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