Amid worrying signs that a new military offensive might be launched by Kremlin-backed separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine, the Foreign Ministers of the “Normandy Format” – namely Russian Sergei Lavrov, German Frank-Walter Steinmeier, French Laurent Fabius, and Ukrainian Pavlo Klimkin – met in Berlin on April 13 to discuss the further implementation of the Minsk 2 cease-fire agreement. The four representatives agreed to increase the pace of the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the contact line in Donbass. In the wake of the Berlin talks, the withdrawal now extends to tanks and armored vehicles, mortars, and small arms below 100 mm in caliber.
Despite continued political talks at the highest level, Western governments and the authorities in Kyiv have consistently pointed out the constant strengthening of military positions on the separatist side over the past few weeks, seemingly preparing for what increasingly looks like a “spring offensive”. The OSCE reported a “massive increase” in the number of cease-fire violations in mid-April and the Ukrainian government argued repeatedly that Russian troops were concentrating on the border with Ukraine. American and NATO sources also reported this month a “train-and-equip” scheme directly conducted by Russian forces in the Donbass region aimed at making separatist forces combat-ready at the battalion level and well-stocked with Russian equipment for a new bout of military advances. The recent weeks also saw the rationalization of the railway transit around the separatist city of Debalsteve, the logistical heart of the Donbass, in order to send military hardware and equipment more efficiently along the contact line, in preparation for a new offensive. In this, the scenario takes after the unfolding of events that took place in Georgia in August 2008, right before Russia’s military intervention in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In this, it alarmingly seems that the issue is now not to know whether a new offensive will take place but when and where. The fear of a joint operation between Donetsk and Lugansk rebel forces takes precedence over the fact that Russian weapons systems and armored vehicles have been continuously moved along the front line towards Mariupol in the South and towards Sloviansk in Northwest. On the separatist side, troops are highly motivated to resume fighting and conquer more territories, as part of an almost messianic mission at the benefice of “Holy Russia” and the fundamentally religious aftertaste carried by Novorossia, the Kremlin’s test aimed at fomenting regional separatism.
Several military options are foreseeable, should a new offensive take place:
- Open up a “land corridor” towards Crimea by taking the coastal city of Mariupol and possibly move towards Odessa. In this, the recent creation of the “People’s Council of Bessarabia” might represent a new way for Russia to conquer, inadequately so, the hearts and minds of local populations in a hostile environment.
- Take over territories in Northwestern Ukraine to completely cut the Russian-Ukrainian border and keep it under the control of separatists. This would terminate the application of the Minsk 2 provision encompassing Ukrainian border control over the bilateral demarcation, and reinforce the idea of Donbass as a buffer zone.
- “Push” towards the Dnieper river as much as possible, towards Kyiv if need be, and establish new defensive lines in order to keep Novorossia alive as a construct as well as rationalize the territorial existence of the Donbass region.
Yet a new military offensive initiated by Moscow would have to be covered by the excuse of a separatist action, not a move orchestrated by the Kremlin – Russia’s footprint will necessarily be harder to detect in this unfolding of events. Before fostering a new wave of military adventurism, the Kremlin will need a trigger, or at least a spark, to justify the intervention using separatist proxies in Donbass. Several geostrategic factors therefore need to be closely watched:
- The direct application of the Minsk 2 agreements and the muted willingness of Western actors to let it slowly slide into non-existence, should Russia perceive it to be the case.
- The potential creation of a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine, taking the form of a European Police Mission under a United Nations mandate: this Ukrainian initiative is criticized, more than loathed, by the Kremlin as setting up new conditions under the Minsk 2 agreements and a definite infringement of Russia’s interests in Donbass. The deployment of such a mission is going nowhere as of today but could rekindle in the weeks to come.
- The construction of the “Great Wall of Ukraine”, a defensive fortification project aimed at physically shielding Ukraine from Russia along a strip of more than 2,000 km on the Russian-Ukrainian border. The physical embodiment of a closed border might talk Russia into killing the project altogether by showing military strength.
- Developments with NATO and Western countries, including the potential lethal arms deal with the United States and the signature by Kyiv of further political declarations with the Atlantic Alliance. Recent destabilization efforts by Russia, including putting the nuclear threshold on the map over Ukraine, speak volume.
- Developments in Ukrainian internal politics, and most importantly a potential collapse of the government over security, internal reforms, debt restructuring, and oligarchic management issues. Under the guise of the protection of Russian minorities in Ukraine threatened by a “failed” government, the Kremlin would have an avenue for intervention.
- The relationship between Kyiv and Donbass, amidst the organization of local elections on 25 October and the need for decentralization: Kyiv is voluntarily slowing down the pace of these reforms, which are conversely deemed fundamental for Moscow as full-fledged components of the Minsk 2 agreements. Failure to comply in Kyiv might talk the Kremlin into pressuring the Ukrainian government even more.
Upon seeking to complete a process of “finlandization” of the separatist Donbass, Moscow needs to keep the wheels spinning in order to ensure a continued influence, both militarily and politically, in the “People’s Republics”. In the end, the now frozen conflict in Donbass might not remain so for long. The coming weeks, if not days, will prove decisive in the evolution of a conflict that endangers both European security and the very workings of the post-Cold War international system.