Watching closely: Escalating Tensions in Donbass

Since February 2021, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has registered several ceasefire violations in the Eastern Ukrainian breakaway region of Donbass. ​The ceasefire was agreed upon in July 2020, when the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) and Russian-backed Donbass separatists accorded “full suspension of hostilities” with the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the frontlines on July 27th. ​The OSCE has observed the renewal of heavy weaponry presence in the region; on February 17th, 2021, a Russian ​51U6 Kasta-2E1 target was identified southwest of Luhansk, ​while ​Ukrinform reported the armed formations of the Russian Federation violated the ceasefire in the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) area 21 times solely on March 9​. Since the signing of the 2015 Minsk Agreement, violations have been common, with frequent engagement in limited trench warfare at flashpoints along the former frontline by both parties.5​ ​Although​ the small-scale skirmishes have been a long time characteristic of the conflict, there has been a revived possibility that the ongoing provocations could lead to the onset of a full-scale conflict in the region.

Tensions have been escalating between Ukraine and Russia with notable acts by the Ukrainian President to counter Russian interference

Tensions have been escalating between Ukraine and Russia with notable acts by the Ukrainian President to counter Russian interference. ​In February 2021, Volodymyr Zelensky banned three pro-Russian television channels and imposed sanctions on the pro-Russian opposition leader, ​Viktor Medvedchuk, who was accused of “financing Donbass terrorists.” ​The President noted that, ​”The fight for independence is a fight in the information war for truth & European values.” ​ ​​Russian Foreign ​Ministry Spokeswoman​, Maria Zakharova, responded to the Ukrainian advance saying, “We would like to warn the Kyiv regime, the hotheads who serve or manipulate it, about further escalation and attempts at implementing a force scenario in Donbass.” ​In turn, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry advisor, ​Valery Potseluyko, emphasized Ukraine’s willingness to launch an offensive operation, asserting that “We understood there would be a serious response from Moscow to our moves against pro-Russian TV channels and Medvedchuk; but the time to begin a military offensive is wrong—the fields must first dry up [awaiting the end of mud season].” ​If Ukraine is indeed ready to engage in major offensive warfare, the once limited engagement could result in an eruption of conflict similar to that of the start of the war in 2014.

The renewed tensions have come amidst the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the West. There have been prevailing efforts by the United States and European states to denounce and end Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine. On March 2, President Biden announced a $125 million dollar military aid package to Ukraine, citing the preservation of the country’s territorial integrity, border security, and improvement of interoperability with NATO as its purpose.1​ 0​ Moreover, the European Union and the U.S. have prolonged Russian sanctions for ​”those responsible for undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence” of Ukraine​.”

President Zelensky has been particularly adamant about resolving the conflict in Ukraine’s favor with the West’s help, as his political reputation is contingent upon it

While Ukraine has aimed to make strides in the conflict with the Donbass Peace Plan, a conjoined proposal with Germany and France, which would re-incorporate the breakaway region, Kremlin refuses to bite, stating it, “knows nothing of the plan,” thus signaling an unwillingness to cooperate and an increased possibility of prolongation of the conflict.​ President Zelensky has been particularly adamant about resolving the conflict in Ukraine’s favor with the West’s help, as his political reputation is contingent upon it. The failure to fulfill the promises of his campaign would otherwise breed unpopularity amongst Ukrainians. ​However, the situation has been exacerbated by continuous Russian infringement and support for separatists in the region,​ whose factions and de-facto governing bodies in Donetsk and Luhansk have displayed outward desire for Russian annexation. ​Albeit Russia claims no direct military involvement in the conflict, it has repeatedly stated its support for the “the people of Donbass.” By maneuvering the East’s status quo, the Kremlin gains leverage over the Ukrainian central government, ensuring they do not gain accession into the European Union or NATO. Ideally, Moscow aims to install a pro-Russian government. It has persistently tried to Russify Donbass; just last year (2020), the Kremlin sanctioned the distribution of ​one million passports to Ukrainian citizens1​ 4​ in the East, ensuring further resentment and separation from the Ukrainian central government. The trend will likely persist, with the region’s further detachment from Ukrainian culture and outlook.

The future seems volatile with the ever increasing loss of life and deterioration of conditions in the region; the United Nations estimates place fatalities involved with the conflict at over 13,000 as of mid-2020. A further ​3.4 million people are projected to be in need of humanitarian assistance in 2021. ​As the COVID-19 crisis has caused the unrestricted use of key infrastructure to become increasingly necessary in attending to public health, the conflict’s escalation could likely result in a humanitarian crisis.

The Editor: Miriam Yakobashvili

Miriam Yakobashvili is an international relations BA student at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. She has focused on research in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, previously interning at the U.S. Ukraine Foundation and researching for a University of Georgetown Professor. Speaking four languages, English, Russian, Spanish, and Georgian, Miriam’s research interests vary with writings concerning Kurdistan Regional Government and occupied regions around the world. 

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