Since the beginning of the year, the situation along the 450km long front line has deteriorated – the number of shellings has increased and so has the amount of casualties. “A Sense of Danger”, “Is The New War in Donbass Real?”, “When Will The War in Donbass Begin?” – these are just a few examples of headlines from the Russian press in March. The Ukrainian media noted the change of the region’s situation in a more balanced way, but also with concern. The newspapers went for headlines such as: “New War or Local Operation” and “End of Ceasefire?”
Who believes in the ceasefire?
When you drive down the hill to the village of Zolote 4 in Luhansk Oblast, you will see a panorama of slag heaps and a mine shaft with buildings scattered around it. About 500 people live here. On a warm July day last year, 36 hours before the announced ceasefire, the village was peaceful. The shops in the centre were open, children were playing in the street.
But this peace was illusory. The village is right next to the front line. Suddenly one can hear single shots from automatic weapons, which quickly turn into a cannonade. The bursts of gunfire are then joined by blasts from grenade launchers, and explosions of mortar shells. For the locals this is normal. As our group of observers from the international mission on behalf of the Vostok SOS organisation leaves Zolote 4, we watch the battle from the hill behind the village. There is an abandoned observation post of the OSCE mission nearby. We can hear the sound of gunshots and see the smoke from the explosion of shells.
The constant shelling has been haunting the local population for years, and there are many places like this along the front line. The ceasefire, which came into effect on 27 July 2020, meant quiet days for the people living close to the front line. It is true that the guns did not fall completely silent, but these were isolated incidents compared to the previous prolonged shelling. This was the case until at least November, when we went back to Zolote.
Neither in July nor in November did the people there believe that the ceasefire would last, remembering how the previous ones had ended. President Volodymyr Zelensky believed in it though. On 26 July he spoke to Vladimir Putin, who, according to a statement from the Office of the President of Ukraine, “supported the agreement”.
“A year ago, during the same period, on average, one of our soldiers was killed every 72 hours. Now there are weeks, or even months without any dead or wounded”, said Zelensky on 6 December, the 133rd day of the ceasefire.
The president’s opponents, on the other hand, pointed out that the tactic of complete abstention from offensive actions is a mistake, as it allows the enemy to strengthen its position. Already in the autumn, Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers were alarmed that sniper groups had become active, completely disregarding the ceasefire.
The number of shellings began to increase at the beginning of the new year. As did the number of casualties on the Ukrainian side. If only four soldiers were killed and 15 wounded during the five months of the 2020 ceasefire, 24 were killed in less than three months in 2021. In February, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported 180 violations of the ceasefire.
“The peace process is over – sniper groups are active, shelling continues, war is going on”, Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in early February.
Revange for Medvedchuk?
In early February, Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council froze all the domestic assets of Taras Kozak, an MP from the pro-Russian party Opposition Platform – For Life. The reason was because he carried out illegal coal trade with self-proclaimed republics in the Donbass. Three television channels were also sanctioned and closed down: NewOne, ZIK and 112.ua, all formally owned by Kozak. According to Ukrainian media, the real owner of the shutdown TV channels is one of the main pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, Viktor Medvedchuk, Kozak’s business partner. On 19 February, the politician nicknamed “Putin’s buddy” [editor’s note: Putin is a godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter] was targeted with further sanctions. The Ukrainian politician has been in close contact with the Russian president for many years, and has played a special role in relations between Moscow and Kiev since the beginning of the war in Donbass during Petro Poroshenko’s term.
Ukrainian journalists have been questioning whether the economic sanctions affecting him will lead to retaliatory action from Russia. A day after Medvedchuk’s accounts were frozen, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Kiev’s “reactionary approach” raised concerns about Ukrainian leadership’s potential readiness to “resolve the situation in the southeast of the country by military means.”
At the same time, the Russian media began an attack – with Dmitry Kiselyov and Vladimir Solovyov leading the way as usual [editor’s note: head of the government-owned international news agency Rossiya Segodnya and high-profile television host respectively]. In their programs one could hear that Ukraine is preparing for a great war against the “republics”. Solovyov warned that Ukrainian aggression could end badly for the Ukrainian state. The guests talked about the possibility of expanding the territories of the “republics”.
In other media, Russian experts indicated that the Ukrainian government is impressed by Azerbaijan’s success in Nagorno-Karabakh and also intends to use Bayraktar combat drones purchased in Turkey for offensive operations in Donbass.
However, the escalation in eastern Ukraine did not begin after the introduction of sanctions against Medvedchuk. The number of shellings had already increased in January.
On the day the sanctions against Medvedchuk were announced, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, Oleksiy Danilov, also announced that the Council had decided to re-examine “the five scenarios for the development of the situation in Donbass.”
The public learned about the existence of these scenarios just before the December 2019 summit of the leaders of the Normandy Format (France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine) in Paris. No details were given, probably in order to strengthen Zelensky’s negotiating position. Nonetheless, the public was speculating that one of the scenarios might involve renewed large-scale combat operations.
Peace (not) at any price
Zelensky named ending the war in Donbass as one of the main goals of his presidency. In September 2019, a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine was accomplished. 35 Ukrainian citizens, including the film director Oleh Sentsov, returned to the country. Moreover, Ukraine has implemented the agreement signed in 2016 and withdrew military units from three small sections on the front line.
Kiev also agreed to accept the so-called Steinmeier formula, ie to implement the special status of the separated Donbass regions on the day of local elections in the area – provided that they are conducted in accordance with the Ukrainian constitution and comply with international democratic standards. This sparked protests from some patriotic circles in Ukraine, accusing the president of making concessions to Russia.
Zelensky himself sought direct dialogue with the Russian president and the unblocking of talks of the so-called Normandy Format, established to settle the conflict in Donbass. It had been frozen since 2016. The meeting of the leaders of the “Normandy Four” took place on 9 December 2019 in Paris. A week earlier, in an interview with four foreign editors, Zelensky once again reiterated that what matters to him above all is human life, and therefore he will not use military force to end the war in Donbass.
The Paris summit was a multidimensional test for Zelensky. First of all, it was his first meeting with Putin. There was no breakthrough and there could not be one. “We unblocked the dialogue, which is very positive”, said Zelensky after the meeting. The statement released after the summit indicated that the sides agreed on a “full and comprehensive” ceasefire and the exchange of “all prisoners associated with the conflict” by the end of the year. A partial exchange was carried out on 29 December. Another summit was supposed to take place a few months later, but a pandemic got in the way. Even without Covid-19, the meeting would have been unlikely to take place. Russia clearly had different expectations of the new Ukrainian president. Zelensky also had civil society exercising pressure on him not to cross the “red lines” by making too many concessions.
New curator of the “republics”: different methods, same goal
After the Paris summit, Moscow made a significant change in personnel. In January 2020, Russian and Ukrainian media reported that the former Kremlin “curator of the self-proclaimed republics in Donbass”, Vladislav Surkov, had been replaced by Dmitry Kozak.
Surkov has done a lot to establish Putin’s system of power. He is the author of the concept of “sovereign democracy” and is also credited with politicising the concept of russkiy mir by the Kremlin [editor’s note: revanchist idea of the restoration of Russia’s influence back to the borders of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire]. In 2013, he became Putin’s envoy for relations with the Ukrainian president. Soon Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign an association agreement with the EU and the Euromaidan started. Surkov used to fly to Kiev back then, but it was Yanukovych who ultimately lost.
But the Russian president’s adviser rejoined the political game by starting the “Russian Spring” in Donbass. Moscow officially claimed that “it does not exist”. At the same time, a Russian unit under the command of Igor Girkin captured Slavyaadvnsk in April. War broke out in the Donbass, and Surkov became the curator of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. In a recently revealed excerpt from a conversation between Medvedchuk and Surkov that took place in late 2014, the Kremlin representative refers to the fighters in the Donbass as his “protégés”.
Surkov is credited with the unfulfilled idea of creating a “New Russia” in southeastern Ukraine. He believes that Donbass should become a zone of Russian influence outside Ukrainian jurisdiction. His views on the region are well illustrated by an interview he gave in February 2020, in which he stated that Ukraine “does not currently exist”, but that “the Ukrainians (he used a derogatory term) are stubborn in their will to create it”, adding that it was unclear, however, within what borders.
The replacement of Surkov with Kozak as deputy head of the presidential administration has sparked a number of speculations about possible changes in Russian policy on the Donbass issue. For Kozak, this line of activity was not entirely new – he was already in charge of Russia’s economic relations with the “republics” in Surkov’s time.
Some saw in Kozak’s arrival a chance for progress in settling the conflict in eastern Ukraine, pointing out that he is more direct than Surkov and, unlike him, does not play backroom games. Sceptics responded that Kozak is only a tool and one should not expect any changes, because these depend on one person: Putin.
In the context of Donbass, it is worth recalling Kozak’s attempt to settle the conflict in Transnistria in 2003 [editor’s note: Transnistria is a Russian-controlled breakaway state between the river Dniester and the Ukrainian border that is internationally recognised as part of Moldova]. At that time he presented a plan that assumed federalisation of Moldova, in which not only Transnistria, but also Gagauzia, would receive special status and would be able to block the legislative initiatives of Chisinau. Ultimately the plan was not signed, but the idea itself is in line with Russia’s plans for Ukraine, ie attempts to impose the idea of federalisation and “anchoring” the special status of Donbass in the constitution.
No real progress
The ceasefire introduced in July last year had been the only, although very significant, achievement in the Donbass conflict. Relations in the Normandy and Minsk Formats did not lead to progress on other levels. Not even further exchanges of detainees in the “republics” took place.
In the autumn, Russia proposed its plan for settling the conflict, by proposing the following order of action: first, the creation of separate regions by implementing changes in the Ukrainian constitution and then adopting the law on the special status of Donbass. In response, Ukraine prepared a “Plan of Joint Steps”, presenting a “traditionally” Ukrainian idea for the course of action: releasing all detainees, increasing in the number of OSCE missions, removal of all armed forces from Donbass, disbanding local illegal troops, and finally, Ukraine regaining control over the border. According to the plan, only this paves the way for holding local elections.
Boris Gryzlov, the Russian representative in the Trilateral Contact Group, including representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE, for the peaceful settlement of the situation in eastern Ukraine stated that this proposal is a revision of the 2015 Minsk agreements. He also indicated that Kiev is primarily interested in the next summit of the Normandy Format leaders, which is true as Ukraine rightly believes that international partners guarantee continuing negotiations with Russia. The latter has been trying for years to convince the international community that it is not involved in the conflict in the Donbass, which is an internal Ukrainian problem, and Kiev should talk directly with the “republics”.
The partner for the talks with Kozak on the Ukrainian side is the head of the Ukrainian President’s Office, Andriy Yermak. On 9 March, he reported that France and Germany, with the assistance of Ukraine, presented Russia a renewed plan to settle the conflict.
“As for the ‘new peace plan’, it is not on the negotiation table. This is another myth”, Kozak said in an interview with Interfax. At the same time, he stated that France and Germany tried to agree on recommendations for the Trilateral Contact Group and passed them on to Russia and Ukraine. It is about the plan for the implementation of the Minsk agreements from 12 February 2015. The document intended to settle the conflict contains 13 points on both security and political issues. To date, even the first of them, stipulating a full ceasefire, has not been implemented.
On 24 March, Russia’s “Kommersant” published proposals by France and Germany for the implementation of the Minsk agreements, as well as amendments by Russia and Ukraine, and comments by representatives of the “republics” (without, however, having confirmed the reliability of all these documents). The difference between the Russian and Ukrainian variants traditionally concerns the order of implementation of individual points of the agreements. Russia agrees for establishing Ukrainian control over the border with Russia only after the elections, whereas Kiev insists on doing it before.
The point about legalising the “people’s militia” on the territories controlled by pro-Russian militants may also cause controversy in Ukrainian society. The problem is that today the heavy-armed corps of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics carry the name of people’s militia. Moreover, the idea of joint patrolling by Ukrainian police and the “people’s militia” with OSCE support may be received with reluctance in Ukraine.
The Russian version of the documents confirms Moscow’s previous desire to shift the talks from the international Normandy Format to the Minsk Format, where representatives of the “republics” are present. Kiev wants the main talks to remain in the Normandy Format, which doesn’t include the “republics” but Russia, which Ukraine considers the aggressor. So the situation remains a stalemate.
It is quite possible that the escalation that has been progressing since January is primarily an attempt by Russia to pressure the Ukrainian government and force it into compromise. The leaked Russian documents indicate that so far this has not been successful.
Fighting on several fronts
The head of the Ukrainian delegation in the Minsk-based Trilateral Contact Group, Leonid Kravchuk, said in an interview with Deutsche Welle in late February that Zelensky had already understood that no agreement could be reached with Russia. The firm stance of the patriotic part of society warning Zelensky against crossing “red lines” during the street protests pushed him towards this realisation.
Zelensky himself is currently fighting on several fronts, all directly or indirectly related to Russia. In addition to the ongoing conflict in Donbass, he has announced a diplomatic offensive related to Crimea, which was annexed in 2014. The president launched the Crimean Platform, an international format for talks on the future of the peninsula that is part of the “Strategy for the Deoccupation and Reintegration of Crimea”. The summit inaugurating this initiative is to be held on 23 August. Russia considers the subject of Crimea closed, so it reacts nervously to any move by Kiev on this issue. By imposing sanctions on Medvedchuk, and the people connected with him and his business, Zelensky has hit the interests of pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, and everything indicates that this is not the end.
Russian state media have been displaying the disappointment with the Ukrainian president for a long time now. This means that Russia no longer has any reason to keep quiet on Donbass. For the time being, however, there is no indication that another “great war” is coming. However, the scenario of an escalation with an increasing number of casualties is very real.