• Russia is bolstering mobilization measures and combat training of armed formations of the so-called Donbass "republics". The increased preparations and weapons supply suggest the "DNR"-"LNR" may be preparing an ‘independent war’ with Kyiv. Such a war would benefit the Kremlin. In the case of defeat, it could claim no conflict/face no sanctions, whereas victory will further destabilize Ukraine.
• The Kremlin significantly reduced social financing of the "DNR"-"LNR". The sharp deterioration of the economic situation in the occupied territories, combined with the aggravation of the political struggle in the course of the autumn "elections of heads of the republics", may lead to an escalation of the military conflict in the East of Ukraine.
• The upcoming 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine are expected to intensify Petro Poroshenko’s war rhetoric and politics. He needs to raise his political rating amidst the lack of visibly successful economic reforms, growing animosity with coalition allies and the West, and along the socio-political front as exemplified by the brutal and illegal dispersal of the tent village near the Verkhovna Rada. A successful military operation in eastern Ukraine would singularly and effectively raise Poroshenko’s chances of winning a second presidential term.
• Putin officially announced that he considers the withdrawal of "republics of the USSR" from Russia to be illegal and will make efforts to return them to Russia as Russia is preparing a disguised Russian-Belorussian military contingent of “international peacekeepers” for the Donbass.
The Situation in Donbass
The military-political confrontation in the Donbass is intensifying, despite the relatively positive results of the 5 March ceasefire.
Russia intensified the mobilization and combat training of armed formations of the so-called Donbass "republics". An estimated 30-70 percent of the different departments of the “DNR & LNR army” remain unmanned. People are being encouraged to enlist in the "DNR"-"LNR". Moreover, Russia is conducting a compulsory, additional, three-week military training recruitment. In some cases, participants of the training are reportedly not being released from the front after the specified release date.
Almost daily, the “republics’” armed formations are conducting combat, tactical and medical training. Participants are also subjected to informational and ideological indoctrination. Officially, militants are being trained to repel an assumed Ukrainian offensive. This ‘assumed offensive’ is promoted by the adoption of the Ukrainian Law "On the reintegration of Donbass”, and, public appeals of President Poroshenko to the Armed Forces of Ukraine to be ready for the liberation of their territories.
At the same time, informal separatist leaders, such as creator of the Vostok Battalion Alexander Khodakovsky, are proclaiming the inevitability of such an offensive. Khodakovsky, who still controls about 15% of the "DNR army", noted that the offensive against Ukraine was inevitable. Speaking at at the conference of "The Patriotic Forces of Donbass" social movement (which he heads), he asserted, "This is inevitable for us, and for Russia".
It should be noted that Khodakovsky is a sufficiently informed source. He previously headed the "Ministry of State Security of the DNR" which is in fact, the FSB branch inside Donetsk. Khodakovsky is the only opposition politician to the current "head of the republic" A. Zakharchenko. Addressing his supporters in a speech that marks the start of his election campaign for the post of "the DNR head", Khodakovsky said he considered power a tool for launching an offensive against Ukraine. Combined with the following factors, it is possible to deduce that the expected intensification of hostilities in the Donbass will possibly occur in the summer and autumn of 2018.
First, a sharp reduction in Russia's financial assistance to the "republics" has increased the deficit of the “DNR” budget by $17.5 million per quarter (the "republics" have quarterly not annual budgets). Accordingly, this will lead to an increase in tax pressure on businesses and a reduction in social payments and salaries to the employees of "state" organizations. Therefore, it is neither profitable for the current leaders of the "DNR"-"LNR" nor their supervisors in Russia to hold November elections of "heads of the republics". Yet they can be canceled only by referring to the war.
Second, a possible change of curator of the "republics" in the Kremlin. It is possible that after the elections, Putin will remove Vladislav Surkov from the "Ukrainian direction". According to Khodakovsky, changes in Russian policy regarding the Donbass will become clear 2-3 months after Putin's election. If it turns out that Russia has decided to double-cross the "republics", the militants themselves can provoke confrontation at the front to draw Russia in with the aim of "pushing", as Khodakovsky put it, Russian politicians to make "correct decisions" regarding the Donbass. "They must understand that if they make wrong decisions about us, here, on the spot, regardless of everything, we will say our piece", - Khodakovsky threatened.
The militant noted that "fighters on the front line" will not implement Putin's decisions which do not coincide with their own wishes. Moreover, according to Khodakovsky, they will not allow the Kremlin to implement the Minsk agreements, "We will not become a part of Ukraine, we will not take our cue from the political conjuncture under any circumstances. We will firmly cut short the talks about our entry into Ukraine ".
Thus, the sharp deterioration of the economic situation in the occupied territories of Donbass, aggravation of the political struggle leading up to and during the autumn "elections of heads of the republics", as well as a possible change of Russia's policy towards the "DNR"-"LNR" may provoke a summer/autumn military escalation in the east of Ukraine. Russia's increased preparation of local "armies" and supply of weapons also suggest that the "DNR"-"LNR" are preparing for a war with Kyiv. Such a war is equally beneficial to the Kremlin in the event of defeat of the "republics" (no conflict – no sanctions) and in case of their success, which will lead to destabilization of the situation in Ukraine.
Internal political factors in Ukraine affecting the situation in the Donbass
The internal political situation in Ukraine is developing in a manner that suggests President Poroshenko tightening policies towards internal opposition and the east of Ukraine. Poroshenko's statements provide support for such an assertion. On 5 March, 2018 he wrote on Facebook: "The AFU should be strengthened so that they are not only defensible, but also able to liberate the occupied territories. This is our unconditional right! ". Later, announcing the appointment of General-Lieutenant Serhiy Nayev as Commander of the Joined Forces, the president noted that he had created a new legal basis "to repel the enemy aggression in Donbass, and in the future - restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine".
It is possible to assert that the closer the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections are, the more warlike the rhetoric and politics of Petro Poroshenko will be. This is due to the need for the current head of state to raise his own political rating against the backdrop of lacking of visible economic reforms' success, growing animosity with political coalition allies and the West, and, the prospect of confrontation between society and the authorities as was recently expressed in the brutal and illegal dispersal of the tent camp near the Verkhovna Rada. The seemingly only event that can quickly raise Poroshenko’s chances of winning the second presidential term is a successful military operation in the east of Ukraine.
According to insider sources, Poroshenko rejected the idea of early parliamentary elections during negotiations conducted with the People's Front and Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman. Should Poroshenko win in early parliamentary elections, he would have to share power with the parties to the agreement. If he runs independently in the frame of military victories, he has the opportunity to pick up the electorate which had voted for the People's Front in the previous election. Thus, it will enable him to extend his term of office, strengthen his power, and ridding himself of Minister of Internal Affairs Avakov (People's Front), who controls the police and a number of military and far-right organizations.
Among the measures designed to retain Poroshenko’s power, the Presidential Administration is already preparing a number of bills, the purpose of which is to increase the state's ability to monitor non-governmental organizations and the media. Official Kyiv has already received a warning from Freedom House on this subject.
The deterioration of relations between official Kyiv and the West is being observed pertaining to human rights violations as with international organizations.
Poroshenko sharply criticized the IMF and the Venice Commission, claiming they "violate the sovereignty of Ukraine". His criticism pertains to the condition the formation of anti-corruption courts in Ukraine. The West insists on the creation of such courts, where judges will be independent of Poroshenko and will be able to provide the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine qualitative support to investigations and bringing operational cases to court. Poroshenko and his entourage, for whom, as practice has shown, the meaning of being in power is enrichment, cannot allow this. Poroshenko is trying to pass "his own" version of the Anti-Corruption Court through the parliament. Given the natural fear most deputies have of an honest court, he has a chance to succeed.
Another event that could affect Kyiv’s "eastern" policy is the detention of Head of the Officer Corps Ukrainian Center for the Release of Prisoners, Volodymyr Ruban, at one of the "DNR" checkpoints on 8 March, 2018. He tried to import a consignment of small arms, mortars and ammunition into Ukraine. Ruban is a known negotiator in the exchange of prisoners from the Ukrainian party which was imposed on Kyiv by Russia and its collaborators. Prior to the war, Ruban was engaged in publishing pro-Russian educational literature in Ukraine with Russian money. Viktor Medvedchik is Ruban’s patron and Putin's “kum” (a close family relation created through the baptism of children, in this case, Putin is the godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter). Medvedchuk is the controversial representative of Ukraine in the Minsk Contact Group. The SBU has linked the Ruban case to MP Nadiya Savchenko and the "DNR" leadership Zakharchenko and Timofieyev, whom the SBU calls customers of terrorist attacks in Kyiv. Savchenko stands accused of organizing a military coup.
Nadiya Savchenko consistently supported direct negotiations with the "DNR-LNR". It is quite plausible that she, together with Ruban, Zakharchenko & Timofieyev acted as an organizer of terrorist acts planned for the Ukrainian capital. Revealing this motley crew and its plot to bombard the Verkhovna Rada, complicates the realization of their political initiatives and justifies Kyiv's rightness in the event of an offensive campaign in the East of Ukraine; in turn, providing avenues for support to the international community.
Geopolitical influence on the development of the conflict
For the first time since the break-up of the USSR, a Russian states that he considers the Soviet Union to be Russia and, accordingly, the former Soviet republics - part of Russia. Putin asserted this in his address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation.
"After the USSR breakup, Russia, which was called the Soviet Union in Soviet times, Soviet Russia - if we talk about our national borders, lost 23.8 percent of the territory, 48.5 percent of the population, 41 percent of the gross social product, 39.4 percent of the industrial capacity (I call the attention, almost half) and 44.6 percent of the military capacity in connection with the division of the Armed Forces of the USSR between the former union republics".
Strikingly, Putin officially announced that the withdrawal of "republics of the USSR” from Russia to be illegal and will make efforts to return them to Russia, what, broadly speaking, is already happening.
According to the Mejlis, there are already six nuclear warheads in the Crimea. Troops of the Western Military District rehearsed the conduct of battles against the Armed Forces of Ukraine at the Mulino training range in the Nizhny Novgorod oblast. Along the Ukrainian border, the Russian Federation retains several divisions that are ready for rapid entry into the territory of Ukraine. Ukrainian counterintelligence registered the movement of echelons with Russian military equipment through Belarus to the Ukrainian border. Military equipment with UN markings was registered in Novorossiysk. Units of the Airborne Forces of the Russian Federation conduct joint exercises with the Special Operations Forces of Belarus in Ulyanovsk. The title of the exercise was, "Preparation of the Russian-Belarusian battalion tactical group for peacekeeping operations in the buffer zone". Meanwhile, Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation N. Patrushev was in Minsk, and the military leadership of Belarus conducted an urgent combat readiness check of the Armed Forces of Belarus.
Moscow is preparing to unilaterally introduce Russian and Belarusian military personnel into the Donbass as "international peacekeeping contingent” - in case of escalation of the situation in the East of Ukraine. If Putin persuades Lukashenko to take such a step, then Belarus will become an aggressor state according to the UN Convention on the Definition of Aggression (1974). This will make Belarus part of the Union State with Russia not only legally, but also virtually.
The General deterioration of Russia's relations with the West has hastened as a result of the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Skripal in London. This (attempted) assassination may become an important radicalization factor for Russia’s policy in the Donbass. Quickly becoming an outcast on the world stage, Russia, holding with tradition, may begin to intensify its use of force in order to be "loved". That is, to creating and strengthening existing conflicts, so that the West has to reckon with it and sit down for talks.
Centre for research of Donbass social perspectives
The review was prepared with the support of GPD Charitable Trust