The falling ruble, two-digit inflation and obvious signs of a pending financial and economic meltdown apparently have not influenced Russia’s assertive foreign and defense policies. A proposed summit in Astana between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France in the so-called “Normandy format,” initially planned for January 15, has been postponed indefinitely (see EDM, January 14, 2015). Last August, Russian regular troops crossed the border and pushed back the Ukrainian military, which was besieging major rebel strongholds—the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. The following September, ceasefire agreements were signed by Russia, Ukraine and Moscow-backed rebels under the supervision of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Minsk, Belarus. The Minsk agreements stipulated the establishment of a clear line of control, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and Russian volunteers from Donbas (eastern Ukrainian region encompassing the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces), local elections in rebel-controlled areas, as well as the freeing of hostages and prisoners of war. The Russian-Ukrainian border in Donbas was supposed to have been put under OSCE and Ukrainian effective control to terminate the illicit movement of armaments and fighters from Russia. However, Western diplomats have cited insufficient progress in the implementation of the Minsk agreements as the reason for postponing the Astana summit (UNIAN, January 12, 2015).
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists after meeting his German, Ukrainian and French counterparts in Berlin this week: “All parties agreed on the full implementation of the Minsk agreements and the need to have a steady ceasefire” (RIA Novosti, January 13, 2015). At the same time, Lavrov accused the Ukrainian military of preparing a new major offensive in Donbas and called on Western states “to check the activities of the party of war in Kyiv.” The Ukrainian military promptly denied any offensive preparations and, in turn, accused the rebels of constant truce violations (Interfax, January 12, 2015).
The Russian interpretation of its responsibilities under the Minsk agreements seems to differ profoundly from the West’s view. Despite its signed Minsk pledges, Moscow apparently will not stop supporting the rebels and will ensure they have enough military might to effectively resist the Ukrainian military. Moscow seems to be making no effort to withdraw Russian fighters from Donbas and has apparently never seriously tolerated the establishment of Ukrainian or OSCE effective control of the Russian-Ukrainian border, since this could undermine the rebels’ fighting capability. Rather, Russia is demanding the Ukrainian forces withdraw from several contested key points on the existing line of control, like the ruins of the Donetsk international airport. The airport is not particularly important strategically, but its surrender could undermine Ukrainian fighting morale and possibly politically destabilize the government in Kyiv. Moscow also wants the West to begin dismantling, without preconditions, the punitive sanctions imposed on Russia for annexing Crimea and meddling in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin is demanding that Kyiv begin immediate direct negotiations with the rebels to work out possible constitutional changes and an overall permanent political solution to end the crisis (Segodnya, January 12, 2015).
In essence, Moscow seeks regime change that could give the pro-Russia rebels a capability to block important decisions in Kyiv, ensuring Russia’s larger strategic intent—to prevent any integration of Ukraine in European or Transatlantic institutions, like the European Union or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Minsk agreements, as presently interpreted by the West, would leave the section of Donbas controlled by the rebels an isolated enclave with a totally dysfunctional industrial economy and a massive population of several million, which Russia is, at present, struggling to feed. Unlike Crimea, the Donbas region is, in itself, relatively unimportant strategically; but holding onto it is costly. Moscow primarily needs the separatist-controlled Donbas as an instrument with which to indirectly control Kyiv. The present situation—a pro-Western government in Kyiv that has formally rejected Ukraine’s nonaligned status and is trying to drift Westward, while an isolated Donbas struggles to survive—appears to be completely unacceptable to both Moscow and the rebels. They reject the possibility of the current situation evolving into a long-term solution or even a “frozen” conflict, like Transnistria, Karabakh, or Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Negotiations seem deadlocked, while the military situation on the ground is deteriorating and possibly drifting toward another major escalation. This week, the secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, Oleksandr Turchynov, told the parliament there are two possible scenarios for further developments in Ukraine: The resumption of a full-scale war with the active participation of regular Russian troops, or a continued low-level confrontation that would destabilize Ukraine and drain its resources. According to Turchynov, there are some 34,000 armed combatants in rebel-controlled Donbas, of which 8,500 are Russian soldiers. These forces have 542 tanks, 990 armored vehicles, 694 pieces of artillery, including multiple rocket launch systems (MRLS), 4 ballistic precision-guided Tochka-U missiles (up to 120-kilometer range) and some 57 anti-aircraft missile complexes. According to Turchynov, an additional 52,000 Russian soldiers are posted on the Ukrainian-Russian border with some 300 tanks, 1,800 armored vehicles, 750 pieces of artillery, including MRLS, and up to 360 military aircraft (UNIAN, January 15, 2015).
It is impossible to verify Turchynov’s figures, but the rebels have, indeed, been acting increasingly aggressively. On January 13, a Ukrainian military checkpoint south of Donetsk was hit by a volley of Grad MRLS missiles, apparently fired by the rebels. A bus of local civilians preparing to cross the line of control was hit by shrapnel from a nearby exploding missile: 12 civilians were killed and 13 wounded. The rebels claimed the carnage was the result of the Ukrainian military deliberately using radio-controlled anti-personnel mines and firing at the bus with automatic weapons, but an OSCE investigation confirmed the bus was hit by a Grad rocket (Liga Novosti, January 15, 2015). Rebel fighters say they are ready for serious combat and a possible “Ukrainian offensive.” On January 15, rebel forces began another attack on the Donetsk airport and say they are ready to go further to “liberate” other parts of Donbas, at present controlled by Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainian military is fighting back. A meeting of the Minsk contact group that could pave the way to the resumption of preparations for the Astana summit, is planned for January 16; but prospects for this summit remain uncertain (Gazeta.ru, January 15, 2015).
The present fighting in Donbas may be the beginning of a major military escalation. Or the military action could be limited and intended to put pressure on the Kyiv regime and its presumed Western backers to dismantle sanctions and, possibly, reinterpret the Minsk agreements.