Russia Escalates Its Proxy War in Eastern Ukraine

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 41

Ukrainian soldiers in Donbass in 2019 (Source: BBC)

The ceasefire on the line of control in the breakaway Donbas region of eastern Ukraine is unraveling. In July 2020, both sides—the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) and the Moscow-backed “separatists”—agreed to enforce a “full suspension of hostilities.” Both sides withdrew heavy weapons from the frontline starting on July 27, while small arms skirmishes and combat casualties fell dramatically. The ceasefire had been essentially holding until February 2021, when the number of ceasefire violations registered by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) again began to grow. Heavy weapons are reportedly being moved back into positions, and both belligerents accuse the other of “provocations.” Of course, shelling, shootings, deadly skirmishes and mutual recriminations along the Donbas frontline are nothing new. But this time, military observers and politicians in both Kyiv and Moscow seem to seriously consider the possibility that the present escalation could triggering a major “unfreezing” of the conflict and reignite a full-scale regional war that may drastically change the situation on the ground in Europe’s East (Komsomolskaya Pravda, March 4).

The line of control in Donbas has not undergone any significant positional shifts since February 2015, when a winter offensive begun in mid-January 2015 by proxy forces strongly but unofficially supported by regular Russian troops first pushed UAF fighters from Donetsk airport and then out of the Debaltseve bulge north of Donetsk. The Ukrainians were humiliated, routed and suffered heavy casualties. It was not clear at the time whether the Russian-led forces would stop after capturing Debaltseve or push deeper into Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, French then-president François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, together with Ukraine’s head of state at the time, Petro Poroshenko, met in Minsk in February 2015 to hammer out a formula to prevent the Donbas conflict from escalating into a major regional war. Since then, the Minsk accords—envisaging a reintegration of the Russian-controlled part of Donbas back into Ukraine while retaining a measure of autonomy and Russian identity—have been broadly held up as, ostensibly, the basis of a peaceful resolution of the Donbas conflict. But over the coming years, the Minsk accords have proven to be practically unworkable (see EDM, September 24, 2019 and January 23, 2020). The July 2020 ceasefire was enforced as a prelude for realizing a “Minsk accord” roadmap. In reality, political talks were deadlocked as before despite a relatively successful tamping down of frontline hostilities (Kommersant, February 17). The Minsk accords were drawn up to stop a local conflict from developing into a regional war, and this worked relatively well for a time; but trying to use this agreement as a roadmap to permanent peace in Donbas has proven futile.

Kyiv wishes to snuff out the Donbas “rebellion” and push the Russian and proxy occupying forces out with Western help, hoping the same formula may someday work in Russian-seized Crimea. Separatist Donbas’s de facto authorities have said they want their territory to be annexed by oil-rich Russia. The Kremlin, in turn, wants a Moscow-friendly government installed in Kyiv that would effectively recognize the Crimean annexation and provide ironclad guarantees that Ukraine will forever stay out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union or an alliance with the United States. At present, Moscow is not much interested in annexing any portion of Donbas. The Minsk accords do not provide a formula or roadmap to somehow reconcile such diverse objectives.

In February 2021, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took off the air three pro-Russian television channels connected to the pro-Russian Opposition Platform–For Life party, which won 43 seats in the Verkhovna Rada in the 2019 Ukrainian parliamentary election. Kyiv also imposed sanctions on the leader of the pro-Russian opposition, Viktor Medvedchuk, who was accused of “financing terrorists”—paying the Donbas separatists money (see EDM, February 24). Medvedchuk (66) is a Ukrainian oligarch and a personal friend of Putin’s. He fervently wants to see Ukraine stay clear of NATO, the US and the EU, while keeping close ties with “brotherly Russia” (Interfax, February 19).

The Russian political and military ruling elite strongly believes the US and its allies are waging a hybrid war against Russia and its interests, in part by promoting opposition leader Alexei Navalny (see EDM, February 4). They see actions like the removal of pro-Russian TV channels in Ukraine; sanctions against Medvedchuk, his wife and business interests; and possible criminal charges against the Kremlin-friendly oligarch as moves by the West to take over Ukraine and snuff out any vestiges of Russian influence. A casus belli in short.

The pro-Kremlin media in Moscow accuses the Ukrainian military of massing forces and preparing a decisive offensive to defeat the separatists and reclaim Donbas. To prevent this from happening, the propaganda contends, Russia must intervene militarily (if need be, preemptively) and trounce the UAF (Komsomolskaya Pravda, March 4). On March 3, 2021, Donbas separatists were given orders to open fire preemptively to destroy UAF positions (Interfax, March 3). The Zelenskyy administration announced it was putting forward a revised political settlement plan for Donbas that had been agreed with France and Germany. But the Kremlin replied it does not understand what the Ukrainians are talking about. Army General (ret.) Vladimir Boldyrev, a former commander of the Russian Ground Forces, told journalists, “If the Ukrainians attack, we may stop pretending and openly intervene” (, March 10).

Ukrainian officials are attempting to counter the onslaught of belligerency in the Moscow media by announcing Ukraine is ready to meet an enemy attack even if it takes the form of a massive invasion. According to interior ministry advisor Valery Potseluyko, “We [the Ukrainian government] understood there would be a serious response from Moscow to our moves against pro-Russian TV channels and Medvedchuk; but the time to begin a military offensive is wrong—the fields must first dry up” (, March 7). Indeed, the snow is just begging to melt on the East European (Sarmatic) Plain. It is currently Rasputitsa or mud season, which is incredibly problematic for offensive maneuver warfare. Maybe six to eight weeks remain before belligerent rhetoric and sporadic bombardments in Donbas might truly transform into something much more ominous.