This summer has become a truly milestone in the development of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine in the Donbas. Two factors have determined those trends that will shape the future of the region for the coming years. This is a ceasefire, announced on July 27, which created the basis for the Transnistrian conflict. As well as COVID-19 with its objective economic consequences and artificial isolation of the residents of CADLO from Ukraine under the pretext of fighting the pandemic.
Despite the seeming temporality of these factors, they have become part of Russia's toolbox used against Ukraine. Accordingly, as long as Moscow's war against the independence of the "younger sister" lasts, these tools will be constantly used one way or another, even when the vaccine is developed, and the current truce is thwarted.
Analyzing the development of situation in the Donbas, we should proceed from the fact that that Russia is using the military conflict as a tool to prevent Ukraine from joining the NATO and the EU, as well as a bargaining chip in geopolitical bartering. Therefore, Moscow is doing everything to preserve it, trying only to change its shape by making it cheaper for itself.
Moscow wants to achieve the cost reduction of hybrid war, while maintaining and even strengthening it, in two ways, depending on Kyiv's reactions and the geopolitical situation. This is forcing the implementation of the Minsk agreements in the interpretation of the Kremlin, in the possibility of which Russia believes fewer and fewer, and preservation of the conflict according to the Transnistrian scenario, when it persists, but since there is no fire, it becomes invisible at the geopolitical level and loses its sharpness in the internal Ukrainian agenda. At the same time, it can be used as a weapon of blackmail at any time, or even reactivated for direct pressure on Kyiv. This particular goal - to reduce the cost of the conflict while maintaining it - dictates both the "truce" and "anti-pandemic" measures…
Despite saving the lives of the military (including on the part of the enemy), the comprehensive ceasefire, announced on July 27, carries a number of risks and threats to Ukraine, otherwise, Moscow would simply not agree to it. In particular, these are war risks.
So, a truce is still not peace. Especially, if it is more political than comprehensive. Against the background of violations of the terms of truce by Russian mercenaries, the ban not only on opening fire, but also on additional position hardening demoralizes the AFU personnel, deprives people of the meaning of being in combat positions. The situation is aggravated by disciplinary actions against violators, as well as 400 officers (along about 400 km of the demarcation line), who were specially sent by the command to supervise the observance of ceasefire by the personnel.
In addition, each side still uses the truce to prepare positions for hostilities (embedding, digging-in towards the enemy in the grey zone). But the enemy uses such facts in the information war against Ukraine, and the Ukrainian leadership hardly reacts to violations by the Russian Federation for political reasons, wanting to prove the effectiveness of the truce, which the Presidential Office takes credit for. This causes credibility gap in the Armed Forces.
Thus, imposing joint inspections of the military positions of the parties on Kyiv, the enemy accompanied its actions with a public information campaign of threats of "retribution" to Ukraine for the alleged violations committed by it. All of us remember Pushilin's ultimatums with threats to destroy our "newly created" positions near Shumy, if they are not dismantled by the AFU. The subsequent shelling of Ukrainian positions was presented as the fulfillment of order of the "head of the DNR" to "punish" Ukraine, which was used by Russian propaganda to assert the rhetoric about "weak Ukraine" and "strong republics".
At the same time, Kyiv does not use the mechanism of using "return fire in case of offensive action" for political reasons, laid down in the "Measures to strengthen the ceasefire". Albeit the fact that such action also include "additional position hardening and/or any advance or movement of armed persons towards the enemy". There are more than enough facts of such advance and movement! The AFU could at least once respond to them, also publicly and with information pomp, with "return fire" in strict adherence to the "Measures to strengthen the ceasefire…", but… Sometimes, our striving for "peace" during the war just goes beyond common sense.
The very presence of the clause on "return fire" in the "Measures…" is a mechanism for constant and unpunished provocations of the Ukrainian party by the formations of the Russian Federation despite the fact that it is not politically beneficial for Ukraine to use it. In a political sense, this allows not to consider the "return fire" from the other side as a disruption of the truce, and gives Kyiv grounds to talk about the implementation of decisions of the Paris summit of the Normandy Four. But besides big-league politics, the fate of the conflict is also being decided directly on the front line, and such impunity of the enemy there demoralizes the Ukrainian servicemen.
The disengagement of troops in certain areas, agreements on which were reached in the Normandy format, is highly dangerous in this context. The "truce" makes its implementation possible. But if this is only a change in positions for the Russian side, it is the surrender of its land for the Ukrainian army, a step-back from the legitimate Ukrainian territory in fact…
Considering all these risks, it is necessary to take into account the fact that the ceasefire is a bilateral process and cannot be fully controlled by Ukraine. Hence the political risks for Kyiv.
In particular, the political statements by President Zelensky about the preservation of the ceasefire cause discontent not only among the military, but also among the active part of Ukrainian society despite the facts of its violations by the Russian side with impunity. This, in turn, paves the way for the opposition to reduce public confidence in the government. The lower the confidence in the government, the weaker such power, accordingly - the stronger the enemy in relation to it.
Also, since the Ukrainian leadership presents the ceasefire as its political victory in public space (which, by the way, the Russian party does not do), the enemy can use this to manipulate and put pressure on Kyiv. After all, the truce is equally dependent on the Russian Federation. It can disrupt it at any politically advantageous moment, in such a way as to destroy confidence in the Ukrainian authorities and cause an internal political crisis. For example, the seizure of territories controlled by the government can lead to such consequences. Both the Russians and the internal Ukrainian opposition will unambiguously present this on their TV channels as one of the consequences of the "truce" that Zelensky's team takes credit for.
It should be noted that Moscow is already trying to use this leverage on the Office of the Ukrainian President. The statement of head of the Russian delegation to the TCG Boris Gryzlov was a rather strong signal (in fact, a threat): "The Ukrainian authorities force the representatives of Donetsk and Luhansk to take countermeasures and should not complain when these measures are implemented. Kyiv is better off returning to the implementation of "Minsk" and fulfillment of its previous election promises".
A threat posed by the "truce" on Ukraine's foreign policy front is no less serious. It is about Russia's intention to use the "ceasefire" as an argument for transferring the center of decision-making on the Donbas from the institution of foreign policy advisers of the Normandy Four to the Minsk TCG. An argument - unlike the N-4, the TCG managed to agree on the truce. This, in fact, was stated by Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration of Russia Dmitry Kozak in his letter to the N-4 foreign policy advisers, dated July 27.
The danger of implementation of such a plan lies in the political and international-legal subjectivization of CADLO, and most importantly (for Russia) - in the decrease in influence on the settlement of the conflict between Germany and France, which are not represented in the TCG. It is more profitable for Moscow to be left alone with weak Kyiv. Moreover, it has a lot of tools to make it even weaker. Moscow's consent to a truce and, Kozak's explosive letter to the N-4 advisers and the recently appeared "roadmap for the implementation of Minsk" that the Russian Federation is trying to pull out for discussion in the TCG are aimed exactly at this…
Another threat to Ukraine from a truce, already implemented by Russia, is the almost accomplished documentary recognition by Kyiv of the JCCC "in its current composition", that is, de facto, with the "DNR", "LNR" representatives. Even if Kyiv sets a formal condition for them to have "powers of attorney" confirming the delegation of authority to them from the Russian Federation, this will in any case lead to an increase in document flow between Ukraine and the "republics" and expands the range of issues that are being resolved at the level of direct dialogue, bypassing Moscow. This situation removes the Russian Federation from responsibility for aggression and responds to the rhetoric of Moscow about the "civil internal Ukrainian conflict".
Another global political danger posed by the consent of the Russian Federation to an armistice is the preservation of conflict in the Donbas according to the Transnistrian version. Recently, there are more and more signs that Moscow is inclined to implement this particular scenario. Moscow's illusions about the naivety of peace-loving Zelensky are already drying up. The Kremlin is getting closer to the conclusion that there are no chances for the realization of the political part of "Minsk" and the implantation of the puppet pro-Russian enclave into the political body of Ukraine in the near future. Recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced this openly: "I do not think that there will be any progress in the implementation of the Minsk agreements under the current Ukrainian government, as well as as under the previous president…".
If there is no opportunity to "shove in" the Donbas "Trojan horse", then Putin is interested in "cold" conservation, when a non-shooting conflict loses its sharpness at the international level, the institutionalization of puppet quasi-states is gradually taking place, "mutually beneficial" economic relations between them and Ukraine are being resumed, the cost of maintaining the occupied region for Moscow is decreasing and sanctions are gradually being lifted from the Russian Federation.
Therefore, the current "truce" is for a long time. It is beneficial to Russia. Even if it is thwarted by fierce battles from time to time, Russia will always be able to make its restoration an object of bargaining for further concessions from "peace-loving" Kyiv.
But if the "truce" is a product of Russian politics and diplomacy - a factor in provoking the events Moscow needs, the COVID-19 pandemic and the global economic crisis caused by it, on the contrary, have become the black swan theory that forced Moscow to respond to unexpected new reality. Since Russia is accustomed to solve its problems at the expense of other "fraternal" peoples, the first victim of "fraternal assistance" was just the Ukrainian Donbas.
In fact, COVID has become a catalyst for Russia's policy aimed at:
- isolation of the CADLO residents from Ukraine;
- their segregation into loyal and disloyal to the RF, ousting the latter from the region;
- economic and demographic degradation of the occupied part of Donbas.
"Your experts on all issues constantly shout on their endless TV shows that Ukraine needs these territories, but does not need people, then it is just the opposite for you – only people are needed. But only on your territory. So they should leave all their property, old people and their past… Leave for whom? Who will get this "nobody's land"? Not Ukraine? What then did we fight for? What did thousands of our and your guys sacrifice their lives for? For the right to work not in the mine in Snizhne, but in Vorkuta? For the development of Siberia?", - Stanislav Varg, a popular blogger in the "LDNR", recently "shell-shocked at the Kolchak fronts", wrote recently. In fact, he saw from the inside what becomes clear after analyzing a whole range of measures implemented by Moscow in the occupied territories of Eastern Ukraine.
Thus, the closure of checkpoints under the pretext of combating COVID-19 affected almost all residents of CADLO. About a million people (the average monthly crossing of the contact line in 2019) were deprived of the opportunity to move freely between government-controlled and non-government-controlled territories.
This created a broad range of risks for Ukraine: economic, humanitarian, military and political.
Damping of demand for coal and metal in the world markets, caused by coronavirus, in fact, led to the collapse of the CADLO "economy". The majority of industrial enterprises have stopped or significantly reduced their work, wage arrears have sharply increased and reach three to four months at the beginning of October. In turn, the blocking of checkpoints on the demarcation line and restrictions on the entry into Russia led to a decrease in the number of migrant workers leaving to work both in Ukraine and Russia. The result was a drop in the already low purchasing power in the occupied territory, which further aggravated the humanitarian and economic situation.
This way, coronavirus has increased the dependence of CADLO on Russian transfers from the budget. This, in turn, provokes Russia (the economy of which is also going through a bad patch) to activate a policy in the occupied part of Donbas, aimed at reducing the region's population. Using the broadest set of tools: from the "covid pension reform", when low-income elderly people die from a pandemic first off (a burden on the Russian budget), to the artificial creation of unemployment, washing out the able-bodied population from the occupied territory.
Moreover, taking into account the problematic departure of the population to Ukraine, created by the occupiers under the pretext of COVID, all conditions for emigration just to the Russian Federation are created. In particular, Russia contributes to this by issuing Russian passports to the residents of CADLO.
A number of factors give grounds to assert that the Russian Federation is artificially creating a humanitarian crisis on the territory of Donbas under its control in order to speed up its plans.
This is expressed not only in the impossibility (due to the quarantine conditions created by it) of labor and pension relations with the territory controlled by the government of Ukraine, but also in the obstruction of the work of humanitarian organizations in CADLO. In fact, the work of international humanitarian organizations that provided direct financial aid to the local population is blocked. According to the available insider information, only 20% of the volume of humanitarian aid offered by international charitable organizations is now being redistributed to the population. The rest is simply blocked by the "DNR" "authorities". Against the background of the total non-payment of wages, the rise in prices for medicines, all product groups and the rise in utility tariffs, this has significantly reduced the standard of people's living.
Even according to the "official" statistics of the occupation authorities of CADLO, mortality from COVID there exceeds the worldwide average. The medical support system is not prepared for mass admission of patients with pneumonia. Even doctors are not provided with protective equipment and disinfectants in a centralized way, which leads to their mass layoffs. The economic collapse was followed by the medical one. According to insider information, the situation with COVID, both in Donetsk and Luhansk, got out of control. But at the same time, Ukrainian citizens living in CADLO have no opportunity to leave the zone of increased risk of infection. The checkpoints are closed even in one direction - for the exit to Ukraine. Moreover, according to information from the "officials" of the "republics" in the media, travelling outside CADLO may be prohibited as a punishment for repeated violations of quarantine restrictions. Moreover, the "borders" between the "DNR" and the "LNR" remain closed…"
This is a purposeful policy, since Moscow thus solves several problems simultaneously:
- the problem of reducing the cost of maintaining the occupied territory for itself by reducing the number of population;
- the problem of destroying a competitive economic cluster of the "hostile" state;
- making up for the lack of workers for its own economy;
- the demographic pitfall into which Russia is falling.
It must be acknowledged that Kyiv itself often contributes to this by introducing special quarantine restrictions for its citizens crossing the contact line from CADLO. In particular, this refers to a two-week observation or self-isolation with the installation of the Diya mobile application for those who manage to cross the Donbas checkpoint (as for foreigners). At the same time, residents of other regions of the country, even those classified as "red zone", are exempt from such measures. It turns out that one and the same COVID in the uncontrolled and occupied territories is perceived differently by the Ukrainian state. In fact, this refers to discrimination on a territorial basis. And people perceive it quite painfully. The line of demarcation cannot be turned into a state border. Any signs of discrimination against residents of the occupied territories contribute to the integration of these territories into Russia.
All this can become a problem for Ukraine not only after de-occupation, when it will face a shortage of workers and skilled personnel to restore the region's economy, but also in the near future.
The fact is that many who have remained unemployed in CADLO, especially those of preretirement age, are considering the possibility of leaving for the territory controlled by the government (through Russia). They explain this by the fact that they have service record in Ukraine necessary to receive a pension.
Accordingly, a new wave of internally displaced persons from the Donbas could create an additional increase in social benefits and unemployment in the government-controlled territory. Even if this burden turns out not to be significant in economic terms, it will definitely create political and social risks.
The latter are connected with the fact that not everyone who leaves for Ukraine because of economic reasons after six years of life in the occupation are politically friendly to Ukraine. Consequently, they will not only increase the proportion of the electorate of the pro-Russian parties, but also create tension in those communities in which they will settle. This, in turn, can cause stigmatization of all IDPs, including those who left earlier.
The implosion of economies of the "republics" and the decrease in financial "aid" from Russia, caused by the corona crisis, can also stimulate the occupation authorities to solve the problem of almost 50% of shortage of the army corps of the "People's Militias" by conscripting young people for obligated military service. This idea is already being thrown into public opinion by the "DNR"-"LNR" leaders. If implemented, it will create a new political reality on the front line. There will be no longer Russian mercenaries, but young citizens of Ukraine on the other side. In addition, the participation in illegal armed formation is criminally liable in Ukraine. Consequently, a large part of the male population of CADLO will be forced to sever any links with Ukraine after military conscription.
This will also be facilitated by the fact that the military personnel on the territory of CADLO are forced to obtain Russian passports. That is, the conscripts who quit after such "service" automatically become ideologically and legally tied to Russia.
The young people will be able to avoid such a service under the conditions of closed under the pretext of COVID checkpoints only going to study or work to Russia. The option of leaving for Ukraine through the Russian border is possible, but it will bring real challenges in the future when intending to visit relatives in the occupied territory, which makes it unattractive for them.
Another serious risk to the state security and territorial integrity of Ukraine is purposeful policy of segregation and integration of the CADLO population into the Russian Federation. Quarantine measures have created a particularly fertile ground for these processes.
In particular, the head of the occupation administration of CADO issued a "decree" obliging citizens who are registered in the controlled territory and want to leave the territory of CADO for Ukraine to sign a document of non-return "until the epidemical situation improves".
Leader of the "DNR" Denis Pushilin also issued a "decree" on September 23 providing for putting the marks in the passports of citizens of Ukraine "by the civil status registration authorities of the Donetsk People's Republic". This will make these passports invalid on the territory of Ukraine and when crossing the state border or the contact line. Thus, conditions for the impossibility of holders of such passports to visit Ukraine are created again, which will mean a break of labor and personal ties with it.
According to the available information, the "DNR" is going to carry out 100% certification of the controlled population with passports of the "Donetsk People's Republic" within two years. Accordingly, the Ukrainian passports of the CADO population will be deliberately damaged. After that, Ukraine will either have to recognize the "documents" of the "republics", or take the responsibility for breaking the family, labor and other social ties of millions of its citizens. This is just one of the elements of the Transnistrian conflict.
In turn, the creation of conditions when all people disloyal to Russia will be forced to leave, and displaced persons, who are the main communication channel with the population of the occupied territories today, will not be able to enter Donetsk and Luhansk, will turn CADLO into a reserve of the Russian world. The subsequent integration of such an enclave into Ukraine, with or without a "special status", will significantly increase the disintegration risks for the country. They can only be suppressed by a tough forced reaction, which will in itself create internal political problems…
Unfortunately, the Ukrainian leadership practically ignores all these facts, not opposing them in any way. The Verkhovna Rada does not react to them with acts of legal pre-emption. They are not raised systematically at the international level. They are not voiced by officials in the media, not spoken by experts during the TV airtime. Both the state and the people may turn out to be not ready for them, as well as for the question about the FEZ in the Donbas, which received disapproval in the "presidential poll"…
Serhiy Harmash, Center for Research on Donbas Social Perspectives, for OstroV