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ising tensions between Ukraine and Russia are prompting fears of a revival of the “hot phase” of the military confrontation in the Donbass. The war in the coal-rich region of Eastern Ukraine has been “on hold” since 2015 when Kyiv, Moscow, the Donbass representatives, as well as European mediators, signed the Minsk Agreement—a document that remains the basis for any future resolution to the conflict.

The deal signed in the Belarusian capital never completely stopped the war that broke out in 2014 between Russia-sponsored forces and Western-backed Ukraine. The region has been stuck in the so-called positional warfare—a form of warfare conducted along permanent and fortified front lines—and neither self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic, nor the Ukrainian Army have been attempting to capture new territory. Recently, however, Ukrainian troops seized the village of Staromaryevka, located in no man’s land, which raised concerns in the Donbass that Kyiv is planning to escalate the conflict.

“As soon as the arsenal of political and diplomatic measures is exhausted, escalation of the conflict will begin,” said Rodion Miroshnik, who represents the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic in the Contact Group’s political subgroup within the Minsk format.

Some Ukrainian political analysts also believe that a wide-scale confrontation in the Donbass is a matter of time, while the country’s former Foreign Minister, Pavel Klimkin, emphasized that Kyiv should prepare for an escalation of the conflict. Moreover, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine reportedly warned that the Russia-backed forces are pulling artillery to the front line. Russia, on the other hand, accuses Ukraine of planning to escalate the conflict and drag Moscow into military action. The United States, for its, part, claims that Russia is deploying troops to the Ukrainian border, which is something that Ukrainian Defense Ministry denied.

Indeed, unless Ukraine starts a major offensive against Russian proxies in the Donbass, Moscow is unlikely to engage into a direct confrontation against Kyiv. From the Kremlin’s perspective, preserving the status quo seems to be the top priority at this point.  

"This is such a dead end. I don't really understand how we can get out of it," said Russian President Vladimir Putin at the annual Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi on October 27, talking about the situation in Ukraine. “Let's see what will happen on the domestic political scene of Ukraine in the near future," he concluded.  

Previously, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote an article on Russo-Ukrainian relations, and stressed that the Kremlin should wait until “a sane political figure that is not aimed at total confrontation with Russia” comes to power in Kyiv and replaces the current nation’s political leadership. Such a strategy undoubtedly requests patience, given that the next presidential elections in Ukraine will be held in 2024. Forcing a regime change in a country that is deeply in the Western geopolitical orbit does not seem very realistic, which means that Moscow can only hope that a new vote will result in changes of Ukraine’s geopolitical course. However, even if the current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky loses the election, there is no guarantee that a Kremlin-friendly politician will replace him. That is why, sooner or later, Russia will have to negotiate with Ukraine’s Western-backed leaders.

Moscow refuses to discuss the Donbass war directly with Kyiv, claiming that Russia is not part of the conflict. Ukraine, on the other hand, rejects Kremlin’s proposals to hold talks with representatives of the self-proclaimed Donbass republic, quite aware that such a move would mean the de facto recognition of those entities. That is why Oleksii Reznikov, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister and former Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, said that Kyiv will have to find “its own way” for resolving the conflict.

The Eastern European country has already demonstrated that it is determined to restore sovereignty over the Donbass. After capturing Staromaryevka, Ukrainian Armed Forces have used the Turkish-made Bayraktar drone for the first time—a move that reportedly raised concerns in Moscow. Russia warned that the purchase and deployment of Turkish drones by Ukraine may lead to an escalation of the conflict in the Donbass. It is worth noting, however that Kyiv purchased the sophisticated weapon back in 2018, and it is very unlikely that Russian policy makers were not aware that Ukraine planned to use the drones against Russian proxies. Thus, it remains unclear why Moscow did not react three years ago when Ukraine expressed desire to buy Bayraktar TB2 drones from Turkey.

It is entirely possible that Moscow did not want to jeopardize its “partnership” with Ankara, but the recent meeting between Russian and Turkish foreign ministers, Sergey Lavrov and Mevlut Cavusoglu, at the G20 summit in Rome, clearly indicates that the Kremlin brought up that topic.

"Perhaps Turkey has produced Bayraktar drones, but they belong to Ukraine. Turkey cannot be blamed for this," said Cavusoglu.

His comment came after Russia limited import of mandarin from Turkey, which could be interpreted as Moscow’s warning to Ankara not to expand its military ties with Kyiv. Ukrainian officials already announced their plans to build a factory to produce Bayraktar drones in the country. Such a move could have a significant impact on the situation on the front line in the Donbass, given that the Turkish-made unmanned aerial vehicle proved to be a game changer in Nagorno-Karabakh war between Turkey-backed Azerbaijan and Russia’s ally Armenia in the fall of 2020.

Hypothetically, Moscow could respond by providing air-defense systems to the Donbass republics, but such an action would almost certainly result in severe anti-Russian sanctions. Still, the Kremlin has plenty of other options on the table. For instance, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic could purchase weapons from Abkhazia—Georgia’s breakaway province that Russia recognized as an independent state following the 2008 war between Russia and the Caucasus nation. However, at this point it is highly uncertain if Russian leadership is ready to raise the stakes.

It is more probable that the Kremlin will use other instruments against Kyiv. Gazprom’s decision not to book additional gas transit capacity via Ukraine and Poland to Europe for January-September 2022 clearly signals that the Kremlin will keep using energy as a method of pressure on both Ukraine and its Western backers.

About
Nikola Mikovic
:
Nikola Mikovic is a freelance journalist, researcher and analyst based in Serbia covering foreign policy in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Keeping Peace in the Donbass

Donbass region. Photo via Adobe.

November 10, 2021

Rising tensions between Ukraine and Russia are prompting fears of a revival of the “hot phase” of the military confrontation in the Donbass. The war in the coal-rich region of Eastern Ukraine has been “on hold” since 2015 but is now heating up again.

R

ising tensions between Ukraine and Russia are prompting fears of a revival of the “hot phase” of the military confrontation in the Donbass. The war in the coal-rich region of Eastern Ukraine has been “on hold” since 2015 when Kyiv, Moscow, the Donbass representatives, as well as European mediators, signed the Minsk Agreement—a document that remains the basis for any future resolution to the conflict.

The deal signed in the Belarusian capital never completely stopped the war that broke out in 2014 between Russia-sponsored forces and Western-backed Ukraine. The region has been stuck in the so-called positional warfare—a form of warfare conducted along permanent and fortified front lines—and neither self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic, nor the Ukrainian Army have been attempting to capture new territory. Recently, however, Ukrainian troops seized the village of Staromaryevka, located in no man’s land, which raised concerns in the Donbass that Kyiv is planning to escalate the conflict.

“As soon as the arsenal of political and diplomatic measures is exhausted, escalation of the conflict will begin,” said Rodion Miroshnik, who represents the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic in the Contact Group’s political subgroup within the Minsk format.

Some Ukrainian political analysts also believe that a wide-scale confrontation in the Donbass is a matter of time, while the country’s former Foreign Minister, Pavel Klimkin, emphasized that Kyiv should prepare for an escalation of the conflict. Moreover, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine reportedly warned that the Russia-backed forces are pulling artillery to the front line. Russia, on the other hand, accuses Ukraine of planning to escalate the conflict and drag Moscow into military action. The United States, for its, part, claims that Russia is deploying troops to the Ukrainian border, which is something that Ukrainian Defense Ministry denied.

Indeed, unless Ukraine starts a major offensive against Russian proxies in the Donbass, Moscow is unlikely to engage into a direct confrontation against Kyiv. From the Kremlin’s perspective, preserving the status quo seems to be the top priority at this point.  

"This is such a dead end. I don't really understand how we can get out of it," said Russian President Vladimir Putin at the annual Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi on October 27, talking about the situation in Ukraine. “Let's see what will happen on the domestic political scene of Ukraine in the near future," he concluded.  

Previously, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote an article on Russo-Ukrainian relations, and stressed that the Kremlin should wait until “a sane political figure that is not aimed at total confrontation with Russia” comes to power in Kyiv and replaces the current nation’s political leadership. Such a strategy undoubtedly requests patience, given that the next presidential elections in Ukraine will be held in 2024. Forcing a regime change in a country that is deeply in the Western geopolitical orbit does not seem very realistic, which means that Moscow can only hope that a new vote will result in changes of Ukraine’s geopolitical course. However, even if the current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky loses the election, there is no guarantee that a Kremlin-friendly politician will replace him. That is why, sooner or later, Russia will have to negotiate with Ukraine’s Western-backed leaders.

Moscow refuses to discuss the Donbass war directly with Kyiv, claiming that Russia is not part of the conflict. Ukraine, on the other hand, rejects Kremlin’s proposals to hold talks with representatives of the self-proclaimed Donbass republic, quite aware that such a move would mean the de facto recognition of those entities. That is why Oleksii Reznikov, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister and former Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, said that Kyiv will have to find “its own way” for resolving the conflict.

The Eastern European country has already demonstrated that it is determined to restore sovereignty over the Donbass. After capturing Staromaryevka, Ukrainian Armed Forces have used the Turkish-made Bayraktar drone for the first time—a move that reportedly raised concerns in Moscow. Russia warned that the purchase and deployment of Turkish drones by Ukraine may lead to an escalation of the conflict in the Donbass. It is worth noting, however that Kyiv purchased the sophisticated weapon back in 2018, and it is very unlikely that Russian policy makers were not aware that Ukraine planned to use the drones against Russian proxies. Thus, it remains unclear why Moscow did not react three years ago when Ukraine expressed desire to buy Bayraktar TB2 drones from Turkey.

It is entirely possible that Moscow did not want to jeopardize its “partnership” with Ankara, but the recent meeting between Russian and Turkish foreign ministers, Sergey Lavrov and Mevlut Cavusoglu, at the G20 summit in Rome, clearly indicates that the Kremlin brought up that topic.

"Perhaps Turkey has produced Bayraktar drones, but they belong to Ukraine. Turkey cannot be blamed for this," said Cavusoglu.

His comment came after Russia limited import of mandarin from Turkey, which could be interpreted as Moscow’s warning to Ankara not to expand its military ties with Kyiv. Ukrainian officials already announced their plans to build a factory to produce Bayraktar drones in the country. Such a move could have a significant impact on the situation on the front line in the Donbass, given that the Turkish-made unmanned aerial vehicle proved to be a game changer in Nagorno-Karabakh war between Turkey-backed Azerbaijan and Russia’s ally Armenia in the fall of 2020.

Hypothetically, Moscow could respond by providing air-defense systems to the Donbass republics, but such an action would almost certainly result in severe anti-Russian sanctions. Still, the Kremlin has plenty of other options on the table. For instance, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic could purchase weapons from Abkhazia—Georgia’s breakaway province that Russia recognized as an independent state following the 2008 war between Russia and the Caucasus nation. However, at this point it is highly uncertain if Russian leadership is ready to raise the stakes.

It is more probable that the Kremlin will use other instruments against Kyiv. Gazprom’s decision not to book additional gas transit capacity via Ukraine and Poland to Europe for January-September 2022 clearly signals that the Kremlin will keep using energy as a method of pressure on both Ukraine and its Western backers.

About
Nikola Mikovic
:
Nikola Mikovic is a freelance journalist, researcher and analyst based in Serbia covering foreign policy in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.