The first quarter of 2017 was marked by a renewed escalation of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. The increased military confrontation began in the vicinity of Donetsk, at the end of January, when saboteur-reconnaissance groups of Russia-backed militants made an attempt to seize the Avdiivka Coke Plant (ACP)—the largest coking enterprise in Europe. Severe fighting around the area continued during February–March. Moscow-backed guerrillas heavily shelled Ukrainian troop positions; on one day, as many as 117 instances of heavy weapons fire were recorded coming from the occupied side (Segodnya.ua, March 1). By mid-March, the Russian-supported forces initiated a fight in the direction of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol (Mariupil) (Hromadskeradio.org, March 19; Censor.net.ua, March 20).
It should be noted the heavy weapons used extensively against Ukrainian regular forces in the battles near Avdiivka and Mariupol include multiple rocket launched systems (MRLS), which in accordance with the Minsk Agreements were supposed to have been withdrawn beyond 70 kilometers from the line of contact. Shelling was also carried out by Russia-backed militants using 122-millimeter (mm) and 152 mm artillery systems, 120 mm and 82 mm mortars, as well as tanks and combat vehicles. Grenade launchers, small arms and sniper fire intensified during these battles as well. In addition, there has been a marked increase in the use of 14.5 mm weapons with greater range and lethality than small arms. The relentless nature of these attacks has caused unusually high levels of injuries. In both areas, MRLS systems fired by the Russia-backed militants caused indiscriminate destruction of residential buildings (UNIAN, March 18; Delovaya Stolica, March 27). The intense use of heavy weapons damaged the infrastructure connected to the ACP, and on January 30 the coke plant’s industrial cycle had to be stopped (Epravda.com.ua, February 6). A bit over a month later, coke production was restarted, but new damage to high-voltage cables caused by an artillery bombardment forced the shutdown of the Avdiivka plant’s production again (Korrespondent.net, March 6). On January 31, Ukrainian authorities introduced an emergency situation in Avdiivka in response to the city’s electricity and water supply having been disrupted by separatist militants’ attacks (Donbass.ua, January 31). A partial evacuation of residents from this area took place in early February (5.ua, February 3).
Observers attribute this recent escalation of the conflict to several factors. One of them could reflect the Russia-backed militants’ continuation of systematic combat actions of varying intensity meant to exhaust the Ukrainian forces—described by the British military expert Glen Grant as “waves coming to shore” tactics. When a military force pursues such an approach, phases of intensive armed confrontation are interposed by phases of relative calm.
Yet, experience shows that periods of escalation in the Donbas conflict zone are often directly linked to the Kremlin’s political-diplomatic efforts—i.e., a desire to “raise the stakes” in its negotiations with leaders of European countries and the United States concerning the situation in eastern Ukraine. A similar increase in hostilities took place in earlier years, during key consultations within the framework of the Minsk ceasefire process and on the eve of meetings of the Normandy format (Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France). The current heightened periods of violence, therefore, may at least in part be connected to Washington having recently imposed new sanctions against Russia, as well as in response to the Ukrainian Parliament’s (Verkhovna Rada) request that the US Congress grant Ukraine “ally” status outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Unn.com.ua, March 22). With the Kremlin showing no genuine political will to implement its obligations under the Minsk agreements, Russian actions—both overt and concealed—to maintain the conflict in eastern Ukraine and to create zones of “controlled instability” continue (Segodnya.ua, March 27).
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine has linked the intensification of the military confrontation to consequences of the trade blockade of the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” (DPR, LPR), first initiated by groups of Ukrainian veterans acting without the government’s consent (Strana.ua, February 18; see EDM, February 28). In the aftermath of this blockading of railroads linking DPR-LPR territory with the rest of Ukraine, additional representatives of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) popped up in the separatist regions. Moreover, a “humanitarian convoy” arrived in Donbas from Russia, which may have disguised the shipment of additional military equipment (Unian.net, March 1).
Notably, in the second half of March, sabotage-reconnaissance groups, sniper teams and other units from DPR-LPR completed training in Russian military training centers and in facilities in occupied Donbas organized by Moscow (Depo.ua, March 18). In this regard, attention should be drawn to a series of blasts, which occurred on March 23 at the 65th Arsenal of the Ukrainian Armed Forces—the largest Ukrainian ammunition depot, located near the northeastern town of Balakliia. Given the fact that the housed munitions exploded simultaneously in several places at the arsenal facility, most experts agree this incident was the result of sabotage (Censor.net.ua, March 25). For safety reasons, the Ukrainian authorities evacuated local residents living within 10 kilometers of the arms depot (Censor.net.ua, March 23).
It is also worth noting the correlation between the mentioned areas where the fighting has escalated. In particular, Mariupol’s main metallurgical enterprises (Mariupol Metallurgical Combine “Ilyich” as well as the “Azovstal” plant) are the main consumers of coke from Avdiivka. But irregular coke supplies caused by months of artillery bombardment have had a serious negative impact on Mariupol’s iron and steel–producing enterprises (Apostrophe.ua, January 31). Experts believe that if the ACP remains offline for much longer, Ukrainian metallurgists could expect up to a 25 percent reduction in crude iron and steel production. Such cuts may cost the Ukrainian budget at least $2 billion in foreign currency earnings per year (Delovaya Stolica.ua, January 31). Moreover, these enterprises employ around 47,000 workers, so the social and economic consequences for the region due to jobs losses could be significant.
Taken together, the escalation in fighting near Avdiivka and Mariupol is, therefore, most likely connected to the Russian strategy of fomenting “controlled instability.” Tactically, it looks like the center of gravity for the Russian-separatist combined forces is near Avdiivka; but operationally, it is more focused on Mariupol—the key Ukrainian defensive point on the way to creating a “land corridor” from the Russian Federation to Crimea. This is why reinforcements of the latest upgraded T-72B3 tanks on the Russian border near Mariupol must be taken seriously—particularly in the context of possible Russian offensive scenarios (112.ua, March 24; Donbass.ua, March 27).