The Kremlin demonstrates reluctance to cease its aggression against Ukraine, amidst preparations for "talks about peace” initiated by President Trump for his Russian counterpart; weakening Trump’s negotiating position in and stimulating Russia's aggression.
• Putin signs decrees naming units of the Russian army after Ukrainian cities: Guards Lviv, Guards Zhytomyr-Berlin, Guards Nizhynsky tank regiments.
• Increased Russian aggression in the Azov-Black Sea basin and Southern Ukraine is expected should international pressure on the Russian Federation continue to weaken.
• Amid the easing of Western pressure on Moscow, the idea of regaining nuclear weapons is gaining popularity in Ukraine. It can become one of the key domestic political topics in the pre-election period, especially in the context of continuation of Russian aggression.
• The cost of food products and services has risen by 20-40%in the occupied part of the Donbass. This is due to the deteriorating of Russia's economic situation.
• Religious tensions may be brewing in the Donbass conflict in, completely inspired and paid for by Russia and its cronies. Initially it had no ethnic or religious grounds.
Geopolitical influence on the development of the conflict
The planned meeting of leaders of the USA and Russia is the main geopolitical event, already affecting the situation in the region. Both Kyiv and the occupied territories fear that Presidents Putin and Trump might decide the fate of Donbass without taking local elite interests into account. In Kyiv, the perceived deception has set off assertions regarding Ukraine’s need for possess nuclear weapons. In Donetsk, readiness to shoot the UN peacekeepers is being assumed.
Simultaneously, the Kremlin demonstrates reluctance to leave the Donbass and stop the hybrid war against Ukraine. This was expressed in Putin's statement about the support of the "republics" of Donbass and threat of statehood of Ukraine, if it tries to restore its territorial integrity. And then, he named some units of the Russian army after Ukrainian cities: Guards Lviv, Guards Zhytomyr- Berlin, Guards Nizhynsky tank regiments. The decrees were signed by Putin on June 30, 2018.
In the meanwhile, Russia assesses the ongoing geopolitical dynamics positively: the looming cessation of international isolation; conflict between the USA and EU, bearing down on virtually all the American sore spots (i.e. Syria, North Korea, Iran) etc. All of the aforementioned affect Russia’s position in relation to Ukraine and the occupied territories of Donbass. According to Yevhen Marchuk’s (Ukrainian representative in Minsk) statement on his Facebook page, this is even felt at the Minsk talks. The Kremlin does not agree to the OSCE SMM's round-the-clock control of sections of the Ukrainian-Russian border which is uncontrolled by Ukraine. Notably, such control could avert the illegal supply of arms and ammunition from Russia, which would de facto contribute to the establishment of peace. The weakening of international pressure and favorable geopolitical situation are provoking Moscow to demonstrate aggression against Ukraine. In this light, Trump's assertion that he will meet with Putin to "talk about peace" appears moot.
Increased tensions in the Sea of Azov and southern Ukraine are in line with Putin's political statements threatening Ukrainian statehood. The Secretary of the Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, stated the opening of the Russian Crimean Bridge facilitates the "prompt transfer of considerable ground forces of the Russian Federation to the Crimea with further offensive operations in the south of Ukraine".
The Russian Federation is blocking Ukrainian ports and is strategically preventing foreign vessels from working with them. During 17 days of June, Russian border guards detained 49 foreign vessels that were going to the ports of Mariupol and Berdiansk. An hour of idle time costs foreign ship owners between 5 and 15 thousand USD.
Turchynov also asserts that, in recent months, Russia has created a flotilla in the Sea of Azov. That is why landing ships were sent there, as well as ships of the Buyan-M class with cruise missiles.
In turn, Ukrainian Navy Commander, Rear Admiral Ihor Voronchenko, speaking in an interview with Radio Liberty, noted that the Azov Naval Base would be established in Berdiansk and Mariupol. "We analyze the situation in the Sea of Azov, we control it. The corresponding countermeasures have been taken, we have the forces to repel the likely attack. The Navy is ready". The statement about the need to build Ukraine's corvette show his decisive mood: "Only with the corvette we will be able to win back the Crimea".
All this provides the grounds to believe that, in the event of further weakening of international pressure on the Russian Federation, it will continue its aggression against Ukraine. The most likely direction of the situation's escalation will be the Azov-Black Sea basin and south of Ukraine.
Situation in the Donbass
The deterioration of the socio-economic situation in the occupied part of Donbass continues. Prices continue to rise: gasoline, diesel fuel, liquid petroleum gas, goods and services have increased from 20 to 40% in June. This increase also applies to both food and public transport fares. As prices rise, stores are offering a significantly reduced range of goods. This reduction is also related to the deteriorating economic situation in Russia (where prices for oil products have also increased).
At the same time, the intensity of military operations on the front line decreased somewhat in late June. This may be related to Russia hosting the FIFA World Cup in Russia.
Moreover, the psychological state-of-mind of Russia’s militants, particularly on the first line of defense has significantly, has improved after Putin threatened Ukraine’s statehood in the case it attempted to militarily liberate its territory. The "DNR" leader, A. Zakharchenko, commented on Putin's statement, asserting, "He (Putin - ed.) always said that any provocation would get a fitting rebuff, and he would not allow the genocide ofpeople of the Donetsk People's Republic. Now listen to his answer this time - any provocation that will take place on the Donbass territory - in case of development of this provocation, Ukraine will lose its statehood... If the first answer was defense: we are defending and there will be no genocide, then there is an offensive here. There is a clear message: if you lift a finger you will lose your country."
An additional risk factor facing the Donbass was discovered since the past reporting period. Namely, the occupation authorities intend to resume ammonium production at the Stirol Horlivka chemical plant. Horlivka is located on the front line and constantly suffers from mutual shelling. A shell hit into such an object can lead to severe, human-induced environmental consequences.
Internal political factors influencing the conflict's prospects
The upcoming presidential elections (March 2019) are worsening relations between the leaders of branches of power in Ukraine, particularly between the President and Prime Minister. The Cabinet of Ministers has granted the National Police the right to round-the-clock access to customs- controlled checkpoint areas across the state border. Previously, only the SBU, which controlled the lawfulness of the customs bodies had such a right.
This highlights the struggle for control between Poroshenko and People's Front over contraband flows. It should be noted that the SBU is controlled by the President, and Minister of Internal Affairs Avakov is one of the leaders of the People's Front and ally of Prime Minister Groysman.
Notable, the Secretary of the Security and Defense Council of Ukraine Oleksandr Turchynov, another high-ranking official affiliated with the People's Front, asserted the need for Ukraine to create a strategic deterrent weapon, “What can stop an aggressive nuclear power from a large- scale invasion? Only modern and powerful deterrent weapons. Whether our partners like it or not, we must work on such a weapon of a strategic level, a weapon that can effectively hit the enemy at any distance".
Turchynov noted that the Budapest Memorandum was not worth the paper which it was written on and that no one had "moral or legal right" to forbid Ukraine to implement such an initiative.
It is already obvious that the rhetoric about Ukraine's creation of nuclear weapons can become one of the key tools of influence on the electorate during the upcoming elections. Probably, it will be "patented" by a candidate from the People's Front (he/she is not yet designated for now).
It should be noted that the idea of regaining nuclear weapons is becoming increasingly popular in Ukraine. Against the backdrop of easing Western pressure on Russia, Ukrainians are increasingly feeling deserted, left alone to face the nuclear aggressor. The sentiment is likely to intensify. It is highly likely that right-wing forces will also co-opt this idea; greatly increasing their popularity.
The idea of abandoning the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is projected - by us - as a key domestic, political topic in the context of the continuing Russian-Ukrainian war.
Another serious factor that can negatively affect developments of situation in the Donbass is the possible creation of a single Local Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Currently, the largest church in Ukraine is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP). However, it is considered a breakaway from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate, UOC-MP). It is not canonical, and remains unrecognized by the Orthosphere nations. Although the UOC-KP enjoys more popular support than the UOC-MP, this hinders the joining of Orthodox churches and church communities to it. If the Ecumenical Patriarch publishes Tomos on the creation of the Unified Local Church in Ukraine, that is, recognizes the canonicity of unification of the UOC-KP and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, this will make the Unified Ukrainian Local Church the largest in the Orthosphere nations in whole. It is estimated that the UOC (MP) stands to lose more than half of its congregation. The Russian Orthodox Church (MoscowPatriarchate) will not only stands to lose its congregation in Ukraine, but its influence in the world as well. This will escalate the struggle for church property on the territory of Ukraine. Currently, and very controversially, all the Lavras and main monasteries belong to the UOC (Moscow Patriarchate), but head of the UOC-Kyiv Patriarchate Filaret has already stated that the Ukrainian Lavras (Kyiv Pechersk and Pochayiv) must be handed over to the Ukrainian Church.
In the beginning, the conflict in the Donbass had no ethnic or religious grounds. This may change in the future, particularly as the majority of Ukrainian church communities slowly move to join the Ukrainian church, whilst churches in the occupied territory remain under the control of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Centre for research of Donbass social perspectives
The review was prepared with the support of GPD Charitable Trust