- Confrontation in the Donbass continues to grow as the increasing concentration of forces and weapons rises the possibility of random and uncontrolled provocations.
- The self-isolation trend of the Donbas "republics" grows as “DNR” authorities launch an intimidation campaign against citizens crossing the demarcation line. Donetsk talks of total checkpoint closures.
- On 20 February, 2018 the law which declares Russia an aggressor, and nongovernment controlled territories as Russian-occupied was signed into force by President Poroshenko. Its indicating compromise between Washington and Moscow on the "Ukrainian issue" has either been reached or negations have ceased.
- The recent US annihilation of Russian troops and Wagner mercenaries (engaged in operations against the Ukrainian army in Donbass) in Syria creates a negative electoral effect for Putin and exposes the vulnerability of the Russian Armed Forces. Raising concern that a Ukrainian offensive in the Donbass, may spell defeat for Russia in Ukraine and Putin personally.
- Rasmussen's plan to introduce a UN peacekeeping mission to the Donbass in implementation of the political part of the Minsk agreements is expected to provoke active resistance from the Ukrainian politicum. The main problem lies in perception that the West is trying to substitute Kyiv in the resolution of the conflict.
Situation in the Donbass
Confrontation in the Donbass continues to grow in both military and psychological spheres. On 5 February, at an urgent briefing for journalists, the "deputy commander of the operational command of the DNR", Eduard Basurin, stated the Armed Forces of Ukraine are going to unleash a full-scale war "any day”. Allegedly, the "DNR’s" reconnaissance provided the "operational command" with the General Staff of Ukraine’s "absolutelyprecise" plan for an allout attack. This threat of forthcoming military actions has successfully alarmed local residents already intimidated against the background of ongoing military mobilization, training of militants for military actions and further restrictions of civil rights.
The OSCE Monitoring Mission repeatedly remarked the concentration of weapons and troops on the demarcation line had reached a critical level. The use of heavy artillery banned by the Minsk agreements, continues to be registered alongside an intensification of subversive activities in the occupied territory.
The propaganda channels of the "DNR" spread a statement made by a militant leader claiming that Western instructors have arrived to train the AFU servicemen "tactics of fighting in an urban setting with subsequent clearing operations in settlements" on the front zone.
Against this background, the so-called "ministry of emergency situations of the DNR" declared a 60% readiness of the bomb shelters "in case of an AFU offensive". According to the "ministry", "there are more than 4500 bomb shelters in the territory controlled by the "DNR", what exceeds the indicators of 2014 by 8.5 times".
Media in the so-called "LNR" reported that "more than 100 officers of the 8th Army of the Southern Military District of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation " were engaged "to
check the readiness and conditions to assess the capabilities of the People's Militia of the LNR to carry out missions". According to the results of this check, the media concluded that "the Army of the Republic is completely reformed and ready to repulse the imminent offensive of the AFU".
In turn, Ukrainian reconnaissance stated that "the militants of the "L-DNR" terrorist formations received a consignment of anti-tank guided missiles from Russia".
Ongoing mobilization measures are another indicator that the puppet "republics" of Donbass are preparing for combat operations. Local military registration and enlistment offices oblige all men to submit to a medical commission "with the aim of forming a mobilization reserve in case of intensified hostilities". The military registration and enlistment offices make them sign a statement they will not leave the "republic".
The “Head of the LNR" Pasechnik issued an order to deploy the "republic's" police officers to the front in order to avoid social tension and make up for a critical deficiency of personnel.
Notably the militants themselves do not believe in Ukraine's intention to launch an all-out offensive. The so-called "defence minister of the DNR" Vladimir Kononov confirmed the fact of military escalation in his television interview, but noted that he "does not see the point of this escalation". According to Kononov, the planned appearance of American Javelin missiles in service of the AFU "will change the alignment of forces by no means".
The mobilization arrangements and the fomenting of military hysteria by the media of the "republics" appear to be aimed more at awakening patriotic feelings of people and facilitating the mobilization of the "DNR-LNR" into armed formations than at preparing the population for war. According to various estimates, including the militant leaders themselves, the "army corps" of the "republics" are understaffed by 40-60%. Russia demands this shortage be filled with local manpower, but the "republics" have already compromised themselves so much that people, though afraid of Ukraine, still do not want to fight for the "DNR-LNR".
The fact that the population is extremely fed up with the war combined with the factor of the upcoming elections (both in non-government and government controlled), both parties understand that in the absence of real options for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, the military option becomes inevitable. Thus, both Ukraine and Moscow are actively preparing for it.
The high concentration of weapons and manpower on the line of demarcation, combined with military hysteria fueled by propagandists make the risk of an uncontrolled aggravation of the situation, conditioned by the subjective human factor, high.
Self-isolation of the “republics” continues to increase.
The "DNR" intimidates pensioners traveling to receive their pension on the free territory of Ukraine, with possible detention by Ukrainian special services. The so-called "human rights commissioner of the DNR", Daria Morozova, reported on such, alleged, "mass detentions".
Concurrently, there are rumors in the occupied territory that, due to the aggravation of the military situation, the "DNR-LNR" plan to close checkpoints on demarcation line for 3 months. This is causing significant social tension, especially after MTS Ukraine mobile service (Vodafone), which allowed residents of the occupied territories to keep in touch with their relatives in free territory, was terminated by so-called authorities on 11 January.
According to the OSCE, 40 thousand people cross the line of demarcation daily (about 1 million 200 thousand people a month). This figure indicates that people living in the occupied territory continue to maintain close ties with Ukraine. Therefore, depriving them of such an opportunity by shutting block posts can sharply aggravate the social situation on both sides of the line of demarcation.
The infringement of human rights in the occupied territory continues. The leader of the "LNR" Leonid Pasechnik issued a "decree” permitting the preventative detention of suspicious persons for 30 to 60 days; without a court decision to carry out their verification.
The risks of ecological disasters continue to accumulate in the occupied territory. The
"DNR" officially announced flooding of the Yuny Communar mine in Yenakieve city, where in 1979, an experimental nuclear explosion was carried out at a depth of 900 meters. Flooding of the mine can lead to erosion of the formed capsule with radioactive waste by groundwater and radiation release to the surface.
Internal political factors in Ukraine that affect the situation in the Donbass
On 20 February, 2018 the law which declares Russia an aggressor, and non-government controlled territories as Russian-occupied was signed by President Poroshenko.
The law was passed on 18 January but, immediately following, the pro-Russian Opposition Block blocked its signing into law by the president. Ukrainian political analysts suppose that blocking of law signing could be a treaty with Poroshenko. Namely, to give Kurt Volker an additional bargaining chip at his 26 January meeting with Vladislav Surkov in Dubai. Whereas a law identifying Russia a party to an interstate conflict on the territory of Ukraine is detrimental to the Kremlin, the delay may be related to the law being used as a lever of pressure on the Kremlin in negotiations on the introduction of UN peacekeepers into the Donbass.
On 6 February, the Parliament of Ukraine rejected the Opposition Bloc's draft resolution on the abolition of decision of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine on the adoption of the law (No 7163), which calls Russia an aggressor, and ATO zone - Russia-occupied territories. The chairman of the Verkhovna Rada, Andriy Parubiy, said "This opens the way to signing a law on deoccupation".
A problem of the Minsk agreements in Ukraine is that the only real driver for their implementation is Petro Poroshenko, but society does not trust him. He has the highest negative rating among Ukrainian politicians. In addition, two-thirds of Ukrainians oppose the provisions of the Minsk agreements. Thus, the president simply does not have enough political resources to implement them. Therefore, the Minsk agreements are drowning Poroshenko, and Poroshenko is drowning the Minsk agreements.
Geopolitical influence on the development of the conflict
The recent US annihilation of Russian troops and Wagner mercenaries (engaged in operations against the Ukrainian army in Donbass) in Syria creates a negative electoral effect for Putin.
The destruction of a significant part of the Russian group in Syria by the United States creates a negative electoral effect for Putin and exposes the real vulnerability of the Russian Armed Forces. The latter causes the Russian leadership to dread a possible U.S.-supported Ukraineoffensive in the Donbass. It may end in the defeat of puppet pro-Russian “republics” in Ukraine. This may be the cause for the Russian Federation’s start of mobilization in the Donbass.
Until the day of presidential elections, Russia is vulnerable. Yet, Ukraine's Western allies still believe in the possibility of a political resolution to the conflict that is, in fact, on the aggressor’s terms. Its goal is to force Kyiv to agree to the implementation of the Minsk agreements on the Moscow scenario: to create the actual Russian cultural and political enclave in Ukraine, which is maintained from the budget of Ukraine, and to federalize Ukraine with a view to its further disintegration. The tactics, applied by the West, of persuading the aggressor and compelling the victim of aggression to compromise, encourage Russia to prolong the conflict.
The tactics of persuading Russia cannot lead to the conflict resolution; they can only reformat it. Russia is still interested in full control over Ukraine and has not abandoned the goal of bringing Kyiv under its umbrella by hook or by crook. This, in fact, is the basis of the imperial policy of the Kremlin. If the Russian Federation does not suffer a defeat which will force it to at least postpone the implementation of its plans, any voluntary consent from Russia will indicate actions in its interests. Only real pressure on the Russian Federation and the implementation of peace BY FORCE can stop the conflict in the
Donbass and prevent Russia from creating more flash points, necessary for Moscow to implement its imperial policy of controlled chaos.
The fact that the West has not yet realized this is reflected in the so-called Rasmussen Plan on the introduction of a UN peacekeeping mission to the Donbass. The implementation of the political part of the Minsk agreements, imposed on Kyiv by Moscow, is the goal of this plan, what already raises doubts about its practicality.
The main problem of the West, in relation to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine on Ukrainian territory, is that it is trying to substitute Kyiv in resolving Ukraine’s conflict with Moscow. This causes internal resistance inside Ukraine, unavailing the West's attempts. Without the consent of the Ukrainian society, neither the peacekeepers, nor the Minsk agreements or further Western efforts can be effectively realized in Ukraine.
Today, in the implementation of its efforts, the West relies virtually solely on the presidential powers in Ukraine. The level of credibility of the drivers in the West is too low within Ukraine’s politicum, and the level of politicization and militarization of society in Ukraine is too high. Any political force that overtly decides to oppose itself to society, risks not only its ratings, but its very existence. Therefore, in order to effectively solve the Donbass problem, the West needs not to solve it INSTEAD OF Ukraine, but to stimulate the leadership of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people to LIBERATE themselves, their territory and integrity of the Ukrainian state. This must not be done on the terms of the aggressor, but in the right of the sovereign. Such actions will have just and lawful effect. They will not reforming the conflict with the threat of its expansion to other parts of Ukraine and other parts of the world. They will stop the conflict and Russia’s imperial ambitions.
An important factor in the development of the situation in the Donbass is that in this period, the Kremlin is mainly focused on its own domestic political issues. Particularly, the presidential election. The main problem is the predicted low voter turnout. If less than 50% of Russians come to polling stations, the election will be declared invalid.
Centre for research of Donbass social perspectives
The review was prepared with the support of GPD Charitable Trust