When Russia began its air raids on Syria 30 September, Ukraine was still the most serious cause for concern on the foreign policy front, mainly because the crisis there seemed to evoke memories of the Cold War. The fear was that the escalating conflict in Syria between the Russians on the one hand and the Americans and their European allies on the other could have a negative impact on prospects for peace in the country.
This has not happened. Ukraine and its problems are still there, but nobody seems to care much about them – not even the Russians, who are now involved in the mammoth task of maintaining the pace of its war in the skies against Assad's opposition in Syria.
Indeed, data supplied by the Russian Defense Ministry show that until a few weeks ago its Air Force was carrying out as many as 88 attack missions a day, whereas the number has now fallen to 55, probably because of logistical problems and human exhaustion.
The general lack of interest in Ukraine could be a positive sign. The fact that the parties sponsoring the conflict no longer stand to lose face could make it easier to conclude an agreement, albeit only a tacit one, that would heal the wounds. This relative neglect is also a sign of exhaustion. Wars are hugely expensive, and not only in financial terms. They also entail a cost in terms of the impact on the economy, manpower, resources and the strategic ability to engage elsewhere in the world.
Moscow's deployment in Syria has diverted not only Western, but Russian attention as well away from Ukraine. Both sides involved in Donbas – Kiev and the pro-Russian separatists – have started withdrawing their heavy artillery. There has been a virtual halt to the daily skirmishes and bombardments. Out of exhaustion more than anything else, the "Minsk II" cease-fire agreement is beginning to be observed in actual practice.
Peace has not broken out. Joy and brotherly love are in short supply. The separatists are seriously afraid that Russia will abandon them. Kiev's volunteers instead are gradually losing the sense of patriotic heroism that sustained their morale and even coming to suspect that their government has somehow betrayed them. There is still the possibility of "autonomous" initiatives by restless troops on both sides.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Ukrainian economy is showing faint signs of survival. The state budget is slightly in the black – a miracle of accounting – and the World Bank is forecasting a return to growth in 2016, albeit at only around 1%.
Above all, there remains the unresolved question of the future of Donbas, the (once) wealthy industrial and mining region in the far east of the country, now being fought over by Kiev's troops and the Moscow-backed separatists. Stefan Hedlund, a specialist in Russian affairs at the University of Uppsala, reports that the devastation of Donbas' productive apparatus is such that some Ukrainians are suggesting that it simply be handed over to Russia, so that they will be stuck with the vast cost of setting it back on its feet. The prospect of leaving the Russians bogged down in an extremely costly quagmire might not be entirely unattractive to cynics in the West.
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