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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