• New wave of forced migration of the population within the occupied areas of Donbass caused by military escalation, rapid deterioration of the economic situation, living conditions and compulsory conscription. "The authorities" of the "republics" are taking steps to prevent the outflow of hostages from the territories controlled by them.
• President Poroshenko, the only Ukrainian politician who declares adherence to the "Minsk agreements", continues to lose chances of his re-election in 2019. Amid yet another corruption scandal and oncoming elections, he is forced to save his rating by a more trenchant policy regarding the Donbass problem.
• Russia's Kremlin-controlled media begins to steer away from covering the Donbass.
• Moscow is blocking peaceful options for the settlement of the situation with the aim of provoking the conflict's military resolution reduce losses, stop the wave of international sanctions, as well as to accuse Ukraine and the West of aggression.
• Russia's lack of response to the actions of the USA and its allies in Syria suggests that Moscow is not able to confront them militarily. Thus, if the Budapest Memorandum "guarantor" states have the political will to end the conflict, they could do so by imposing a complex of economic, political and military activities aimed at supporting Ukraine's military efforts without the risk to unleash a "third world war".
Situation in the Donbass
On 30 April, 2018 the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) was officially replaced by the Joint Forces' Operation (JFO). This was a formal handover of management of the Donbass military operations from the SBU over to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The JFO broadened the rights and capabilities of security service officers and made the mechanism of decision-making more operative. At the same time, it significantly restricted the rights of civilians, including physical access to the zone of operation.
This event coincided with the escalation of the military situation on the front line. Moscow and its puppets in Donetsk and Luhansk perceived the JFO as armed forces preparation for the liberation of the occupied territory. This became an occasion for strengthening of military and mobilization measures by occupation administrations. In addition to the resumption of fighting with the use of heavy weapons along almost the entire front line, the "DNR" also announced conscription. This has not previously been done. The Head of the "LNR", Pasechnik, said that "the conflict has returned to the hot phase". Furthermore, the OSCE SMM noted that the distance between combat positions of the Ukrainian military and subordinates of Russia the armed groups of the "DNR-LNR", decreased to 180 meters in some areas. In the "DNR"-controNed Dokuchaievsk, this convergence resulted in the artillery duel, causing the death of two civilians.
Three and a half years of positional war and the absence of real steps to end the conflict led to the fact that both parties to the conflict see only one mechanism of influence on the situation - the military one. Hopes for peacekeepers are utopian as the condition for their introduction is a stable peace. The militants and Russian military in the Donbass are not interested in such a resolution of the conflict. This is why they escalate the situation around the times of talks on introduction of the UN peacekeepers into the region.
According to the sociological survey conducted by the Ministry of Information Policy in both occupied and free territory of Donbass, the number of supporters of military operations in the free territory increased from 9% to 17% whereas, the number of those wishing to fight in the occupied territories decreased from 6% to 1%. Ominously, 55% of respondents in the occupied territories consider military conflict in the Donbass to be a "civil war". This is explained by outdated opinions held by respondents about the war. Living in a Russia-induced informational vacuum, not seeing the columns of soldiers and military equipment with Russian flags, they think that Russia is only trucks with humanitarian aid to the Donbass. Notably 67% of local respondents did not hear the term "hybrid war".
Military escalation in the Donbass is accompanied by a worsening economic situation. In early April, there was a fire at the main budget-forming industrial enterprise of the so-called "DNR" the Yenakiyeve Iron and Steel Works. According to eyewitnesses, a burnt bucket with liquid steel was the cause of fire. The
failure of the "flagship of the republic's industry" increased the financial dependence of separatists o n the Kremlin, worsened social situation in the region and increased pressure on small and medium-sized businesses operating in the occupied territories. "The authorities" announced the beginning of inspections of entrepreneurs selling food. Local residents also associate these checks with an attempt to eliminate competitors for trade networks belonging to the leaders of the "republics". According to exminister of state security of the "DNR" Khodakovsky, the turnover in these networks fell by 7 times within the last year.
In the second half of April, the population on both sides of the front line also faced water supply problems. The shelling of Donetsk filtering station (DFS) led to its shutdown on April 18. About 150 thousand people were left without water for 5 days. On April 23, the station resumed its work. Sadly, on April 25, it was shelled again, together with the pump station of the first rise of Yuzhnodonbass water pipeline, which supplies water to 54 settlements, including Donetsk, Pokrovsk and Mariupol (over 2 million people).
The constant shelling of the facility, which is vital for both sides, may be caused by the following reasons:
- dehumanization by the warring sides of the population living on the enemy side, caused by a long period of "trench war";
- subjective and technological factor (some ammunition is obsolete and just does not reach the target, getting to DFS);
- desire of one of the parties to create the necessary grounds for actions aimed at moving the front line away from DFS, that is, taking it under its full control;
- occupation administrations loss of interest in DFS, as the program of water supply is being implemented by Ukraine.
The destruction of infrastructure as an element of preparation for an offensive operation is not being considered here (yet).
The ideological pressure on people through archaic technologies is an important factor worsening the psychological state of population in the occupied territories. In preparation for the May 11 (anniversary of the 2014 "referendum"), the "DNR" pupils and teachers were forced to recreate Zakharchenko's portrait at a stadium. The teaching staff and employees of budget organizations were being forced to participate in this event under the threat of being deprived of the wage premium, the right to equal pay; psychological pressure is being excreted on parents as well.
As a whole, the:
- deterioration of economic situation;
- military escalation;
- compulsory conscription to the illegal armed groups of militants;
- deterioration of living conditions and potential environmental threat;
- ideological distortions, expressed in the creation of cult of personality of the "head of the republic" -
leads to new wave of forced migration of people from the occupied territories.
And in the last two months, the number of IDPs moving to Ukraine is increasing (there is no data on migration to Russia, although it is also significant). If in April, in comparison to March, the number of IDPs increased by 5 thousand people, in May (in comparison to April) - already by 7 thousand. Probably, the desire to prevent the outflow of people explains that the "DNR" occupation authorities resumed the work of Vodafone-Ukraine Ukrainian mobile operator on April 27. The absence of mobile connection for more than 3 months was the main factor of social tension in the Donbass. According to the sociological survey, 72% of residents of the occupied territories constantly communicate with their relatives and friends from other regions of Ukraine.
Furthermore, the attempt to preserve the trend for self-isolation and prevent the outflow of people to free territory, resulted in the toughening of the access regime to the line of demarcation by the militants. OSCE Special Monitoring Mission reports indicate cases of people standing in queues for hours, days even, to be able to travel to the territory controlled by the government.
Internal political factors in Ukraine affecting the situation in the Donbass
Ukraine's Minister of Defense, Stepan Poltorak, admitted there is a chance for a decision on the military liberation of the occupied territory of Donbass, "If at the first stage, this is an operation to stabilize the situation, then, in my opinion, the amount that is available today will be enough. If the situation becomes more complicated or a decision to free the territory is made, then, of course, it will be needed to increase the number of personnel", - he said in an interview with BBC Ukraine.
Earlier, commander of the Joint Forces' Operation (JFO) General Nayev stated the task to "liberate the occupied territory of Donbass", is given to him.
It is hard to say whether such statements are a reflection of real sentiments of the Supreme Commander- in-Chief President Poroshenko. However, with the approaching 2019 presidential election, Poroshenko will either have to strengthen the military rhetoric or actually begin the liberation of the territories occupied by Russia. He has no other chance to win and avoid the criminal prosecution.
Particularly in light of the growing corruption scandal with the "tapes of deputy Onyshchenko". Onyshchenko, who fled from Ukraine and published a book about how he mediated the corruption of the president. Parliament has announced an initiative to create the deputy investigative commission on the facts published by Onyshchenko.
The president's relations with Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman continue to deteriorate. They have already reached anonymous, but public, competing accusations. Some days ago, Groysman stated the need to broaden the powers of prime minister.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov (People's Front) also staged an assault against the president. He brassily entered the sphere of Poroshenko's sole competence and published his own alternative plan for the conflict settlement in the Donbass Moreover, he discussed it with Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell during his trip to Washington.
All this has further strengthened the sense of political futility of the current president. It was rumored that the USA was already pressing Poroshenko so that he would not seek reelection.
In the context of the developing situation in the Donbass, these developments are important, because
Poroshenko is the only Ukrainian politician who is adherent (at least in public) of the Minsk agreements.
All the others speak about them in an extremely negative way. Together with the sentiments of the military, this can induce Poroshenko to intensify the armed hostilities if he feels the support of, at least, the USA in this matter. In the estimation of most servicemen, interviewed by us, such a task can be fulfilled by the Armed Forces of Ukraine upon the condition of Russia's non-interference.
It should be noted that right now, in view of the current situation in international relations and obvious political weakening of Russia, a military liberation of the region could be carried out without the threat to unleash a "third world war".
The Russian Federation, which would have tried to "hybridly" prevent Ukraine from legitimately regaining of its territorial integrity, would definitely receive new, tougher international sanctions. The defeat of the Russian Federation in the Donbass could eventually lead to the disintegration of the "Evil Empire" and, accordingly, to the cessation of aggression in the post-Soviet countries and firm prospect of peace not only in Central and Eastern Europe, but in other regions of the world as well.
Geopolitical influence on the development of the conflict
Russia has launched a preliminary informational operation aimed at distancing itself from the Donbass problem. Earlier, the Donbass was portrayed as part of Russia (Russian World), now the Russian viewer is accustomed to the idea that the events in the Donbass are a purely internal conflict of Ukraine, the struggle of the region for autonomy (federalization) within Ukraine. This idea lies at the heart of film titled Russian Spring: The Beginning, shown on Russia-1 channel. Russian flags did not appear throughout the film, although they were there accompanying all of the events of 2014.
Such an ideological attitude caused a storm of indignation in Donetsk. The real, participants of the so- called Russian Spring were appalled, calling it "a ban on topics and history rewriting" in social networks. They note that the authors of the film had to work painstakingly hard in order to find shots of mass actions in 2014 without Russian flags, and speakers who "forgot" that the main motive idea of those events was the accession to Russia following the Crimea. The Donetsk separatists are concerned that this is exactly what the Russian authorities "orders were to the film's editor".
At the same time, Russia continues to insist on the implementation of political part of the Minsk agreements before security issues are resolved. In fact, is an attempt to launch the process of
disintegration of the country in Ukraine while maintaining the military conflict in the East, controlled by Russia, and the possibility of its spread to the entire territory of Ukraine. According to German Ambassador to Ukraine Ernst Reichel, "there is no agreed text of the "roadmap timeline" (implementation of the Minsk complex of measures - auth.)" because "Russia is betting on political dimensions".
Thus, by deadlocking the possibility of peaceful settlement and forcing the USA and Ukrainian authorities to act decisively, Russia seems to both provoke the military liberation of Donbass and disclaim responsibility for the consequences. It seems to egg on this option to have the opportunity to accuse Ukraine and the West of aggressiveness and justify itself before its own people for not participating in the resistance to the "seizure" of Donbass by Ukraine. At the same time, the Kremlin reckons on the fact that the Army Corps of the "republics" of Donbass, prepared and managed by it, will weaken the Ukrainian army, what will also cause political destabilization in Ukraine. Perhaps, this is also one of the reasons for aggressive behavior of the Army Corps of the "republics" at the front. Moscow is interested in provoking the conflict and its military resolution in order to get out of it with the least losses for itself and stop the wave of international sanctions.
We assess with high confidence that the existence of conflict itself is more important for Russia than direct military involvement or its resolution - even on the terms of the Minsk agreements. It deadlocks the attempts of peaceful settlement. Only the conflict's escalation will allow the Kremlin to withdraw from the Donbass saving its face, inflicting substantial damage to Ukraine and, at the same time, accusing the West of its consequences.
The likelihood that the Russian army, as in 2014-2015, will directly penetrate into Ukraine, taking into account the state of the Russian economy and geopolitical situation, is not high. This is confirmed by the events in Syria, where the Russian Federation demonstrated its unwillingness to confront the USA militarily. Despite repeated warnings from the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation that all military facilities threatening the Russian military, or their ally Bashar Assad, would be fired at, the Russians used no air defense system to prevent the USA, Britain and France from eliminating facilities in Syria that could be related to the production and/or storage of chemical weapons.
The same trend can be traced in the case near Deir ez-Zor, when the Americans literally shot several hundred Russian servicemen; and in the case of missile strikes against the military facilities of Iran and Syria by the Israeli Air Force.
Russians do not risk getting tough either with the USA or with any of their allies. They are able to fight only with a much weaker opponent.
Therefore, if the USA and other "guarantors" of the territorial integrity of Ukraine under the Budapest Memorandum had the political will to end the Donbass conflict, they could do so by implementing multifaceted economic, political and military activities without risking a "third world war".
Now is a particularly good moment for this. In the second half of April, the Russian Aerospace Forces (ASF) lost an opportunity to effectively control the missile weapons outside Russia in connection with the breakdown of two satellites of GLONASS Global Navigation Satellite System. It is referred to the "precision" weapons such as Iskander (9M723), cruise missiles X-55, X-101, Kalibrs, etc.
The ASF requires a minimum of 24 navigation satellites for accurate missile strikes outside the territory of Russia, but there are only 22 such devices at the disposal of Russian army. Considering that the Russian Federation is forced to import 70% of components for these satellites, the return of high-degree alert of the Russian ASF cannot happen soon. It also needs the condition of availability of the components in China or other countries that have not applied sanctions against Russia.
Thus, the main offensive weapons of the Russian Federation - intermediate-range and long-range missiles - are now less effective what should also affect the planning of Russia's foreign policy and aggression for the nearest future. It is unlikely that it will venture on the aggression against Ukraine thus situated, even if Kyiv decides to liberate its territory with the West's support.
Centre for research of Donbass social perspectives
The review was prepared with the support of GPD Charitable Trust