April in Eastern Europe: will the Donbas conflict turn hot?5 min read
The war in eastern Ukraine has become secondhand for the most recent of the “frozen conflicts” that dot the landscape of the former Soviet Union. By definition, there is neither war nor peace in the Donbas region where Ukraine’s government is locked in a standstill with two self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, protected by their patron, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. A frozen conflict however always is at risk of turning hot, and in recent days, the heat has gone up and capitals from Washington to Moscow are concerned about a restart of the war in the Donbas.
On 26 March, the war scare began when Ukraine announced that four of its soldiers were killed in the Donbas, raising the casualty figure to 28 since the last ceasefire was agreed on between the belligerents. Four days later, chief of the general staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, General Ruslan Khomchak warned that Russian soldiers and equipment were massing on Ukraine’s border “under the guise of preparing for strategic exercises.” Russia denied its exercises were dangerous, but Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned a new war would “destroy Ukraine.”
To be sure, Russia announced in advance that it would be conducting maneuvers in the region, including a paratrooper exercise in the occupied Crimean Peninsula on 17 March. But in an ominous sign, the United States military’s European Command (EUCOM) raised its threat level from “potential crisis” to “possible imminent crisis” after noting Russian troops remaining in the area after their drills and unit types that didn’t appear to add up to what Russia said would be present. According to the OSCE monitoring mission, daily ceasefire violations are higher since the same reporting period last year.
Deciphering Russia’s motives behind its recent maneuvers is anyone’s guess, but no decision-maker or analyst in Ukraine or the West wants to be caught off-guard as they were when Russian military movements in 2014 masked both the takeover of Crimea and the incursion into the Donbas. At the same time, miscalculation leading to an escalation cycle towards a wider war is every strategist’s worst nightmare.
Once viewed as a “dove” on Russia compared to others like former president Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, President Volodomyr Zelensky has undermined that narrative by taking a stronger stance vis-à-vis Russia and the Ukrainian pro-Russian party Opposition Platform. In February, Zelensky ordered the shutdown of three pro-Russian television channels owned by Viktor Medvedchuk, a politician with personal ties to Vladimir Putin. This decision has followed a tougher tone taken on the Donbas as well. In a sign that this shift has thrown off political rivals, Poroshenko apologized for not acting sooner to shut down pro-Russian platforms and the Opposition Platform is retaliating by seeking Zelensky’s impeachment.
In Russia, President Putin is still grappling with the enduring protest movement that followed political dissident Alexei Navalny’s return to Russia and his immediate detention. With parliamentary elections in September and Putin’s United Russia suffering from record-low approval ratings, there is a belief that Moscow may be brushing dust off an old playbook by looking to escalate abroad in a bid to boost Putin’s standing. Recently, Putin signed a bill that would allow him to run for two more terms in office, but sagging support among younger Russians and an anemic economy does not promise him a painless future.
Russia’s largely state-owned media is usually a fair barometer for getting some sense of the Kremlin’s mindset. For days, headlines questioning if Ukraine was seeking war and other stories including the killing of a child by a Ukrainian drone. That particular story was debunked, but agitprop like this has been a frequent tool for stirring public opinion against Kyiv throughout the Donbas war. There has also been increased talk of the Donbas separatists joining Russia, who has granted many citizenship in recent years.
Ukraine also feels a stronger sense of confidence because of the changing international situation. US President Joe Biden reassured Zelensky of Washington’s “unwavering support” in their first phone call last Friday and his defense secretary Lloyd Austin reiterated a commitment to Ukraine’s security. Zelensky may feel buoyed by Biden’s support, enough so that he called for an acceleration of Kyiv’s plans for joining NATO, something deeply opposed by Russia.
Many commentators view recent moves by Putin as “saber-rattling” to test the strength of Biden’s commitment to Ukraine. Combined with a witch’s brew of domestic incentives in Russia and Ukraine as well as a tense international backdrop, all the ingredients are there for the situation to spiral out of control.
There is reason to be cautiously optimistic that it will not reach that point though. In the past, Russia has escalated in Ukraine in either a test of American resolve or to blunt military losses of its proxies. A short victorious war would be politically helpful for Putin, as it was in 2014, but the risks of a full-blown war may prompt a pause. Ukraine’s military leaders also portrayed the Russian build-up as likely a provocation to build diplomatic leverage as General Khomchak said in late March. Ukrainian intelligence echoed this but did not rule out a possibility of a larger Russian offensive.
Biden, while supportive of Ukraine, is more focused on China, climate change, and COVID-19 and is disinclined to goad Kyiv into war with Moscow. Shortly after Zelensky called for Ukraine to accelerate the process of joining NATO, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it was an “aspiration” and that the decision was not Washington’s to make on its own. The unspoken message may be that the US is committed to Ukraine, but it is still keen to mind Russia’s sensitivities in line with years of US foreign policy.
It is never easy to confidently say when a frozen conflict will thaw or if misread calculations will open the door to another tragic war in Europe. That said, there is cause for at least cautious optimism that Ukrainians will be spared more violence if tensions ease and political resolve to resist stumbling into war prevails.