03/12/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/11/2015 05:59 EDT

Ukraine peace deal unlikely as Vladimir Putin pushes for more in the east

The current lull in fighting in Ukraine, the result of a ceasefire signed in February, is a temporary reprieve from a protracted conflict that will likely end with the country's eastern regions becoming de facto Russian satellite states, according to military experts. 

Signed in the Belarusian capital of Minsk and brokered largely by Germany and France, the ceasefire went into effect on Feb. 15. It was the third agreement to be implemented in the conflict between Ukrainian government forces and separatist fighters backed by Moscow that has claimed nearly 6,000 lives and displaced 1.8 million people. 

Both forces have begun pulling back artillery and heavy guns from the front line in accordance with the ceasefire conditions. Despite being encouraging development both sides continue to report deaths, mainly from small arms and rocket fire. 

But the ceasefire is hardly an indication of an impending end to fighting, says Jane Boulden, a research chair in international relations and security studies at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont.

"Both sides recognize that they are not necessarily taking this as a step towards peace. They agreed to this because it suits both of them to take a pause," she says. "It buys time to regroup, resupply and rethink your approach."

The Ukrainian military has accused the separatist rebels of using the ceasefire to amass weapons around the city of Donetsk, which has seen some of heaviest fighting of the entire conflict. 

Similarly, the U.S. State Department said Tuesday that Russian tanks and heavy military equipment have crossed the border into Ukraine in recent days. 

Ukraine government forces and the separatist militias, while withdrawing artillery from the front, as dictated by the ceasefire agreement, have kept soldiers and a variety of smaller arms at the front to quickly re-escalate fighting if necessary. 

'Everyone is paranoid'

"When a ceasefire fails, things can move very quickly and forces need to be in a position where they can control that situation," says Sim Tack, a military analyst at Stratfor, a global intelligence and advisory firm based in Austin, Texas. 

"Everyone is paranoid and no one wants to be the first to completely commit to the ceasefire and drop all of their strategic capabilities only to find themselves betrayed later."

The second ceasefire agreement, signed in September of 2014, saw some semblance of success after a rocky beginning. By December and early January 2015, the agreement entirely collapsed, ushering in a period of intense violence that saw both forces re-establish positions held before the halt in fighting. 

The current de-escalation is not without its immediate benefits beyond fewer lives lost, says Tack. Russia, for example, can use a decrease in violence as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table with Western powers. Ukraine, on the other hand, can address other pressing domestic issues. 

'Russia broke all the rules'

The most likely outcome of the current ceasefire, however, is a similar return to intense combat because Russian President Vladimir Putin has no real long-term incentive to withdraw the estimated 12,000 Russian troops in Ukraine, according to Randall Hansen, director of the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto. 

"Putin's strategic objectives are not going to change, with or without a lasting ceasefire. He still wants to destabilize Ukraine and make it dependent on Russia," he says. "The only question is: how is he going to pursue that? If reigniting the war — and let us make no mistake, it is his war — is the best way, he will do it."

Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia nearly a year ago, is almost certainly lost to Ukraine. The fate of the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk is less certain, however. But there are two possible outcomes that may bring a cessation to active fighting, says Hansen. 

The first and less likely possibility is that Putin negotiates legally binding independence referendums in Luhansk and Donetsk in return for an end to the war, but this option would be "political suicide" for Ukrainian leaders in Kyiv, he says.  

The other option is that the regions are granted so much autonomy from Kyiv that they essentially become Russian satellites within Ukraine, similar to the current scenario in South Ossetia, a region in Georgia that came under de facto Russian control after a 2008 war. 

"Now it's just accepted by everyone, even though Russia broke all the rules to do it," says the Royal Military College's Boulden. 

This scenario would create a land bridge to Crimea, allowing Russia to supply the peninsula through its Ukrainian proxies rather than via tanker ships in the Sea of Azov.

'A very cold peace'

According to Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, this would be the "perfect world" outcome from Putin's perspective, as Ukraine would still provide resources to the economically starved region while dealing with the domestic turmoil the regions could foment from within. 

"That's a very cold peace because the threat of Russian military aggression is always there," he says. "Putin is never going to let a Ukrainian state exist unmolested on his own border."

Nichols has publicly pushed for Western countries to arm Ukraine with lethal weapons and argues that Putin is largely motivated by the fact that he "cannot get the fall of the Soviet Union out of his gut."

"Putin has a vested interested in freezing this conflict exactly where it is, holding onto the territory he has gained and keeping Ukraine weak and divided," he says. "The fighting will ebb and flow as Putin needs it to ... There is no end game."

'Russia will get what it wants'

It's still unclear, however, if Putin is willing to risk a broader conflict that could involve Western nations. His reluctance to do so is why he so far has opted not to pursue outright war with Ukraine, preferring instead to act through separatist proxies. 

A push farther into Ukraine or aggression targeted at other neighbouring countries with Russian-speaking minorities, like NATO-member country Estonia, would serve only to bring Western forces closer to Russia's western border. 

While more hawkish observers like Nichols assert this is a gamble Putin might be willing to take, Boulden argues that Russia's immediate geopolitical goals are attainable without risking a larger, unpredictable war between nuclear powers. 

"Russia will fight this war on this level for as long as it needs to because they don't want to provoke the West," Boulden says. "Using this strategy over time, the odds are Russia will get what it wants in the region."