The scale and reasons of conflict escalation in Eastern Ukraine
On March 20, Ukraine’s positions were attacked by the terrorists using Grad MB-21 MRLSs and artillery. For the first time in a long while, this kind of attack came in broad daylight, starting at 10 in the morning. Under cover of the artillery fire aimed at the trenches of Ukraine’s forces, a platoon of Russian-militant forces tried to break through, but the attack was repelled.
Official reports from ATO headquarters stated that three Ukrainian soldiers were killed and another nine were wounded. Considering the heaviness of the fire and the use of Grads, the Ukrainian side was pretty lucky. The OSCE SMM mission reported that on March 20 alone, there had been nearly 1,550 explosions, nearly 90% of which were centered around Mariupol, near Shyrokyne, Vodiane, Hnutove and Lebedynske. By comparison, the mission’s observers had recorded “only” about 200 attacks the previous day, none of them from Grads.
In addition to the Mariupol area, other infamous points along the front continue to fall under regular fire, such as the Avdiivka industrial quarter and the Butovka mine. More and more frequently these days, tanks are involved in the attacks on Ukrainian positions, but generally only one unit at a time because the locations are not suitable for massive attacks. Every day, heavy artillery, grenade launchers and anti-tank missiles are fired. Only the Luhansk area is relatively quiet, where mostly small arms are being used.
On one hand, this major uptick is probably related to the recent arrival in DNR of the latest “humanitarian” convoy from the Russian Federation. On the other, the militants appear to have switched to a new tactic: focusing on certain parts of the front as a kind of response to the “creeping advance” of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The line of contact between the two sides in Donbas is now about 430 kilometers long, making it very difficult to simultaneously carry out an offensive along the entire front without enormous quantities of personnel, equipment and resources. The new approach is making it possible to gain certain tactical advantages even with relatively small forces.
So far, this tactic has not led to much progress for DNR, as events near the Svitlodarsk Bulge, Avdiivka and now the Mariupol area has shown. Still, it’s too early to hope that these attacks are over: with real spring coming in, we can expect the appearance of more “brilliant green” and with it, enemy diversionary groups.
Provocations along the front line are intended to help Moscow deal with another objective: to get sanctions lifted. Less than two months remain until June, when the EU permanent representatives committee meets to once again consider the extension of these penalties for another half year. During this next while, Russia has to be able to show that Ukraine is the aggressor and is in violation of the Minsk accords. This is similar to last year, when heavy fighting took place outside Mariyinka and Avdiivka.
In the usual fashion, increased military aggression has been accompanied by increased media and blogger aggression as well. Some are trying to spread panic in the social networks by exaggerating the number of soldiers KIA in the Ukrainian Armed Forces or falsely reporting the loss of key positions. One new topic that has popped up is a fake story about a phenyl factory in Torets where supposedly Ukrainian units are holed up and potentially threaten a chemical catastrophe.
It’s entirely possible that, given the alreadytense political situation in Ukraine, combined military and informational attacks will continue to be used to destabilize the country. This approach is far too effective for both military and political purposes for pro-Russian forces in Ukraine and the Kremlin to change. As a pretext, any current event that can potentially divide Ukrainian society is fair game: from the language issue to IMF credits. All the more so, that there are few in the world who will respond appropriately to this kind of aggravation.
This is typically evident in Russia’s diplomatic sleights of hand with the “Yanukovych letter” supposedly calling for Russia to bring its troops to Ukraine. After the death of UN Ambassador Vitaliy Churkin, who actually read this letter at an emergency session of the UNSC in 2014, the Kremlin has officially denied that such a request from Ukraine’s fleeing president ever existed.
Meanwhile, Russia’s State Duma passed a law recognizing documents issued by the occupying regime in ORDiLO, is considering a bill offering easy terms to residents of DNR and LNR in gaining Russian citizenship and finding a job in Russia. These steps suggest that Moscow has decided to completely ignore the Minsk process and the likely acceleration of processes to return the occupied territories to Ukraine. Presumably it is doing all this to prepare for a larger number of residents to abandon the region once the Ukrainian government takes control again.
Needless to say, the RF has enough problems of its own in the international arena, even without this. The International Court of the UN recently ended its public hearings in a case against Russia brought about by Ukraine in The Hague. It’s too optimistic by half to think that this issue will be quickly resolved, but the very fact that a court case has started against the aggressor is already a plus: Russia is going to have more and more trouble presenting itself as an innocent party with good intentions. Indeed, Russia has admitted that it provided air defense systems in response to Ukraine’s using military aircraft.
In the short term, a court decision to institute temporary restrictions against the Russian Federation would be a victory for Ukraine. Such a ruling could be handed down in April. Still, despite statements by Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov that official Moscow is participating in the judiciary process and is therefore prepared to accept its rulings, enforcement will likely be a problem. The International Court has no leverage to ensure the proper carrying out of its decisions, especially with regard to Russia, which ignores any and all rules.
Other developments have been no less unpleasant for Kremlin: the exposure of a huge money-laundering operation of budget money of at least US $22 billion through Moldova and Great Britain, accusations against two members of the FSB for hacking Yahoo! servers, and difficulties with the supposedly pro-Russian US President Donald Trump. Trump was almost openly accused of treason against his country and deep ties to the RF during recent hearings held by FBI Director James Comey. A deep split in American society is almost inevitable given all this, and this will certainly play into the hands of Russia, which will take advantage of the conflagration on Capitol Hill. Maybe this is why Moscow recently proposed including the US in talks over Ukraine in the Normandy format…
GIVEN THE ALREADY-TENSE POLITICAL SITUATION IN UKRAINE, COMBINED MILITARY AND INFORMATIONAL ATTACKS WILL CONTINUE TO BE USED BY RUSSIA TO DESTABILIZE THE COUNTRY