Russian esca­la­tion in Ukraine and what it means for Ukrain­ian-Russian relations

Foto: Sergei Mal­gavko /​ TASS /​​ Imago Images

Since January 2021 there has been growing mil­i­tary esca­la­tion in con­flict-affected areas of Donbas. Russia has built up mil­i­tary equip­ment deploy­ment along the Russian-Ukrain­ian border, repo­si­tioned its army and strength­ened its mil­i­tary pres­ence in tem­porar­ily occu­pied Crimea. What lies behind these devel­op­ments? And what sce­nar­ios should be taken into account for the near future? 

Why esca­late?

The ongoing dete­ri­o­ra­tion of the secu­rity sit­u­a­tion in Donbas should be con­sid­ered part of a complex Russian reac­tion to a chang­ing polit­i­cal and diplo­matic land­scape con­cern­ing the con­flict res­o­lu­tion process. The fol­low­ing factors may be at play:

First, the Russian Fed­er­a­tion wants to put pres­sure on Ukrain­ian Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Zelen­sky in hopes of making him more willing to give in to Russian demands. Prospects for a com­pro­mise have sig­nif­i­cantly decreased since August 2020. The cease­fire agree­ment reached in July 2020 was offered by Russia in order to receive polit­i­cal con­ces­sions from Ukraine. For Ukraine the cease­fire was the first step towards secu­rity, but for Russia this step was only a pretext. After failing to win polit­i­cal con­ces­sions at the Minsk Tri­lat­eral Contact Group or in the Nor­mandy format, Russia blocked human­i­tar­ian and secu­rity mea­sures, includ­ing de-mining, the dis­en­gage­ment of forces, exchange of pris­on­ers, full access of the Red Cross to non-gov­ern­ment-con­trolled areas and the opening of new check points in the towns of Shchastya and Zolote. As a result, attempts to develop plans for imple­ment­ing the Minsk peace agree­ments have so far failed.

Second, by resort­ing to mil­i­tary mea­sures Russia is most prob­a­bly attempt­ing to prevent changes to the Minsk agree­ments. This appears to be in response to Ukrain­ian efforts to disarm fight­ers and re-estab­lish Ukrain­ian control over the border with Russia before allow­ing elec­tions in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and grant­ing them special status. Ukrain­ian insis­tence on this sequence of events has created a diplo­matic impasse and made Russia use other instru­ments to exer­cise pres­sure on Ukraine.

As a result pre­serv­ing the cease­fire no longer ben­e­fits Russia, but con­tin­ues to benefit Ukraine. This was proven by the Franco-German peace plan laying out the imple­men­ta­tion of the Minsk agree­ments and the pro­posed Ukrain­ian and Russian amend­ments to the initial pro­posal. In their pro­posal, the Zelen­sky admin­is­tra­tion insisted that control over the border must be estab­lished first. All sub­se­quent steps would be made incre­men­tally depend­ing on com­pli­ance with the secu­rity clauses. This con­tra­dicts the Russian pro­posal, which calls for the grant­ing of special status and the holing of elec­tions first.

Third, the current esca­la­tion is an attempt to intim­i­date Ukraine, the Nor­mandy mod­er­a­tors, the USA, the United Kingdom and other influ­en­tial NATO members. In par­tic­u­lar, these mil­i­tary maneu­vers, even if real plans for esca­la­tion exist, aim at demon­strat­ing Russian mil­i­tary power. It is a reac­tion to Washington’s more assertive rhetoric on Russia. Pres­i­dent Putin likes to test the limits of US support for Ukraine.

But it is also a reac­tion to tension in EU-Russian rela­tions. One of Russia’s short-term goals in Europe is to finish the con­struc­tion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Current mil­i­tary esca­la­tion may be an attempt to prevent new Western obsta­cles and sanc­tions. US Pres­i­dent Joe Biden posi­tion on the pipeline is far more radical than that of the EU. Thus, Russia might aim to make com­ple­tion of Nord Stream 2 pos­si­ble by threat­en­ing the West with escalation.

Russia’s actions must be under­stood beyond Russian-Ukrain­ian rela­tions. Esca­la­tion is not aimed exclu­sively at receiv­ing some con­ces­sions from Ukraine, but also from the West. More­over, it may be an attempt to boost Putin’s domes­tic legitimacy.

What’s next?

Recent signs of mil­i­tary esca­la­tion do not auto­mat­i­cally mean that a new wave of full-fledged aggres­sion is inevitable. There are two basic sce­nar­ios worth analyzing.

The first is based on the assump­tion that all devel­op­ments are an attempt to intim­i­date Ukraine and its Western part­ners. Here Russia is more inter­ested in cre­at­ing fear of aggres­sion than aggres­sion itself. The second pre­sup­poses that a full-fledged inva­sion is planned and its prepa­ra­tion is being masked by the upcom­ing West-2021 mil­i­tary exercise.

In the case of a direct inva­sion of Ukraine’s ter­ri­tory, Russia would ini­ti­ate a multi-direc­tional attack from Crimea, tem­porar­ily occu­pied Donbas and pos­si­bly near Kharkiv. In this case the response from the West would include new sanc­tions, the freez­ing of Nord Steam 2, and some sort of scaling up of support for Ukraine. Polit­i­cal con­ces­sions from Ukraine and its Western part­ners are not guar­an­teed. A direct inva­sion would bring some ben­e­fits for Russia: redi­rect­ing the focus of its domes­tic pop­u­la­tion towards the “defense of their Russian com­pa­tri­ots” in Ukraine, the pos­si­ble occu­pa­tion of new ter­ri­to­ries that would poten­tially solve Crimea’s water supply prob­lems, and strength­en­ing Russia’s nego­ti­at­ing posi­tion. But there would also be costs for Russia and there­fore is less prob­a­ble than esca­la­tion without a large-scale offensive.

Another sce­nario involves the resump­tion of trench warfare in Donbas, but without changes to the front­line. This a strat­egy that has pre­vi­ously been seen and involves raising the stakes and putting Russia in stronger nego­ti­at­ing posi­tion. This may be a more ratio­nal sce­nario for Russia, but ratio­nal­ity can’t be treated as the main factor when it comes to the Russian-Ukrain­ian war.

To under­stand the prob­a­bil­ity of a new inva­sion, it is impor­tant to not only follow mes­sages from Russia and mil­i­tary maneu­vers, but also indi­rect evi­dence. Indi­ca­tors such as the deploy­ment of mobile hos­pi­tals along the Russian-Ukrain­ian border, mobi­liza­tion of locals in the tem­po­rary occu­pied areas of Donbas, and new “leg­isla­tive” mea­sures in occu­py­ing admin­is­tra­tions are all worth con­sid­er­ing. As of now, none of these steps have been taken. The mobi­liza­tion of just 200 men was announced in the so-called “Donetsk People’s Repub­lic,” which is sym­bolic rather than actual prepa­ra­tion for a new stage of the war. It is also highly unlikely an attack will be orga­nized without medical support or mea­sures to prevent locals from depart­ing non-gov­ern­ment-con­trolled ter­ri­tory. At the same time, all these maneu­vers in and around Donbas could be an attempt to dis­tract atten­tion from devel­op­ments in Crimea, where Russia con­tin­ues to station addi­tional regular army units and equip­ment. From a strate­gic per­spec­tive, the south of Ukraine (from Odessa to Mar­i­upol) would still be a major prize for the Russian Federation.

Thus, sce­nar­ios either involv­ing a new inva­sion, or resum­ing trench warfare in Donbas are pos­si­ble, though the latter seems more prob­a­ble con­sid­er­ing the ben­e­fits and losses for Russia. It is highly likely that Russia will try and use these efforts to test the West, espe­cially the USA and NATO, and to increase its weight in nego­ti­a­tions. Nev­er­the­less, an inva­sion cannot be com­pletely ruled out. The final deci­sion on whether to invade is likely depen­dent on the current signals from the West regard­ing its support for Ukraine and com­mit­ment to sanc­tion­ing Russia. The stronger these signals are, the cost­lier the inva­sion sce­nario is for Russia.

Maria Zolkina is an Analyst of the Ilko Kucheriv Demo­c­ra­tic Ini­tia­tives Foun­da­tion, Kyiv, Ukraine



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