• Both sides are showing signs that they are preparing for an escalation of the armed conflict in Donbass. The so-called "DNR" and "LNR" begin a covert mobilization of conscripts.
• The humanitarian situation in the region worsens as international humanitarian organizations withdraw from the illegally occupied territories of Donbass.
• Over 1.5 million families remain incommunicado as mobile communications with the rest of Ukraine remain blocked.
• As Russia plans to use the Eastern Ukrainian electorate to bring pro-Russian politicians to power in Kyiv, Ukraine’s newly passed law on the reintegration of Donbass becomes a bargaining chip in Moscow’s strategy of returning Donbass to Ukraine’s electoral field in time for the 2019 elections.
• Growing animosity within the ruling coalition in Kyiv kick-starts early presidential campaigning; weakening the ability of the Ukrainian parliament to implement the Minsk agreements. This situation is perceived as intensifying the Kremlin’s temptation to put added pressure on Kyiv by creating another military pocket in the east of Ukraine.
The Situation in Donbass
The distrust between Moscow and Kyiv lack of progress in the attainment of a peaceful settlement are forcing both parties to prepare for the continuation of a military scenario. The puppet republics of illegally occupied Donbass have begun a covert mobilization of conscripts. The entire male population aged 18 to 50 bas been called to undergo medical examinations at military registration and enlistment offices. Those who appear for the mediacl examination are then sent to a two-week long reserve training. Those who do not appear are forcibly taken from their places of work. "The authorities" of the so-called "DNR" and "LNR" are investing significantly into this by paying the “reservists” $9 per each day of training, and, by guaranteeing them wages from their places of employment.
This policy provoked social unrest and even resistance within the local population. As a result, the “leaders of the republics” initially, denied the mobilization. However, a corresponding order was issued by the leader of the "DNR" Alexander Zakharchenko. It directly states that the reserve training is being conducted "to fill military losses during the intensification of the military threat in a timely fashion".
Those who successfully complete the training become "military reservists". The "DNR" and the "LNR" are governed by a wartime regime and martial law, thus they can be enlisted at any moment. If necessary, according to Alexander Zakharchenko, the authorities of the "DNR" intend to mobilize at least 30 thousand "volunteers".
Within the framework of the so-called "One Day of Fire”, the "DNR" & "LNR" militants and Russian military of the Southern Military District simultaneously held shooting training, fire preparation and tank training on January 24-25.
In this context, the Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, Alexander Hug, stated, "the parties do not withdraw weapons, disengage forces and formations, or demine. Instead offully complying, instead of withdrawing weapons, disengaging and demining, it seems the parties are, in fact, doing the opposite... The parties not only do not carry out demining, they lay more mines... Instead of withdrawing weapons, all that we see is signs of building-up forces and resources. We see weapons everywhere - in trenches and dug- outs". President Petro Poroshenko indirectly confirmed this statement in announcing a planned quadruple increase in the number of antitank weapons systems in ATO zone this year; both the Ukrainian - Stugna, and American Javelin. He also announced a 4.5 increase in the number of unmanned aerial vehicles in that will be sent to the Ukrainian Armed Forces in 2018. The president also noted a 37% increase in financing, "The financing of the state defence order in 2018 has been increased to over $750 thousand".
The humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate in the occupied territories. This is largely provoked by the separatists who are continuing the trend of self-isolation and the displacement of international humanitarian organizations from the territory controlled by them. For example, the "authorities" of the "LNR" accused and arrested members of People's Mutual Assistance organization of espionage. The organization operated on funding from the Action Against Hunger ACF international fund. They were accused of working for the Ukrainian special services and alleged deception of their donors, which consisted in sending false information about aid recipients to the office of ACF in Sievierodonetsk, controlled by Ukraine.
Furthermore, the World Food Program terminated its food aid program in the East of Ukraine. Over one million people are facing hunger in Ukraine. The former speaker of the OSCE monitoring mission to Ukraine Michael Bociurkiw noted to the BBC that the World Food Program (WFP) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) are having problems with funding, which lead to a reduction in aid programs in these fields.
The continuing lack of mobile communication with Ukraine in the so-called "DNR" is playing an essential role in deteriorating the humanitarian situation in the occupied territory of Donbass.
1 million 600 thousand people are unable to communicate with relatives and friends living in the free territory of Ukraine. The people do not believe the separatist-media’s assertion that the MTS (TM Vodafone) mobile operator was sabotaged by an attack by Ukraine. Both the "DNR" and the "LNR" had one backbone link, which was damaged on January 11. After the repair on January 18, the connection reappeared in the "LNR", not in the "DNR". Renowned Donetsk based Moscow journalist and former Radio Liberty employee, Andrei Babitsky notes in social networks, "In one week, the authorities have become the subject of great alienation ". "Thanks to the story regarding MTS or Vodafone’s cessation of work, they turned into an object of mass negation and hatred - within a few days. They are cursed by thousands ofpeople ", - he wrote.
The law "on the reintegration of Donbass”
On 18 January 2018, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine passed bill No 7163 "On the peculiarities of state policy to ensure state sovereignty of Ukraine over temporarily occupied territories of the Donetsk and the Luhansk oblasts" (abbreviated: "the law on the reintegration of Donbass").
Its main innovations are:
- Russia is recognized as an aggressor country, and the uncontrolled territories of the Donbass - as temporarily occupied;
- the occupied territories are managed by the occupation administrations;
- the law allows the president to use the Armed Forces on the territory of the state without declaring war and martial law;
- all responsibility for what is happening in the region, where the military operation will be carried out, falls on the army vertical, up to the president as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief;
- all references to the Minsk agreements have been removed from the presidential bill.
Importantly, the law has not yet been sent to the president for signature. Deputies from the Moscow-backed Opposition Bloc faction have registered a draft resolution on the revocation of decision of the Verkhovna Rada on the adoption of this law. According to regulations, the law cannot be signed by the head of the Verkhovna Rada. The legislative initiative of the Opposition Bloc deputies should be considered at the next meeting; after February 6.
Also, at the initiative of the Opposition Bloc MP oligarch Vadym Novinsky, the resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe includes a clause calling on Ukraine to revise the draft law so that it is based on the Minsk agreements.
Such a delay may have been connected with the negotiations between U.S. representative Kurt Volker and Putin's aide Vladislav Surkov in Dubai. In an interview on the eve of this meeting, Volker made it clear that the adoption of such a law was a reaction to the "lack of progress in the negotiations".
This bill is unfavorable for Moscow because in it, Ukraine officially codifies Russia, and not the "LDNR", as a party to the conflict. This ruins Moscow’s tactic of denying its participation in the conflict and labelling it a "civil war". It also ruins the framework of the Minsk agreements, requiring holding of elections in the occupied territory and coordination of changes in the Constitution of Ukraine with representatives of separate regions of the Donetsk and the Luhansk oblasts.
Markedly, the U.S. position was noticeably softened after the meeting with V. Surkov Dubai. Kurt Volker stated, "the Minsk agreements are very important". In turn, the Russian media reported that the key issue of the Dubai meeting was specifically "the law on reintegration”: "...they stressed the need to monitor that the law does not contain provisions, contradicting the Minsk complex of measures, and the Americans reacted adequately to the expressed concerns", - Surkov told TASS.
It can be concluded that the adoption of the bill was a signal to Russia that in lieu of progress in the negotiations Washington and the West may tighten their policies. Moscow probably made it clear that it got this signal, because it was in an interview after the Dubai negotiations that Kurt Volker noted the importance of the Minsk agreements.
Under the pressure from both Washington and Moscow, President Poroshenko may be forced to return the law to the Verkhovna Rada and try to include mentioning of the Minsk agreements in its text. This could seriously destabilize the political situation in Kyiv and ultimately undermine Poroshenko's electoral positions.
However, Russia will also have to make concessions to the West, since its obvious goal is to establish political control over entire Ukraine. That is why Russia needs the Minsk agreements, and is interested in their implementation before the 2019 Ukrainian presidential elections. With the help of the Minsk agreements, Moscow hopes to bring a pro-Russian candidate to power in Ukraine and/or to get a pro-Russian majority in the Ukrainian parliament.
In this case, the problem for the West may be that such attempts, and the very fact of the coexistence of two regions with the opposite geopolitical and ideological orientation within the same state, will inevitably lead to a civil war. However, it will be not in the east of Ukraine, but is likely to occur much closer to the EU borders.
Domestic political situation in Ukraine
Next to the adoption of the law "on the reintegration of Donbass", the main event in Ukraine's domestic scene was the emergence of a radical nationalist paramilitary; National Brigades. This organization has been in existence for about one year, but on 28 January 2018, it became headline news all over the country. They held a march on Kyiv's main street. In Kremenchuh, members of the National Brigades demonstrated their effectiveness by forcing the deputies of the Kremenchuh City Council to adopt the budget for the current year. The leaders of this organization state that it will take care of public order, remove alcoholics and drug addicts from the streets and help the police. The real control over the organization is carried out by the Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. Alongside former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, he is one of the leaders of the People's Front faction within the ruling coalition. Many analysts regarded the spectacular appearance of the National Brigades in the media space as Avakov's signal to President Poroshenko, in what may be an indication of growing tensions between the two political forces. This significantly reduces the Poroshenko’s ability to drag a “Moscow approved” version of the law on the reintegration of Donbass through the parliament as the People's Front that was the main initiator of the removal of references to the Minsk agreements from the presidential bill.
Poroshenko's positions are also weakened by a series of fibs about him being unpromising as a presidential candidate in the 2019 election. The Russian media, referring to rumors within Ukrainian politics, spread information that, under the pressure of the West, Poroshenko will step down from the post of president "for health reasons" even before the presidential election. It was further asserted that the West is allegedly preparing a replacement; the little-known, current leader of the Agrarian Party of Ukraine, Vitaliy Skotsyk.
In turn, Nestor Shufrych a well-known politician and Viktor Medvedchuk's personal friend, recently noted the presidential potential of Kyiv's current mayor Vitaliy Klitschko. Klitschko is a political project of Dmytro Firtash’ the Russian oligarch hiding from Ukrainian and American justice in Vienna.
Saakashvili's Movement of New Forces is also preparing a list of "ten presidential candidates", which the ex-president of Georgia intends to announce on February 18.
The beginning of the presidential campaign in Ukraine significantly complicates the possibility of implementing the political part of the Minsk agreements by Poroshenko. In turn, it can also provoke Russia to pressure Kyiv by escalating the conflict in Donbass. An escalation of this sort would foreseeably occur soon after the presidential election in Russia, and before the delivery of American Javelins to Ukraine. The escalation may begin even earlier if Putin decides he needs to mobilize his electorate on the eve of the elections.
Centre for research of Donbass social perspectives
The review was prepared with the support of GPD Charitable Trust