Following the latest round of consultations of political advisors within the so-called Normandy format (Ukraine, Russia, France, Germany), Andriy Yermak, the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, stated in a letter that Kyiv will not accept any of the proposals regarding the resolution of the Donbas conflict that were made by his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Kozak (Ukrainska Pravda, March 21). Yermak labeled the Russian view of the situation as “peculiar” and stressed that Moscow’s refusal to hold consultations while there is a significant escalation on the frontline is “eloquent evidence of its lack of real interest in strengthening the ceasefire.”
Earlier, Kozak told Russian media that the Ukrainian side should provide a written agreement recommitting to the ceasefire. For instance, he suggested that the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) could open fire only after receiving a direct order to do so from the highest military commanders—and only when all other mechanisms for negotiations with the Russia-backed Donbas forces are exhausted (Interfax, March 20). This Kremlin proposal is seen by some Ukrainian politicians, military officers, and even ordinary citizens as preventing Ukraine from engaging in self-defense and a step toward capitulation. Kozak’s other suggestion was to change the current format of negotiation by implementing the principle of equality of all participants. Ukrainian experts like Bohdan Petrenko, the deputy director of the Ukrainian Institute of Extremism Studies, argue that this move aims to legitimize the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” (LPR/DPR) as equal participants in the negotiations (Ukrinform, March 23). At the same time, the Russian government made a move to undermine the talks by inviting Maya Pirogova as a “representative of the Donbas republics,” which Moscow had previously promised not to include. She was designated a “terrorist” (i.e., Moscow-backed proxy or “separatist” from Donbas) by Kyiv and, after her appearance, the Ukrainian delegation halted any further discussions within the Minsk conflict resolution process. Yevhen Magda, a Ukrainian political analyst and the executive director of the Institute of World Policy, insisted that this was a well-planned provocation on Moscow’s part (Ukrinform, March 23).
Despite repeated declarations about the need to implement the 2014/2015 Minsk agreements (which inter alia call for the peaceful reintegration of occupied Donbas back into Ukraine and withdrawal of Russian forces), in late January the DPR/LPR authorities organized a special forum in Donetsk, where participants presented “The Russian Donbass” doctrine. The event was attended by a number of Russian members of parliament, including Andriy Kozenko (United Russia party) and Kaizbek Taysaev (Communist Party of the Russian Federation). But most interesting was the participation of Margarita Simonyan, who heads Russia’s international media/propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik. The authors of this so-called doctrine insisted on the need to “restore historical justice” and to officially incorporate national Donbas republics into the Russian Federation (Tyzhden, February 12). This would be preceded by the further “passportization” of local citizens with Russian personal identification papers.
More crucial for Ukraine in the short term is the ongoing “creeping escalation” along the line of contact in Donbas. The ceasefire, which was brokered last year and started officially on July 27, is functionally over (see EDM, March 11). Mortar shelling, grenade launchers and even heavy artillery have become the new normal since December 2020. The number of casualties (killed or wounded in action) among Ukrainian frontline troops increased from six in October 2020 to twelve in January 2021 to thirty in February 2021 and ten just between March 1 and 20. Most of the combat deaths were from sniper fire. The number of ceasefire violations by the Russian side hit a new record in February—180 (Radio Svoboda, March 4).
One possible reason for the current escalation is to put pressure on President Volodomyr Zelenskyy and his administration in order to create additional leverage for upcoming negotiations. Magda, the Ukrainian analyst from the Institute of World Policy, stressed that Russian behavior is quite predictable in this case. In his opinion, the Kremlin demonstrates that it has a universal tool of influence in Donbas to coerce the Ukrainian side into greater obedience (Ukrinform, March 23). The same tactic was used by Russia during the initial negotiations in Minsk, in 2014 and 2015. Moreover, by increasing the number of dead Ukrainian soldiers, the Kremlin undercuts one of Zelenskyy’s top electoral promises—to stop the ongoing war. A secondary reason for the heightened violence could be retribution for the Ukrainian government’s recent “anti-Moscow” policies, such as the National Security and Defense Council’s (NSDC) directive to shut down several pro-Russian TV channels inside Ukraine, the passing of sanctions against pro-Russian parliamentarians Viktor Medvedchuk and Taras Kozak, and charges of treason laid against prominent blogger Anatoliy Shariy, who regularly echoes Russian propaganda (President.gov.ua, February 2; UNIAN, February 16; see EDM, August 4, 2020 and February 24, 2021). General Mykhailo Zabrodskyi, a former commander of the Ukrainian airborne troops and a current parliamentary deputy, agrees on this point (Radio Svoboda, March 13).
At the same time as ceasefire violations have increased, Moscow sought to put even more pressure on the Ukrainian side in the weeks running up to the last Minsk meeting by launching a far-ranging disinformation campaign: accusing Kyiv of “preparing for a full-scale war against Donbas.” Numerous social media posts, publications (mostly Russian) and “expert” commentary were created for this purpose. And many of them repeated March 15—conspicuously just a few days before the scheduled Minsk talks—as the purported date when Ukraine would “attack” (RIA Novosti, March 9). Boris Gryzlov, the Russian representative within the Minsk process’s Trilateral Contact Group, also insisted that Ukraine is “provoking an escalation of the war” (Regnum, March 3). Georgiy Tuka, a former Ukrainian deputy minister for the temporarily occupied territories and internally displaced persons, recounted that he saw a fake news report by Russian NTV detailing a supposed recent Ukrainian Grad artillery strike on a residential neighborhood in Donetsk (Comments.ua, March 11). That shift in Russia’s messaging on the conflict was noticed even by the United States’ mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). According to a statement by Chargé d’Affaires Courtney Austrian, Moscow’s latest barrage of disinformation appears designed to predict and pre-assign blame for an escalation in violence (Osce.usmission.gov, March 18).
This deception campaign may simultaneously provide camouflage for real Russian personnel and arms deployments to the frontline prohibited by the Minsk agreements. Notably, the number of “separatist” forces recently increased near occupied Horlivka and Mospino, both in Donetsk region (Radio Svoboda, March 20). All this could well portend looming attempts by Russia to carry out new encroachments deeper into Ukraine.