by the Ukrainian leadership will give Kiev the opportunity to strengthen its control over the development of the conflict and come closer to a solution that suits its interests.

The following five scenarios range from the two most likely variants under the current conditions, namely 1) a quick settlement of the conflict according to Russian conditions and 2) forcing a "frozen" conflict in the Donbas, to 3) the termination of the peace process up to the two less likely - 4) war to the point of attrition; and 5) gradual conflict settlement based on the full territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Recent events show that a new dialogue on ways out of the conflict has started between the two countries. Andrij Jermak was appointed head of the presidential office, de facto the second most important official in the country. As early as September 2019, he announced that President Zelenskyi would go down in history as the man who ended the war. The name Yermak is also associated with two successful rounds of exchanges of Ukrainian citizens and prisoners of war imprisoned in Russia, in particular the release of the famous director Oleh Sentsov. The Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, Dmitrij Kosak, described Yermak as the main engine of the new contract for the transit of Russian gas through Ukraine to Europe.

In January, a restructuring within the highest level of the Russian leadership testified to the growing role of Yermak's Russian counterpart - Dmitrij Kosak, the new deputy head of the Russian presidential administration. Kosak is known for providing "reconstruction of Crimea" since 2014 and "humanitarian aid" since 2015 for "temporarily occupied areas not controlled by Ukraine" (Ukrainian abbreviation ORDLO, "separate districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions") within the Russian government. Now he is officially responsible for the "course towards Ukraine". His Ukrainian counterpart Yermak calls Kosak a "more constructive" negotiating partner than his predecessor Vladislav Surkov, the famous curator of the "New Russia" project.

President Zelenskyi's comments during and after the 56th Munich Security Conference show that the Ukrainian side is determined to make the compromises Russia is calling for. In particular, Zelenskyi did not rule out that the patrols of the ORDLO areas could be carried out jointly by separatists and Ukrainian security forces. This is a form of separatist recognition that the Kremlin would like to achieve.

On the other hand, Yermak threatened in December 2019 that in the event of excessive pressure and dictates by Russia, the ORDLO areas would simply be completely separated from Ukraine and Ukraine would continue on its western course. At the same time, during his first meeting with Zelensky in the framework of the "Normandy Format" (Ukraine, Russia, Germany, France) in Paris in December 2019, Vladimir Putin declared that "the process of the ceasefire with the political agreements set out in the Minsk agreements was necessary." Synchronize reforms in Ukraine ".

That is, despite the signs of constructive dialogue, both parties view the end result of the negotiations differently. This, as well as the continuation of the fighting in the Donbas could become an insurmountable obstacle to the "quick peace" and the "freezing" of the conflict.

The tightening at the front in February 2020 shows that Putin will not give up military pressure and will continue to provoke Ukraine, even though he at the same time demands that Zelenskyi implement the Minsk Agreement without contradiction.

The way to two less probable scenarios therefore leads via the intermediate scenario "Abortion of the peace process". The possibility of new aggression by Russia is not excluded. If successful, this will lead to peace on Russian terms. Failure for Russia would mean even greater self-isolation and confrontation with the West or lead to drastic internal changes.

Scenario 1: Rapid peaceful settlement of the conflict on Russia's terms

The phases of this scenario can be seen in the "Concept for the settlement of the crisis in the southeast of Ukraine by gradually creating the conditions for implementation, drawn up by the Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk and publicly approved by the Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on July 18, 2019" of the Minsk Agreement of February 12, 2015 ".

Key elements of this scenario are:
  • The recognition of the leadership of the "Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics (DNR / LNR)" as legitimate representatives of the people of the ORDLO by Ukraine.
  • No mediation by Germany, France and the United Nations in the preparation of details (timetable) for the return of the ORDLO to the Ukraine.
  • In exchange for preferential conditions in the supply of energy sources (natural gas, oil and oil products, coal), Ukraine supports Russian efforts to lift international, especially European sanctions against Russia.
  • Legalization of the occupation troops in the ORDLO area in the form of "peacekeepers" and / or "joint patrols" with the ORDLO "people's police".
Expected consequences for Ukraine:
  • Loss of international support for Ukraine and lifting of the sanctions imposed on Russia for armed aggression from 2014 to 2019.
  • National support and legitimacy of measures taken by the Ukrainian armed forces to contain Russian troops in the Donbas waned.
  • Resumption and intensification of the armed conflict within Ukraine.
In view of the grave consequences of such a scenario for the security of the Ukrainian state and democracy, the leadership of Ukraine should forego the scenario of the "quick implementation of peace". Otherwise, in the short term, this will lead to external control of the country by Russia, and in the medium term there is a real risk of the state collapsing. The Ukrainian leadership has a number of options to prevent this development:
  • In order to maintain international support and friendly mediation by Germany and France, Ukraine can propose the creation of a group of experts within the "Normandy format". This could develop a plan for the withdrawal of units of the Russian armed forces and Russian private military companies from the ORDLO area as well as work out conditions for an international mission to monitor the process of such a withdrawal and the disarmament of illegal military formations of the ORDLO. This should be an indispensable prerequisite for the implementation of the "Steinmeier formula" in Ukrainian legislation and a guarantee that the "special status" of the ORDLO will not be used to further destabilize Ukraine.
  • Ukraine can propose a draft resolution for the UN Security Council to approve the plan to demilitarize the ORDLO. The future of the EU sanctions against Russia, their withdrawal or tightening, will depend on Russia's willingness to implement this plan and not hinder the disarmament of the "DNR / LNR" troops. Specifically, the official declaration of Ukraine on the restoration of full control of the state border in the ORDLO area should become the prerequisite for the full lifting of the sanction.
  • At the same time, Ukraine is likely to oppose the participation in the international peacekeeping mission in Donbas by those countries that have voted in the UN General Assembly against resolutions in which the annexation of Crimea, human rights violations in occupied Crimea and Russian aggression against black people and Azov Sea condemned.
  • The Ukrainian legislation can include a ban on voting for citizens who have received passports from the foreign aggressor state.
  • In the law "On the specifics of state policy to ensure sovereignty in the temporarily occupied areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions" it can be stipulated that elections and referendums in the ORDLO area only after the withdrawal of all foreign troops, the restoration of control over the State border, resumption of work of the Ukrainian authorities and compliance with Ukrainian laws.
  • Kiev will reject all attempts by the Russian side to combine progress in negotiations for a peaceful solution in the Donbas with negotiations for direct supplies of Russian natural gas to Ukraine.
  • A constant and ongoing dialogue with the representatives of France and Germany as well as the governments of the EU member states on why direct negotiations between Ukraine and the "DNR / LNR" do not correspond to the interests of Ukraine and cannot be seen as a step towards peace:
  • The so-called "leaders of the DNR / LNR" have no control over the military units on their territory and have no real powers to ensure a full ceasefire, the withdrawal of troops and weapons, and unhindered and safe monitoring of the OSCE mission to implement itself Minsk Agreement to ensure.
  • The "DNR / LNR" leadership is not legitimately elected and does not represent the interests of the residents of the occupied territories.
  • The "DNR / LNR" leadership does not recognize the constitution and laws of Ukraine, which protect citizens' rights and guarantee free and fair elections.
  • The "DNR / LNR" leadership consists of citizens of the Russian Federation and persons who have automatically lost their Ukrainian citizenship as a result of switching to the service of the Russian armed forces or secret services and are therefore not allowed to participate in elections in Ukraine.
  • In the period 2014-2019, the "DNR / LNR" leadership systematically threatened and obstructed the work of the Ukrainian and international humanitarian missions in the ORDLO area.
  • The "DNR / LNR" leadership is involved in war crimes: the completion of flight MH-17, hostage-taking, torture and the execution of prisoners of war and civilians.

Scenario 2: Ukraine is forced into a "frozen" conflict in the Donbas

Central to this scenario is Russia's willingness to end armed aggression against Ukraine if Ukraine agrees to recognize the loss of Crimea and the ORDLO territories and to support the full lifting of international sanctions. Thus, the status and future of the ORDLO remain unclear, the integration of Ukraine into the EU and NATO is blocked and relations between Russia and the West are restored to pre-war conditions.

Key elements of this scenario:
  • A ceasefire agreement is reached in the Normandy format, while the integration of the ORDLO area into Ukraine is recognized as impossible due to disagreements over the implementation of the Minsk Agreements 2014-2015.
  • Russia and Ukraine agree on a UN peacekeeping mission on the line of demarcation in Donbas.
  • In the ORDLO area, political and administrative integration with the Russian Federation is being promoted.
The occupied ORDLO area and the Crimea become Putin's reward for ending the war. Ukraine remains in the so-called "gray security zone" between NATO and the Russian Federation without any guarantee of independence and integrity in the future. Therefore, immediately after the end of the war, the Kremlin will use non-military interventions in the internal affairs of Ukraine to further destabilize and divide the country, with the aim of permanently blocking rapprochement with the EU and NATO. At the same time, the occupied ORDLO areas are used by Russia to carry out large-scale social experiments for the formation of the "New Russia identity" - with possible application in neighboring countries that were once part of the Russian empire. In addition, the ORDLO is used as a "training camp" for the creation of armed formations that are able to fight for the interests of Russia worldwide and to suppress internal conflicts. Possible measures by Ukraine to avoid such a scenario:
  • Attempts by Russia or Western mediators to enforce different versions of "neutrality" (based on the Finnish or Austrian model), which do not provide for an effective and binding mechanism to support Ukraine in new external threats to its independence, are rejected.
  • It is proposed to the USA and the EU to create a permanent consultation mechanism for the harmonization and monitoring of the Russia sanctions and to introduce sanctions, the damage to the Russian Federation of which is no less than the damage to Ukraine caused by the occupation of Crimea and Donbas.
  • Negotiations begin with the United States on the recognition of Ukraine as one of the most important allies outside NATO (Major Non-NATO Ally) and the strengthening of relations by drafting a defense cooperation treaty based on the corresponding treaties between the United States and Japan and South Korea .
  • Cooperation with the EU and individual European states on projects that aim to reduce the import and consumption of Russian energy sources (up to a complete cessation) and replace them with their own subsidies and renewable energy sources.
  • Carry out internal reforms to maintain and improve the country's human capital, create new industries and new services based on the successes of the "fourth wave of the industrial revolution".

Scenario 3: Cancellation of the peace process

If Ukraine does not accept the terms of the Russian Federation in preparation for the April meeting in Berlin in the "Normandy format" or during the negotiations within the framework of the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk, Moscow can take violent measures that lead to a new round of information warfare escorted to accuse Ukraine of escalating the conflict.

Key elements of the scenario:
  • Creation of a pretext for the worsening of the military conflict in the Donbas with the involvement of regular units of the Russian armed forces, including special forces.
  • Provocation of unrest and violence with the participation of representatives of radical nationalist groups, organizations of veterans of the military campaigns 2014-2019, especially in Kiev and in regions with compact settlement areas of ethnic minorities: Odessa, Kharkiv, Transcarpathia.
  • Provoking an internal political crisis in Ukraine to discredit the President and the Government.
Implications for Ukraine: Looking back on Russia's actions in Ukraine, it can be argued with high probability that the Kremlin will attempt to synchronize actions in order to disrupt the peace process and spark a political crisis.If such actions are successful, Ukraine will lose external support in the peace process and Russia will have a reason to justify its military presence in Donbas and threaten a new invasion to "protect its citizens and the Russian-speaking population". As in August 2014 and February 2015, increasing military pressure may result in Ukraine making new, even more problematic concessions and / or losing new territories. Possible measures Ukraine can take to prevent such a scenario: In addition to the steps listed above in response to the "quick peace" scenario, Ukraine's resilience will depend on the following measures:
  • Ensuring security and civil order through targeted efforts and coordinated cooperation between special units of the security service, the Ministry of the Interior and the armed forces under a single command. Transfer of central decision-making authority to ward off Russian aggression and prevent internal crises to the National Security and Defense Council as a constitutional body.
  • Limiting radical political forces and the veteran community through an intensive political dialogue and their participation in the development of a peaceful settlement of the conflict; Solving the problems of veterans.
  • Establishment of a permanent communication and consultation channel with the leadership of the most important EU countries, the new leadership of the European Commission and the political groups of the European Parliament as well as the leadership of the friendly G20 countries in the preparation of negotiations with Russia; working proactively with western media to explain Ukraine's position and provide information about the situation in the country and on the line of contact.

Scenario 4: Continuation of the conflict to achieve the attrition and isolation of Ukraine

Should Ukraine fail to enforce its terms through negotiations and military pressure, Russia will shape the conflict with Ukraine in the form of a permanent arms race, military provocations and economic blockades. However, this will only be one element of a broader course by the Russian leadership towards a long-term confrontation with the West. The aim of this scenario is to get the West to recognize Ukraine as a "Russian area of ​​interest" in order to reduce the risk of a widespread conflict with Russia.

Key elements of the scenario:
  • Continuation of hostilities in the Donbas and capacity building for the offensive and conquest of new territories.
  • Ukraine's neighbors (Belarus, Moldova, Hungary) are being pressured into confrontations and hostile actions against Kiev.
  • Increased military presence in the waters of the Azov and Black Seas with the aim of partially or completely blocking Ukrainian ports.
  • Suspension of energy supplies to Ukraine, including the transit of natural gas.
  • Active support of pro-Russian parties and movements to provoke a new division in society and another civil confrontation.
Consequences for Ukraine: The protracted armed conflict and the economic pressure exerted by the Russian Federation are serious threats to the internal development of Ukraine and the preservation of democracy. The deterioration in living conditions compared to neighboring European countries will exacerbate the demographic crisis and the emigration of the working population. In political life, the role and influence of elites who benefit from war will increase. As a result, conditions could arise for the formation of an authoritarian regime and the subsequent break with the West. Ultimately, a militarized police regime will force the country to unite with Russia. Measures taken by Ukraine to avoid such a scenario: Ukraine can only survive a protracted conflict if it convinces the West of the value of its struggle and independence for regional and global security. To this end, the country's leadership should make efforts in the following areas:
  • Implementation of internal reforms.
  • Strengthening relationships with leaders and establishments of Western countries, whose worldview, regardless of party affiliation, emerges under the influence of new technologies and scientific achievements, understanding the importance of global problems and the rejection of violence and war as a means of solving interstate problems.
  • Support of the efforts of the Ukrainian civil society and the Ukrainian diaspora to create and strengthen horizontal relationships with Western societies and to implement joint cross-border projects in the fields of education, science and the media.
A policy aimed at Ukraine's accession to the Schengen Agreement would be an important step towards establishing Ukraine as an open and reliable EU partner. Ukraine's openness and its ability to guarantee the integrity of the borders it controls and internal security will prove its worth as a potential member of the European community. Conversely, Ukraine's complete dependence on Russia only means a sharp increase in the full range of threats to the EU's collective security and stability.

Scenario 5: Gradual settlement of the conflict based on the full territorial integrity of Ukraine

Such a scenario depends on a complete change of power in Russia and the country's return to building a democratic rule of law. Vladimir Putin's recent constitutional initiative and controversial legal proceedings in Russia show that the likelihood of such a scenario remains extremely low even after 2024.

Nonetheless, Ukraine must take steps now to show all parties interested in peace that the country is ready to gradually resolve all disputes with Russia if Russia is in turn ready to recognize Ukraine's right to safe and independent development.

Ukraine's possible negotiating position at the beginning of such a scenario:

Complete withdrawal of the Russian armed forces from the Donbas and Russia's consent to initiate a procedure to compensate for losses suffered by the Ukrainian state and citizens as a result of the war and occupation.

Ukrainian preparations for such a scenario will demonstrate the country's responsibility for its security and predictability in the event of radical change in Russia.

Measures taken by Ukraine to implement such a scenario:
  • Demonstration of the impossibility of a peaceful solution for the Donbas until Russia is ready to admit and end the occupation, withdraw its troops and start negotiations with Ukraine on compensation for losses and the future status of Crimea.
  • Political consultations with the elites of leading Western countries to assist Ukraine in its intentions and plans to de-occupy the Donbas.
  • Adoption of a legislative package that regulates the powers and procedures for authorities in the event of the start of the de-occupation of the ORDLO areas - also in cooperation with Russia.
  • Regulation of guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of citizens living in the occupied territories and the conditions for an amnesty for citizens who fought on the side of Russia in the conflict. Decision on the prosecution of acts in the conflict zone, which has been contested since 2014, on the basis of the recognition of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court by Ukraine and Russia.
  • A precise assessment of the damage caused by the war and the resources required for the reconstruction of the ORDLO area and definition of the conditions for international aid for the post-war development policy of the Donbas.


The complete restart of Ukrainian politics after the victory of Volodymyr Zelenskyi and the increasing public rejection of his predecessor Petro Poroshenko was seen by the Russian leadership as an opportunity to regain the influence it had lost in Ukraine after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity.

The "quick peace" option is presented to the Ukrainian head of state as the only way to maintain power and popularity in his country, which is morally tired from war and has unfulfilled social and economic goals.

However, Ukrainian society, including the majority of Zelensky voters, sees Russia as an existential threat to an independent and democratic Ukraine. Therefore, the Ukrainian President cannot accept conditions that would limit the country's sovereignty or relieve Russia of responsibility for the outbreak of war and the damage it caused. Zelenskyi would rather agree to the loss of the ORDLO area and the "freezing" of the conflict than the integration of areas controlled by the Russian General Staff and Russian secret service into Ukraine.

On the other hand, the Kremlin cannot give up its goal of control over Ukraine. To weaken Kiev's resolve in the negotiations, Russia will continue military operations in the Donbas and disinformation campaign in the country. The outcome of such a confrontation will depend not only on the strength of Russian efforts, but also on the ability of the Ukrainian leadership to carry out internal reforms and secure the support of the European Union.

Translation from Russian: Lina Pleines

Reading tips

  • Petro Burkovskyj: Lost in translation: Different interpretations of Paris peace talks spell trouble ahead, December 13, 2019, -talks-spell-trouble-ahead.
  • Petro Burkovskyj: Seven Dangers of Engaging with the Occupied Donbas — and Opportunities for the New Ukrainian President, June 5, 2019, occupied-donbasand-opportunities-for-the-new-ukrainian-president.
  • Petro Burkovskyj: Ukraine before and after presidential elections: risks and opportunities for democracy in war, May 25, 2019, and-opportunities-for-democracy-in-war.

The Ukraine analyzes are published jointly by the Research Center for Eastern Europe at the University of Bremen, the German Society for Eastern European Studies, the German Poland Institute, the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Development in Transition Economies, the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Research and the Center for Eastern European and International Studies (ZOiS) gGmbH. The bpb publishes them as a licensed edition.