Ag­gres­sive awak­en­ing:

The scale and rea­sons of con­flict es­ca­la­tion in Eastern Ukraine

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Yuriy La­payev

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…


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