Dry and sunny summer weather in the southern wooded and steppe reaches of the Russian-Ukrainian border means trouble and potential military escalation as the land dries up after the spring thaw. Vehicles may again move freely through dirt roads and fields, while aircraft pilots are better able to see their potential targets. Thus, tensions have traditionally increased every summer in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts). Since 2014, Donbas has been divided by a so-called “line of control” between Ukrainian government forces and Moscow-supported pro-Russia separatist formations. And in the past week, the area has again begun witnessing a drastic intensification of fighting, currently around the separatist-held town of Horlivka, north of Donetsk. Locally deployed observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have officially registered 7,700 ceasefire violations from May 14 to May 21 as the level of violence has grown. Both sides blame each other and have reported casualties. The OSCE mission has confirmed this was “the worst week this year.” Both sides have reportedly been using heavy weapons. The overall position of the “line of control” has not changed substantially since February 2015, when pro-Russia separatists backed up by regular Russian troops captured the city of Debaltseve. Today, both sides are engaged in tactical armed clashes, attempting to improve their positions along the “line of control (see EDM, February 9, 2017).” But these relatively small tactical movements may easily escalate, according to the Russian foreign ministry, into something much worse if not checked. Russian diplomats of course put the blame squarely on the Ukrainian side and demand that Western leaders intervene to rein in Kyiv (Kommersant, May 23).
The Donbas conflict moved into this most dangerous summer period with all attempts at meaningful dialogue hopelessly stalled. The two so-called Minsk agreements, reached several years ago, had stipulated a ceasefire, a withdrawal of heavy weapons from the frontline, and presented a roadmap for a hypothetical settlement of the conflict. The first Minsk agreement was signed in September 2014, after an unofficial Russian military intervention stopped the Ukrainian forces from fully defeating the Moscow-backed separatist rebellion in Donbas. The Minsk Two accords were signed in February 2015, with German and French mediation, after Ukrainian forces were defeated in Debaltseve. Minsk Two contained a detailed roadmap of a settlement, none of which has ever been implemented. All sides seem to agree the Minsk accords are essential and accuse each other of failing to implement them. The ceasefire continues to be constantly violated, and all announced attempts to withdraw heavy weapons from the frontline have failed as both sides tend to quickly bring them back as soon as any new round of fighting erupts. In 2017, Moscow, Kyiv and Western leaders seemed to all agree on a possible introduction of armed United Nations peacekeepers in Donbas that could possibly keep the conflict better “frozen” than the unarmed OSCE observers. But the idea quickly fell flat as opposing sides put forward incompatible proposals for the mandate and scope of any possible UN mission. Moscow wanted a limited mission of peacekeepers armed with sidearms, with a mandate to simply “guard” the OSCE observers; moreover, the Russian side declared that the separatist authorities had to officially consent to the mission—all absolutely unacceptable to Kyiv. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Glushko recently complained, “We received no positive response to the peacekeeper proposal we made in October 2017” (Militarynews.ru, May 9).
The main Russian negotiator on the Donbas conflict, presidential aide Vladislav Surkov (53), is reportedly preparing to retire from government service or at least end his longtime involvement as the Kremlin’s point man on Ukrainian issues. Since 1999, Surkov has been a deputy prime minister and has occupied top positions in the Kremlin administration. Surkov was reportedly instrumental in formulating both the Minsk One and Minsk Two agreements, which now seem hopelessly deadlocked; this may have been one of the reasons behind his possible resignation. Unnamed Kremlin insiders told journalists Surkov may have clashed with Russian special services and the military on how to proceed in the Ukrainian crisis. In any case, the pending Surkov resignation has already put on hold further possible consultations with the United States’ Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker, complicating an already dire situation (RBC, May 14).
The Kremlin-financed news site Vzglyad recently opined about the Russian strategy in Ukraine being in tatters: Hope that the deadlocked Minsk process will somehow lead to the disintegration of the regime in Kyiv and the emergence of a pro-Russian government is not working. Moscow apparently believed prolonged attrition in Donbas would undermine internal support for the Ukrainian government, while the West would grow weary and eventually abandon Kyiv. A special “ ‘tourist’ military strike force” has been deployed close to Rostov-on-Don, ready to invade and defeat the Ukrainian government forces if they move decisively to break the deadlock. But the Ukrainian regime is not “disintegrating”—its resolve is only growing stronger. So a major change in strategy must be made and perhaps some “peace enforcement” operation undertaken—like the Russian operation in Syria (Vzglyad, May 22).
The above-mentioned “tourist military force” is the 8th Army, which was formed in the Rostov oblast last year (Izvestia, March 17, 2017). The 8th Army headquarters are in Novocherkassk and are apparently in operational control of the two army corps of pro-Russia forces in Donetsk and Luhansk. This spring, the 150th motor-rifle division (also headquartered in Novocherkassk) was fully formed as the 8th Army’s frontline “strike” unit. The division is reinforced by modernized T-72B3 tanks and heavy artillery (Militarynews.ru, March 27, 2018). According to the Ukrainian chief of the General Staff and commander of the Armed Forces, Viktor Muzhenko, “Experts predict Russia will be ready for a massive war with Ukraine in three years, but we are ready anytime to meet any limited or large operation” (Kommersant, February 25).
Nether Moscow nor Kyiv seem ready to make any serious concessions to help unlock the deadlocked peace process in Donbas. Many observers have expressed the opinion that this deadlock may become institutionalized as a “frozen” conflict, like in Abkhazia, Transnistria or Cyprus (RBC, May 14). While mediators remain unable to ensure the Donbas ceasefire holds, the current massive flare-up of fighting and carnage strongly suggest the war of attrition will continue. And left to spin out of control, the fighting in Donbas could easily escalate into a regional Russo-Ukrainian war.