• The growing confrontation in the Donbass, as well as political factors in Kyiv and Moscow, makes the escalation of the armed conflict almost inevitable. Russia distances itself from the conflict, but prepares the ground and resources for its continuation without participating itself, in the form of civil conflict.
• Moscow is trying to establish its dominant position in the Azov Basin, what can cause an armed confrontation with Ukraine. The commissioning of the Kerch Bridge creates significant risks not only for the Ukrainian economy, but also for the possibility of Russia to block the navigable traffic of Ukraine in the Kerch Strait.
• The Russian Orthodox Church prepares a mass descent of its monks from the monasteries of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) to Ukraine. Such decision of the Synod of the ROC can be aimed at radicalization of interconfessional contradictions in Ukraine and creation of a civil confrontation in the country. The example of territories controlled by the "DNR"- "LNR" shows that the ROC is Moscow's tool for stirring anti-Ukrainian sentiments.
Situation in the Donbass
The reporting period was characterized by intensified preparation of both parties to the conflict for the confrontation predicted by them. Each party accused the other one of the intention of aggression and used this as an excuse for strengthening its own combat readiness. The reformatting of ATO into the Joint Forces Operation, which began on April 30, was the reason for Russian mercenaries to assert that in two months, Ukraine "will begin to seize settlements and take up the dominant terrains and convenient bridge heads in the grey zone". This was stated by "deputy commander of the DNR operational command" Eduard Basurin, referring to the obtained "intelligence information".
Whether this information is true or not, the propaganda machine of the Russian occupation administrations has significantly increased the propaganda of military service in the so-called "armed forces" of the "DNR" and "LNR". Furthermore, the idea of inevitable transition of the conflict to a hot stage is being suggested to the population via local media. This greatly affects the psychological condition of residents of the occupied and front-line territories, since, according to a sociological survey held in the occupied and front-line territory of Donbass in December 2017 by the Ukrainian office of IFAK Institut international research agency, - resumption of hostilities is the main fear among 81% of respondents in the temporarily occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
Such a militaristic hysteria on the part of militants is counterintuitive, as it is allegedly promotes "one of the goals" of the Ukrainian army: "to force the population to leave the front-line zones", voiced by the same Basurin. People really start to leave the front-line areas and "grey zone", what in fact clears the bridge head for active combat operations. This allows us to talk about the preparation of the occupation forces for the intensification of hostilities and parallel creation of information base for accusing the Ukrainian government troops of it.
The information of Ukrainian intelligence is in favor of this assumption. For example, it states that up to 30 cargo trains pass through Gukovo station, border with Russia, a day. The majority (up to 20) are from Russia to Donbass (the rest – in the reversed direction). The wagons with ammunition and other items of material and technical supply, as well as platforms with armored vehicles (in both directions), are being recorded.
At the same time, Ukrainian sources in the occupied territory report that the curators from the Russian military intelligence in both occupation corps in the Donbass have set the task to intensify reconnaissance activity at key railway stations in the oblasts of Ukraine, adjacent to the JFO zone: Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv. The main task is recording of military transportations and establishment of the beginning of mass deployment of military equipment and arms of the AFU to the JFO zone. The task is set in the context of fears of a "large-scale offensive by the AFU", which the occupation command expects after reformatting ATO into the JFO.
This allows us to say that the Russian command really believes in the possibility of Ukrainian troops' attempt to liberate Ukrainian territory. Whether or not, the growing confrontation in the Donbass has entered a vicious circle, when the distrust of each party toward one another and their actions caused by this distrust provoke the intensification of confrontation, what makes it practically inevitable.
Especially since the number of political factors that make influential players interested in military escalation increases on both sides of the front line.
In particular, such a factor is information about the possible resignation of presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, who is responsible for the Ukrainian direction in the Kremlin.
As we wrote earlier, Surkov came into conflict with the Russian security forces, what provoked the resignation of the "LNR" leader Igor Plotnitsky in November last year. Now the Russian media confirm this by calling the 5th Service of the FSB (latest information and international relations service), responsible for counterintelligence in the "DNR" and "LNR", the second party to the conflict. According to our information, the reason for the conflict was business interests that the FSB has in the occupied territory in the form of smuggling and drug trafficking. The FSB controls these spheres in the territory of the "DNR". Therefore, in the case of Surkov's resignation, the threat may hang over godfather of his child, leader of the "DNR" Alexander Zakharchenko.
Surkov is still in the Kremlin, but the statements that discredit Surkov and Zakharchenko and even declare the "illegitimacy" of the "DNR" head have already begun to appear in separatist public posts in social networks controlled by Zakharchenko's opponents. Previously, no one ever spoke against Surkov in Donetsk and Luhansk.
A sign of the growing internal political contradictions, stimulated by the contending "curators" in Moscow, is the arrest of former "minister" of transport of the "DNR" Semen Kuzmenko in Donetsk. According to Kuzmenko, he was detained by the people of "vice-premier" of the "DNR" Alexander Timofieyev ("Tashkent"). The interrogation was conducted in the garage and the main thing that interested the interrogators was the activity of former "Chairman of the DNR Parliament" Andrei Purgin. "The activity of my friend Andrei Purgin, who is suspected of preparing the armed rebellion, was of great interest", - the "minister" wrote in social network.
Not the fact of possible rebellion, but the very fears of current leaders of the "republic" are illustrative in this incident. They know that no "rebellion" is possible without the consent and support of people of influence in Moscow. Therefore, if they presume such an opportunity, they know that someone in Moscow is playing against them, and after Surkov's resignation, their positions will be weakened so much that their chances to stay in power as a result of this fall's "election" are too small even without a "rebellion". This makes them interested in escalating the military situation, which will allow the election to be canceled or postponed.
The leadership of Ukraine has a similar situation. According to recent sociological surveys, President Petro Poroshenko is not even among the five potential winners of the 2019 election. And against the background of corruption scandals, his chances are even worse. Only liberation of the occupied territories of Donbass, or at least a positive dynamics in this process is able to save his presidential prospects. Therefore, if the initiative with the UN peacekeepers does not begin to work (what we strongly doubt), the current government team becomes interested in the military campaign. At the same time, Poroshenko personally takes almost no chances in case of its failure. After the beginning of the JFO, which replaced ATO, the system of decision-making in the operation is such that the president is not responsible for the operational decisions of the JFO commanders. That is, in case of successful operation, it will be Poroshenko's success, and in case of its failure, the JFO command will take the responsibility.
Thus, the political background from both the Ukrainian and Russian parties also makes it possible to predict the inevitable escalation of military situation in the Donbass during the next 3-4 months, most likely, after the holding of the Football World Cup in Russia.
Geopolitical influence on the development of the conflict
By a number of measures, Russia started to understand that it would not be possible to dismember Ukraine with the help of the "Minsk agreements" with the support of the EU. The planned resignation of Vladislav Surkov can testify that the tactic of Ukraine's disintegration (by introducing the hostile "DNR"-"LNR" into its political body), promoted by him, is recognized ineffective.
In addition, an insurmountable obstacle to "peaceful" establishing control over Ukraine may be the further coming to power of a new team of Ukrainian politicians who are not inclined to ignore national and international defence legislation. In these conditions, Moscow, most likely, will try to keep the actual control over the occupied territories, but distance itself from them publicly, and also assert its domination in the water area of the Azov and Black Seas, explaining this by the actions of Ukraine.
Another Russian attempt to pressure Ukraine is being prepared in two ways: military and "hybrid" one.
In addition to Donbass, where military pressure can be done by the armed forces of the "republics", a direct military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine is possible in the Sea of Azov.
As for the "hybrid war", its main direction may be the aggravation of interfaith religious relations in Ukraine.
The Russian Federation finalizes preparations for the establishment of military and economic domination in the Azov water area. The Kerch Strait Bridge closed the way to the Ukrainian ports for the majority of ships providing Ukrainian exports from the eastern region of Ukraine (the permitted height of the vessels for passage under the bridge is 33 meters). It is mainly metal, coal, engineering and agrarian products. Transportation of goods to the ports of Odessa will make Ukrainian exports less competitive. The Ministry of Infrastructure of Ukraine estimates annual losses from this at about $20 million a year. Theoretically, the Russian Federation can completely close the shipping traffic in the Kerch Strait for Ukraine.
In addition, the need for foreign maritime companies to pay a fee for the passage through the Kerch Strait to Russia makes their vessels vulnerable to possible international suits and arrests, because, according to international law, the territory of part of the strait with navigation belongs to Ukraine (deep channel).
Thus, Russia has, in fact, completed the creation of conditions for the full economic blockade of Ukraine in the Azov water area.
In order to establish complete control over the Sea of Azov and create prerequisites for the connection of the Crimea and Donbass via the sea, the Russian Armed Forces transfer warships and boats of the Black Sea, Caspian and Baltic Fleets to the Sea of Azov. In fact, Russia is creating a strike group capable of physically displacing Ukraine from the Sea of Azov, and, possibly, the occupation of the Ukrainian sea coast, what will transfer the water area into the actual status of the "inland" sea of the Russian Federation.
The reason for Russia's aggression against Ukraine in the Azov-Black Sea Basin may be a possible collapse of the Kerch Strait Bridge, opened on May 15 by the Russian president. Even Russian hydrogeologists argue that the hydrogeological conditions were not suitable for building the bridge in this area. That is, the bridge is initially in emergency condition. However, for the Russian government, this project was not only political, but also an opportunity to "launder" huge sums of money, so nobody paid attention to the emergency hydrogeological conditions. If the bridge collapses, then "Ukrainian subversive groups" will be guilty of this...
As for the possible escalation in the Donbass, it is noteworthy that on May 9, "head of the DNR" Alexander Zakharchenko presented the products of "military-industrial complex of the DNR" with propaganda fanfare. In particular, the Cheburashka and Sniezhynka rocket systems of volley fire, anti-sniper complexes, assault rifles, etc. According to Zakharchenko, the "DNR" has been making them since 2015, but only now, for some reason, decided to state this publicly. According to experts, the demonstrated armament is "handicraft products from the weapons that already exist". That is, the militants create something that is inferior in terms of technical characteristics to the originals (Ukrainian and Russian weapons). What for? Probably, the purpose of this production and its demonstration is an attempt to remove from Russia the responsibility for the supply of arms to the militants of Donbass, controlled by it, during the upcoming escalation of the conflict.
A serious threat in this context is the possibility for "military-industrial complex of the republics" to create the so-called "dirty bombs". There are about 1200 sources of ionizing radiation and canned nuclear waste storage facilities of the Donetsk state chemical plant in the occupied territory of Donbass. According to experts, sources of ionizing radiation can be used to produce weapons of mass destruction (the so-called "dirty bombs"). This makes threat of nuclear terrorism emanating from Russian-controlled militants of Donbass a real possibility. By the way, when presenting the products of "military-industrial complex of the DNR", Zakharchenko stated that he had no right to tell about all their developments...
As part of the "hybrid" war, the Russian Federation plans to strengthen its informational, organizational and power presence in Ukraine through the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). In particular, 1.5 thousand monks from Russian monasteries are expected to be transferred to Ukraine.
The corresponding decision was made on April 16 at a meeting of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in St. Petersburg, which was held by Patriarch Kirill (Gundyaev).
Monks will be transferred to Ukraine from Moscow, central and the Trans-Baikal-Ural monasteries. Also, 700 people will be transferred to church educational institutions, as part of the seminarians' exchange.
It is not a secret that the ROC, to which the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) belongs, is actively used by the Russian special services to conduct work abroad in the interests of the Russian state. Since the times of the USSR, "officers of the active reserve" have been introduced into the ROC staff, and most clergy have the status of "agents" of the special services.
Thus, the Russian Federation is preparing to defend the cult buildings of the UOC (MP) on the territory of Ukraine from the attempt to transfer them to the Ukrainian Church, if Kyiv makes an attempt to create a unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This can lead to mass clashes on church grounds, where participants will automatically be divided into "pro-Russian" and "pro-Ukrainian" ones.
It is interesting that, according to the sociological survey, that we have already quoted, 51% of those polled in the occupied territory of Donbass already believe that the Donbass and Ukraine have different religious creeds, although this is not the case. It reveals purposeful religious propaganda, introducing a false stereotype about the differences in religions between the Donbass and the rest of Ukraine.
It should also be noted that the priests, subordinated to Moscow, conduct intensified religious propaganda in the occupied territories of Donbass, and the occupation administrations do their utmost to enhance their influence and religious upbringing. Thus, the "LNR" even considers the possibility of creating an Orthodox education department in all universities on the occupied part of Ukraine. We see this as one of the vectors of Moscow's efforts to create the basis for transferring the conflict from an interstate scale to an internal civil one.
Centre for research of Donbass social perspectives
The review was prepared with the support of GPD Charitable Trust