• The policy of compulsory isolation of the human population inside the occupied territories of Donbass from Ukraine continues. The "DNR" authorities are preparing for the monopolization of the Internet.
• Ukraine’s region alongside Sea of Azov coast faces humanitarian, economic, political and military deterioration as Russia pursues the creation a land corridor to the Crimea.
• The internal political situation in Ukraine is ominous for Poroshenko. He appears doomed to either abandon the second term of the presidency, take steps that will allow him to introduce martial law or demonstrate his military effectiveness to the electorate.
• Russia significantly increased the concentration of weapons and troops on the border with Ukraine.
Situation in the Donbass
The occupation authorities of the "DNR" continue their policy of compulsorily isolating the population living inside the territories under “DNR” control from the rest of Ukraine. Following the disconnection of Vodafone-Ukraine (the only Ukrainian mobile operator, operating in the region), the "Ministry of Communications" is now trying to establish a monopoly over the Internet. According to the market members, "it is forcibly driving local providers under the control of Uglettekom, created in the "DNR". The providers argue that this reflects the same scheme is used in the disconnection of Vodafone; after which the number of subscribers of Phoenix "Republican mobile operator" increased tenfold. Thus, they first cut off additional and duplicate communication channels, whereby consumers are forced to agree to any terms of the monopolist.
The implementation of the "DNR" program for the autonomous water supply of the territory controlled by the Russian Federation is another element of the selfisolation policy. The program is designed to create independence of the occupied areas on water supply from the government-controlled "Siversky Donets-Donbass" channel. Forebodingly, after the implementation of this program, the occupation authorities will be able to disconnect Mariupol (large industrial and maritime center located in the south of the Donetsk oblast) from the water supply. Now they cannot do this because Mariupol uses the same channel that supplies water to Donetsk.
Russia's construction of the Kerch Strait Bridge connecting the mainland Russia with the occupied Crimea violates maritime freedoms as 144 ships will not be able to enter Mariupol. Traffic will be disrupted causing problems for Mariupol and the entire Azov Sea region. "From now on, ships over 33 meters high cannot pass under the arches of the Kerch Strait Bridge. The port has already lost a cargo base with a volume of about 8 million tons during the period of military operations", according to the director of the Mariupol Sea Commercial Port Oleksandr Oliynyk,. Oliynyk asserts that in 2014, when construction of the bridge began, the Russians requested information about technical characteristics of the vessels that come to Mariupol, but later this information was disregarded.
Notably, the situation contributes to growing social and economic discontent in the front-line city situated on the line of Russia's "land corridor" to Crimea.
l"DNR" leader Alexander Zakharchenko ordered to prepare reservists for the next military training and the "formation of reserves during the growing military threat". The "Ministry of the Internal Affairs" of the "DNR" began "the conscription and delivery to the place of military training of citizens who are in reserve".
Against the backdrop of the "growing military threat", the militants continue their overt obstruction of the OSCE SMM patrols. During the reporting period, one OSCE patrol attempting to record military equipment (tanks) near houses of civilians was fired upon. A second patrol was not allowed to the observation area by armed men who threatened them with guard dogs.
Internal political factors in Ukraine that affect the situation in the Donbass
"A sharp increase in the level of threat in the east of Ukraine" was noted by both, the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, and "DNR" leader Zakharchenko. This was explained by the so-called completion of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) in May and the start of the Joint Forces' Operation (JFO). This is a formal handover of management of the Donbass military operations from the SBU to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The innovation is caused by the adoption of the "law on the reintegration of Donbass" which includes the aim of improving the management of the troops.
However, according to inside sources, President Poroshenko (who is forced to demonstrate more decisive actions towards Donbass before the 2019 election) is still betting on the idea of introducing the UN peacekeepers into the region. The president plans to present this to his voters as a diplomatic and political victory. At the same time, however, the positive solution to this issue depends on Russia. Despite having the veto right in the UN Security Council, the strengthening of western sanctions against the Russian Federation, may stimulate it to have a desire to end the conflict in the Donbass. Therefore, the implementation of this idea on Kyiv's terms, that is, the deployment of peacekeepers throughout the conflict zone, including the Ukrainian-Russian border, is unlikely.
Poroshenko noted whilst meeting with the Ukrainian military in the Donbass that, an effective and sustainable truce is needed to introduce peacekeepers. However, local militants and the Russian military, who receive an increased salary for being in Ukraine, are not interested in the deployment of peacekeepers, hence they do not create this condition. Contrarily, Poroshenko's peacekeeping efforts are accompanied by an increase in combat activity in the Donbass.
Moscow's support of the "DNR" providing the Savchenko-Ruban group with weapons for liquidation of the Ukrainian leadership indicates The Kremlin's reluctance to establish peace and cooperate with Poroshenko.
Germany's support for the construction of Nord Stream 2 and France's undemanding position regarding the bombing of Russian facilities in Syria, are also indicative that the chances the West will force Putin to leave the Donbass are slim.
The deterioration of the domestic political situation for the Ukrainian president can contribute to this. That is, Poroshenko is doomed either to abandon the second term of the presidency, or to take steps that will allow him to introduce martial law or demonstrate his military effectiveness to the electorate.
Our parliamentary sources report on a growing atmosphere of uncertainty inside the parliamentary faction of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc. The president has not even met with his faction this year. Moreover, he does not voice the conditions for his support in the future election by oligarchs and regional elites.
As a result, some deputies from the PPB and the People's Front (the second member of the ruling coalition) want to defect from these political forces, and in order to be prepared for the new parliamentary election create a new party; disassociating themselves from the authorities.
The position of the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Arsen Avakov noteworthy. It is the limiting factor for Poroshenko's possible attempts to escalate the situation in the Donbass. Being a virulent critic of the Minsk agreements and avowing their inefficiency, Avakov, nevertheless, acknowledged: "If truth be told, we, Ukrainians, cannot plan a military operation to return the occupied territories without the risk of a full-scale clash with the Russian army within the given scenario".
The domestic political situation in Ukraine does not contribute to the option of Ukraine's military liberation of its territory in the Donbass. Rather, further inactivity in this matter buries the political future of Petro Poroshenko, who is a guarantor of implementation of the Minsk agreements by Ukraine before the West and Russia.
Let us recall that they carry no juridical weight and were not ratified by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine.
Geopolitical influence on the development of the conflict
On April 13, the Russian Federation concentrated "260 thousand servicemen, 3.5 thousand tanks, 11 thousand armored vehicles, 4 thousand artillery systems and more than 1 thousand multiple rocket launcher systems" on the border with Ukraine and prepares them for a large-scale continental war, according to data voiced by the NSDC Secretary Turchynov.
Earlier, Ukraine's Minister of Defence, Poltorak, stated in an interview published on April 5 that Russia concentrated "19 battalion task groups of the first and second echelons of more than 77 thousand people on the border with Ukraine. The group includes almost 1 thousand tanks, 2.3 thousand combat vehicles, more than 1.1 thousand artillery systems and approximately 400 multiple rocket launcher systems".
If these figures are correct the build-up rate of troops and weapons can really testify to Russia's preparations for a large-scale war with Ukraine. However, given the geopolitical situation (the conflict in Syria and new U.S. sanctions) and the upcoming World Cup in Russia, it is unlikely that Putin is interested in a full-scale overt invasion.
In our opinion, there are two possible explanations for such a concentration of troops on the border with Ukraine.
The first - such preparations could be related to the sabotage and terrorist operation which was planned for the center of Kyiv (the "Savchenko-Ruban case" - see our publications for the second half of March), the goal of which was simultaneous liquidation of the parliament, president and Cabinet of Ministers. In all likelihood, large-scale bloodshed in the center of the Ukrainian capital alongside the liquidation of all branches of the government should have become a signal for a large-scale invasion of Russian and, possibly, Belarusian "peacekeepers". If we adhere to this version, for now, the Kremlin has lost the perfect opportunity to occupy Ukraine and Kyiv.
The second - the reason for keeping so many Russian troops on the border with Ukraine is the Kremlin's fear that Ukraine may attempt to liberate the Donbass by force. Russian intelligence certainly may have information on this matter. Moreover, the Kremlin is taking into account that only the victory in Donbass within the next few months can save the political future of Poroshenko. Another essential factor that could foment the deterioration of relations between Kyiv and Moscow and, as a result, intensify the confrontation in Donbass, may be the strengthening of the Russian Federation's naval and marine force by ships and auxiliary crafts in the Sea of Azov. The Russian Federation keeps discussing a talking point in the media about the need to protect Russian ships from "Ukrainian piracy". In order to justify its actions, this may be Moscow's response to Kyiv's arrest of two ships from Crimea that violated Ukrainian legislation.
A likelihood exists that the Russian party, using its naval forces, will attempt to "forbid" Ukrainian ships going beyond the 12-mile coastal zone, or just will try to squeeze Ukrainian ships to the coastline or even sink them (the Treaty on Friendship of 1997 between the Russian Federation and Ukraine did not define the water borders between the two states). However, unlike in 2014, this time, the coast guard ships of Ukraine will likely provide armed resistance.
It is also possible that Russia will ban Ukrainian ships from crossing the Kerch Strait. This will, foreseeably, further destabilize the economic and political situation in the Sea of Azov. Pro-Russian sentiments in this region are the highest in Ukraine, higher than in the Donbass. Russia will certainly activate its agents to take advantage of destabilization in the region's economy, provoke separatist processes and turn the Sea of Azov into its internal sea.
Centre for research of Donbass social perspectives
The review was prepared with the support of GPD Charitable Trust