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What’s behind Moscow’s possible escalation in Donbas

The latest ceasefire introduced in July 2020 was the only, albeit significant, achievement regarding Donbas in the last years. Recent signs, however, indicate that the situation may dangerously escalate in the coming weeks.

April 11, 2021 - Piotr Andrusieczko - Hot Topics

Ukrainian army soldier is on duty in the trench at the frontline in Donbas, Eastern Ukraine. Photo: Anastasiia Rodion / Shutterstock

Since the beginning of the year, the situation along the 450-kilometre front line in eastern Ukraine has deteriorated with the number of shelling and casualties increasing. Starting in March, Russian media began running headlines with titles like: “A sense of horror”; “Is a new war in Donbas real?”; “When will the war in Donbas begin?” Ukrainian media also noted the change in the situation in the region in a more balanced way, but also with concern. Their headlines read more like: “A new war or a local operation?” “End of the ceasefire?”  

Who believes in a ceasefire?

As we got close to the village of Zolote-4 in the Luhansk region, the landscape was filled with heaps, a mine shaft and scattered buildings. About 500 people live here. It was a warm day in July last year, with 36 hours left for the ceasefire to be announced. It was calm. Shops were open in the centre, children were playing in the street.

But this calmness was only apparent. Zolote-4 is one of the places that is adjacent to the front line. Thus, when here you can hear single shots from automatic weapons which turn into a barrage at any moment. The series of machine gun fire is usually followed by the sound of grenade launchers and explosions of mortar shells. For locals, these sounds are the norm.

Our group of observers of an international mission on behalf of the Vostok SOS organisation, a charitable organisation which provides humanitarian assistance to those affected by the conflict, left Zolote-4. We watched the battle from on a hill behind the village. Next to it, there is an abandoned observation point for the OSCE mission. From there we heard the sounds of gunfire and we could see smoke from the explosions of mortar shells.

These repeated firings have been an ongoing nightmare for the locals for years, and there are many such places along the frontlines. The ceasefire, which entered into force on July 27th 2020, meant quiet days for those living along the front. It is true that the shootings did not stop completely, but these were isolated incidents compared to previous situation. That was at least until November 2020, when we came to Zolote again.

Neither in July nor in November, had the locals put much faith in the durability of the ceasefire. They remembered how the previous ones ended. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, however,  believed in them. On July 26th 2020 he spoke with Vladimir Putin on this matter. Putin, according to a communiqué from the Office of the President of Ukraine, “supported the agreement”.  

Zelenskyy’s opponents criticised the tactic of refraining from offensive actions, calling it a mistake. They argued that it enables the enemy to strengthen its position. Already in the autumn of 2020, Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers warned of sniper groups becoming active, despite the ceasefire. The number of shootings also began to increase starting in the new year. The number of victims on the Ukrainian side grew. While only four soldiers died in the five-month ceasefire in 2020 and 15 were injured, in the first three months of 2021, 24 had been killed. In February, the United Forces Operations Staff reported 180 violations of the ceasefire regime.

“The peace process is no longer there – sniper groups are operating, shelling is underway, war is underway,” said Interior Minister Arsen Avakov in early February.

Revenge for Medvedchuk?

In early February, the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine froze all domestic assets of Taras Kozak, a deputy of the pro-Russian Opposition Platform – For Life party. The reason was Kozak’s illegal coal trade with the self-proclaimed republics in Donbas. Sanctions were also applied to three TV channels: NewOne, ZIK and 112.ua, formally owned by Kozak. According to Ukrainian media, the real owner of the blocked TV channels is one of the main pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine – Viktor Medvedchuk, whose business partner is Kozak. On February 19th, the same sanctions were also imposed on Medvedchuk. He had been in close contact with Putin for many years and since the beginning of the war in Donbas, during Petro Poroshenko’s presidency, Medvedchuk played a special role in contacts between Moscow and Kyiv.

Ukrainian commentators wondered whether the economic sanctions that were imposed on Medvedchuk would lead to retaliatory actions by Russia. A day after the freezing of Medvedchuk’s accounts, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Kyiv’s “reactionary line” raised concerns as to whether the Ukrainian leadership would find it possible to “resolve the situation in the southeast of the country in a military manner.”

At the same time, the Russian media launched an attack – traditionally, Dmitry Kiselov and Vladimir Solovyov were on the attack. In their programmes you could hear that Ukraine is preparing for a war against the “republics”. Solovyov warned that “Ukrainian aggression” could end badly for the Ukrainian state. And guests on Russian TV discussed the possibility of expanding the territories of the “republics”.

In other media outlets, Russian experts indicated that the Ukrainian government was impressed by Azerbaijan’s success in Nagorno-Karabakh and also intended to use the Bayraktar combat drones purchased in Turkey in offensive operations in Donbas.

However, the situation in eastern Ukraine was not aggravated with the introduction of sanctions against Medvedchuk. The number of shots increased already in January. On the day the sanctions against Medvedchuk were announced, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Oleksiy Danilov, also announced that the council had decided to reconsider “five scenarios for the development of the situation in Donbas”.

The existence of these scenarios became known to the public just before the Normandy Format summit which took place in December 2019 in Paris. No details were given, which was probably intended to strengthen Zelenskyy’s negotiating position. However, it has also been speculated that one of the scenarios could involve the resumption of large-scale combat operations.

Zelenskyy declared that ending the war in Donbas was one of the main goals for his presidency. In September 2019, a prisoner exchange took place between Russia and Ukraine. Thirty-five Ukrainian citizens returned to their home country, including Oleh Sentsov. Ukraine concluded an agreement signed in 2016 on the withdrawal of military units from the three small sections of the front. The authorities in Kyiv also agreed to accept the so-called Steinmeier formula, i.e. the implementation of the special status of the designated regions of Donbas on the day of local elections in this area – provided that they are conducted in accordance with the Ukrainian constitution and meet international democratic standards. This sparked protests among some Ukrainian circles who accused the president of making concessions to Russia.

The Paris Summit of the Normandy Format in December 2019 was seen as a test for Zelenskyy. It was his first meeting with Putin. However, the meeting brought no breakthroughs. “We have unblocked the dialogue, which is very positive,” Zelenskyy said after the meeting. The summit’s communiqué indicated that the parties had agreed on a “full and comprehensive” ceasefire and the exchange of “all conflict-related prisoners” by the end of the year. Partial replacement was carried out on December 29th. The next summit was due a few months later, but the COVID-19 pandemic derailed those efforts. However, it was doubtful that the meeting would have taken place despite the pandemic. Russia clearly had different expectations of the new Ukrainian president. The latter, in turn, had the Ukrainian civil society behind his back, showing him where the “red lines” lay, warning against too far-reaching concessions.

Different methods, same goal

After the Paris summit, Moscow made a significant personnel change. In January 2020, the Russian and Ukrainian media received information that the former Kremlin “curator of the self-proclaimed republics in the Donbas”, Vladislav Surkov, was replaced by Dmitry Kozak (not to be confused with Taras Kozak, mentioned above – editor’s note).

Surkov was a big player in the Putin system of power. He is the author of the concept of “sovereign democracy” and is also credited with introducing the concept of Russkiy Mir (the Russian World). In 2013, he became Putin’s envoy for contacts with the Ukrainian president. In December 2013 Viktor Yanukovych resigned from signing the association agreement with the EU, which brought on the protests on Maidan. Surkov flew to Kyiv, but Yanukovych lost.

Surkov returned to the game with the “Russian Spring” in Donbas. At that time Moscow’s rhetoric was: “We are not there.” Russian troops under the command of Igor Girkin took Slavyansk. A war broke out in Donbas and Surkov became the curator of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. In a recently released excerpt from a conversation between Medvedchuk and Surkov, which took place at the end of 2014, the Kremlin representative called the fighters in Donbas his “subordinates”.

Surkov is also credited with the unrealised idea of creating Novorossiya in south-eastern Ukraine. He believed that Donbas should become a zone of Russian influence outside Ukrainian jurisdiction. His views on the region are well illustrated in an interview he gave in February 2020, in which he stated that Ukraine “does not exist” at present, but that Ukrainians “are stubborn and will create it”.  

The replacement of Surkov with Dmitry Kozak sparked a series of speculations about possible changes to Russia’s policy on Donbas. For Kozak, this direction of activity was not entirely new – during Surkov’s time he worked on economic relations between Russia and the “republics”.

Some saw the arrival of Dmitry Kozak as a chance for progress in settling the conflict in eastern Ukraine, noting that he is more direct than Surkov and, unlike him, he does not play behind the scenes. Sceptics replied that Kozak is only a performer and no changes would be expected, because everything depends on one person – Putin.

In the context of the war, it is worth recalling Kozak’s involvement and attempts to settle the conflict in Transnistria in 2003. He then presented a plan that provided for the federalisation of Moldova, in which not only Transnistria but also Gagauzia would receive a special status and could block Chișinău’s legislative initiatives. Ultimately, the plan was never signed, but the idea became a part of Russia’s plans towards Ukraine, which also includes attempts to impose the idea of federalisation and “consolidation” in the constitution of a special status for Donbas.

Without much larger changes

The ceasefire introduced last July was the only, albeit significant, achievement regarding Donbas. Relations on the level of the Normandy and Minsk formats have not led to any further progress. There were even no further exchanges of people detained in the “republics”.

In autumn, Russia proposed a plan to settle the conflict, setting out the following actions: first, changes to the constitution regarding the creation of separate regions and the adoption of a law on the special status of Donbas. In response, Ukraine prepared a “Joint Steps Plan”, presenting the “traditional” Ukrainian order of actions: the release of all detained persons, increasing the size of the OSCE mission, removing all armed formations from Donbas, disbanding local illegal troops, and finally regaining control of the border by Ukraine. This paves the way for local elections.

Boris Gryzlov, a Russian representative in the Tripartite Contact Group for Conflict Resolution in Donbas, stated that it was a revision of the 2015 Minsk agreements. He also pointed out that Kyiv cares primarily about the next summit of the Normandy Format, which is true: Kyiv rightly believes that international partners guarantee that negotiations with Russia will be successful. The latter, in turn, has been trying for years to convince the international community that it is not a party to the conflict in Donbas, which is an internal problem of Ukraine, and that Kyiv should talk directly with the “republics”.

Do not shoot!

The counterpart of Dmitry Kozak on the Ukrainian side is Andriy Yermak – the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine. On March 9th, Yermak stated that France and Germany, with the participation of Ukraine, presented Russia with a renewed plan to settle the conflict.

“As for the ‘new peace plan’: it is not on the table. This is another myth,” Kozak replied in an interview with Interfax. At the same time, he stated that France and Germany tried to agree on recommendations for the Tripartite Contact Group and handed them over to Russia and Ukraine. These recommendations regard the implementation plan of the 2015 Minsk agreements. The document contains 13 points concerning both security and political issues. To date, not even the first of them, meaning a complete ceasefire, has been implemented.

On March 24th, the Russian Kommersant published the proposals of France and Germany to implement the Minsk agreements and the amendments from Russia and Ukraine, as well as comments from representatives of the “republics” (but without confirmation of the credibility of any of these documents). The difference between the Russian and Ukrainian proposals is traditionally related to the order in which individual points of the agreements are implemented. Russia refers to establishing Ukrainian control over the border with Russia only after elections, while Kyiv insists that the border control should be established prior to elections.

The head of the Ukrainian delegation in the Minsk Tripartite Contact Group, Leonid Kravchuk, in an interview for Deutsche Welle at the end of February, stated that Zelenskyy had already understood that it would not be possible to reach an agreement with Russia. The determined attitude of the patriotic part of the Ukrainian society that warned Zelenskyy against crossing the “red lines” during street actions, “helped”.

Zelenskyy is currently fighting on several fronts, all directly or indirectly linked to Russia. In addition to the ongoing conflict in Donbas, he announced a diplomatic offensive related to Crimea, illegally annexed by the Russian Federation in 2014. This is to be achieved with the establishment of the Crimean Platform – an international format of talks on the future of the peninsula, which is part of the approved “strategy for the de-occupation and reintegration of Crimea”. The inaugural summit of this initiative is scheduled for August 23rd.

Russia considers the topic of Crimea closed and therefore reacts nervously to every move by Kyiv in this matter. By imposing sanctions on Medvedchuk, people and business that are connected with him, Zelenskyy has also attacked the interests of pro-Russian forces in Ukraine. It seems that this is not the end.

Russian state media have been demonstrating disappointment with the activities of the Ukrainian president for some time. This means that Russia has no reason to keep the Donbas issue silent any more. So far, however, there is no indication that another “great war” would occur. However, an escalation scenario with an increasing number of victims is very real.

Piotr Andrusieczko is a journalist and commentator specialising on Ukrainian issues. He permanently co-operates with Gazeta Wyborcza, Outriders and Radio Tok FM. In the Grand Press competition in 2014, he was chosen as “Journalist of the Year”.

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