Disengagement of forces in Donbas: illusions and reality

After reaching agreements on disengagement of forces near Stanytsia-Luhanska, Zolote and Petrivske, the Ukrainian government announced its intentions to continue this process along the entire contact line. The disengagement of forces will enable to reduce military and civilian casualties, facilitate the crossing of the contact line and demine demilitarized zones. However, due to risks for Ukrainian troops and residents of front-line settlements, the disengagement of forces is most likely to be limited to areas near checkpoints and locations which does not have strategic military importance for the hostile parties.


Essence of disengagement

The disengagement of forces in Donbas is another objective in peace process which is difficult to accomplish in practice. Regular violations of ceasefire showed that it is impossible to ensure the demilitarization of the entire contact line in a quick manner.

In September 2016, the conflicting parties made a first attempt to conduct a local disengagement of forces. Then the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) adopted a framework decision which provided for the disengagement of forces and hardware in three areas – near Stanytsia-Luhanska, Zolote and Petrivske. This disengagement specified the following details:

  1. The disengagement is conducted provided that ceasefire has been observed for seven days in a given area and confirmed by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (OSCE SMM);
  2. The disengagement is conducted by both parties at a distance of 1 km from the contact line on a mirror-like principle;
  3. The disengagement consists of two stages: the withdrawal of troops and the dismantlement of defense installations.

It was an attempt to ensure the disengagement in the given areas. Ukrainian troops withdrew from Zolote and Petrivske, however the process was not completed because the militants did not do it in a synchronized manner. Moreover, the disengagement was not to start near Stanytsia-Luhanska due to regular violations of ceasefire.

Zelenskyi’s rise to power stepped up a new round of negotiations on the disengagement of forces. In June 2019, the TCG approved a new agreement on the disengagement near Stanytsia-Luhanska. After a seven-day ceasefire had been observed, both parties withdrew from the contact line in this area, though this process is incomplete because “LPR” militants are yet to dismantle their defense installations. In October 2019, a new agreement was reached on the disengagement near Zolote and Petrivske, however it has been postponed twice due to failure to observe ceasefire.

The Ukrainian government announced plans to disengage forces along the entire contact line. In October 2019, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine prepared a preliminary plan of further disengagement. According to this plan, a number of settlements from the Ukrainian side may be fully demilitarized, such as Shyrokyne, Pisky, Svitlodarsk; several settlements are proposed to be partly demilitarized, including Zaitseve and Starohnativka.

Advantages of disengagement

  1. Reduction in combat losses and civilian casualties. If these areas are demilitarized in a proper manner, the disengagement will allow to establish a local ceasefire. In turn, effective ceasefire will enable to prevent new casualties both among Ukrainian soldiers and civilian population in these areas.
  2. Facilitation of movement across the contact line. The disengagement will enable to construct a new bridge near the checkpoint in Stanytsia-Luhanska which is still the only connecting point between a government-controlled part of Luhansk region and “LPR”-held territories. Moreover, the disengagement of forces near Zolote may contribute to resuming operation of a second checkpoint in Luhansk region. These measures are aimed at making lives easier for residents of ORDLO who regularly travel to government-controlled areas for pension and family purposes.
  3. Mine clearance of the given areas. Donbas has become one of the most mined regions in the world. According to the Ministry for Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons, at least 977 civilian persons were killed and 1,528 were injured as a result of mine-related incidents and explosive remnants of war (ERW) over the entire conflict period. The disengagement will allow international humanitarian organizations to carry out mine actions in demilitarized areas with the purpose of reducing casualties among residents of front-line settlements.

Risks of disengagement

  1. Expenses for construction of new fortified lines. The disengagement of forces specifies that Ukrainian troops have to dismantle well-fortified lines and construct new defense installations in the field. This caused outrage among a part of Ukrainian soldiers because the respective measures will take much time and require many resources.
  2. Takeover of advantageous positions by the enemy. There are no guarantees that the militants will not attempt to take up battlefield positions left by Ukrainian troops. Under such conditions, the militants would gain local military advantage, being capable of intimidating Ukrainian soldiers and local population.
  3. Confrontation between the security block and volunteer battalions. An attempt to disengage troops near Zolote has already provoked tensions between the Ukrainian police and members of the National Corps whose leader Andriy Biletskyi stated that volunteer battalions will enter the settlement if the Armed Forces of Ukraine withdraw. This risks the loss of coordination in defense actions between the Armed Forces of Ukraine and other military formations.
  4. Personal insecurity for many residents of front-line settlements. Pro-Ukrainian residents of front-line settlements fear that the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops will enable hostile sabotage-reconnaissance groups to infiltrate into the “grey zone”. If the police and the National Guard of Ukraine find themselves unable to ensure safety for such residents, this may cause a new wave of internal displacement.

What next?

If the disengagement process continues, it will have an exclusively local character. The disengagement is most likely to be limited to areas near checkpoints and locations which does not have strategic military importance for both parties. Instead, the disengagement near Shyrokyne, Mariinka, Avdiivka, Horlivka and other strategically important settlements are unlikely happen without sustainable ceasefire which may be ensured only by peacekeepers amid the mistrust between the hostile parties.