Ukraine Crisis: The Donbass War Video Game

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A simulation of the conflict in the Eastern Ukraine

Ukraine Crisis: The Donbass War is a simulation of the ongoing civil war in the Eastern Ukraine. You control the Ukrainian government, and your objective is to keep as much of the Donbass as possible. This game attempts to simulate some of the unique features that continue to shape this conflict.

1) The Ukrainian military is very weak. The Ukrainian military has suffered from two decades of corruption and budget cuts. Many pro-Russian soldiers also joined separatist militias once the conflict began. Consequently, very few Ukrainian military units are a match for the Russian forces secretly operating in the Donbass. NATO countries have started to train 500-1,000 soldiers a year. In three years, the Ukrainian Army could be a formidable force. Today, however, the Army can only delay Russian advances or hold fortified positions. Retaking lost territory from Russian forces is not a real option.

The game simulates this asymmetry in military power by limiting the amount of REGULARS resources available. There are no resource cards that allow you to add REGULARS to your resource track, simulating the limited number of professional troops available to the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of the Interior. You can use the RESOURCE EXCHANGE to add these resources, but this requires you to maintain a high MONEY balance, which is a challenge in a cash strapped country like Ukraine. You also need to use REGULARS resources for a host of military activities, such as counter insurgency, artillery barrages, holding fortified positions and stopping Russian ground offensives.

One thing you cannot do with REGULARS resources, or any other resources, is launch a ground offensive of your own. There are no GROUND ASSAULT cards in the Human player’s deck. This reflects the weakness of the Ukrainian Army, and also the reluctance of Ukrainians to fight their fellow countrymen.

2) Ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine are not big fans of secession. Ethnic Russians are not thrilled with Ukraine’s westward tilt, but the average Russian speaker living in the Donbass really does not want to live in a puppet state run from Moscow. This is why Russian backed separatists managed to only take control of a small chunk of Luhansk and Donetsk. Initially, the separatists seized government buildings and erected road blocks across Eastern Ukraine. Government forces quickly drove the separatists out of most of these regions, and these municipalities have remained under government control ever since.

The game simulates this apathy towards the rebels by making RUSSIAN SUPPORT resources relatively abundant. Blocking pro Russian rebellions and uprisings is relatively easy. The game starts with lots of enemy SECRET AGENT markers distributed across the eastern map. These SECRET AGENT markers represent small groups of pro-Russian militants. These militants have blocked the roads and taken over city halls, but do not control the hexes in which they reside. Under the right circumstances, these militants could take control, but they are also easy to remove.

3) Russia’s ability to intervene in the Donbass is limited by fear of Western sanctions. Most of the Russian government’s revenues come from oil sales, and most oil sales come from exports to European countries. Russian banks also need to maintain access to international financial networks to refinance a wave of debt maturing over the next three years. Germany and other European countries would surely impose harsh sanctions if Russia openly invaded Ukraine. For this reason, the Russian forces operating in the Donbass are officially volunteers. More importantly, Russia cannot use its large air force to help these volunteers on the ground. Finally, Russian separatist forces have to observe EU brokered cease fires. So far, these cease fires have not held for very long, and they have never completely stopped the fighting when in effect. However, they have halted major rebel offensives that the Ukrainian military was powerless to stop. Key cities like Mariupol likely would have fallen to the rebels without the EU brokered Minsk accords.

The game simulates these constraints on Russia’s actions by giving the Human player lots of CEASE FIRE cards. These cards can block the next card the computer plays, allowing the Human player to block any enemy card with minimal resources. In this way, the CEASE FIRE cards are like the Minsk accords: they halt combat just long enough for the Ukrainian side to regroup.

All things considered, the Ukrainian side has the easier military task: the Ukrainians simply have to keep fighting and hold on to as much territory as possible in the East. Most ethnic Russian Ukrainians still live in areas controlled by Kiev. If the painful economic reforms Ukraine has implemented begin to improve the lives of average Ukrainians, Russian speakers will come to see the benefits of residing in a democratic country with a dynamic economy. At that point, an authoritarian and economically stagnant Russia will have a hard time holding onto the Donbass. The residents of Crimea may also begin to rethink their allegiance to Moscow. Even inside Russia, the authorities will have a difficult time countering arguments for more freedom at home if those arguments are articulated by prosperous ethnic Russians living right across the border. Free, affluent and loyal ethnic Russians are Kiev’s best defense against Russian aggression. Ukraine will never be able to match Russia’s military might. Fortunately, it does not have to to win.