Escalation on the Donbas front as Russia and Ukraine renew face-off

Since January of this year, tensions are running high between Ukraine and Russia as fighting intensifies in the Donbas region. Kyiv has accused Moscow of seeking a pretext to launch a major military operation, a claim which Russia has denied.

Fighting and insecurity have been common in the Donbas region since the summer of 2014, when pro-Russian separatist groups, including the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the “Lugansk People’s Republic,” emerged following widespread anti-government protests in the region. At least 13,000 people have been killed and nearly 1.5 million displaced thus far. Russia is accused of providing military support to the separatists, whose conflict with the Ukrainian state continued despite two ceasefire agreements being signed in September 2014 and February 2015. The intensity of the fighting decreased after the second agreement, which was brokered by then-French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Following a lull in fighting since mid-2020, clashes have intensified in recent weeks. Since the start of 2021, 26 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed, which is already over half the total number of Ukrainian troops who died in 2020. The uptick began after Russia dramatically increased its presence near the conflict zone, raising international fears about a possible land invasion. Russia has not denied reports of its military buildup, but insisted that the move was not intended to threaten their Ukrainian neighbours. Ominously, however, Russian leaders have said that they believe an escalation in the conflict would “destroy” Ukraine and that they would not “remain indifferent to the fate of Russian-speaking minorities”. In response, Ukrainian leaders urged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to speed up its membership and called upon Western leaders to stand with their country. United States (US) President Joe Biden vowed that there would be consequences if Russia acts aggressively towards Ukraine. Such rhetoric and actions make a de-escalation unlikely in the near-term, and threaten to exacerbate tensions between Russia and the West, as well as Russia and Ukraine.

The fighting also comes after the Ukrainian government launched a crackdown on Russian oligarchs in the country and joined US efforts to fight the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline connecting Russia with Germany. Abandonment of the pipeline would be a significant strategic and diplomatic victory for Kyiv.

In May, NATO forces will conduct a strategic deployment in Europe called “Defender Europe 2021”. Thirty-one thousand troops from a dozen countries will practice deploying to Ukraine’s borders, the Black Sea region, Kaliningrad and Baltic fleet bases. Minsk and Moscow will respond a little later with the joint strategic command exercise “West-2021” on the territory of Belarus. This prospect of large-scale military manoeuvres in the near future does not seem likely to ease tensions.

A Russian breakthrough in Ukraine is highly unlikely, due to the human and financial costs and the blowback of such an operation. The current Russian military deployment is a manoeuvre of intimidation, which seems to be a “stress test” for the new American administration. Indeed, a return to calm, if not an end to the conflict, cannot be achieved without negotiations between the United States and Russia.

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