Russia-backed self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic have placed their troops on alert as Ukrainian forces reportedly increased shelling of the Donbass. At this point, a full scale conflict does not seem very likely, although there are indications the two sides may attempt to change the status quo.
According to Russian news agency Tass, on May 16 a power supply line delivering electricity to critically important infrastructure facilities in Lugansk was damaged as a result of shelling by Kyiv troops. Leonid Pasechnik, leader of the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic, warned Ukraine that this entity would be forced to take “decisive measures and change the line of contact with the Kyiv-controlled territory if the Ukrainian side goes ahead with its shelling attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure”. At the same time, the People’s Militia of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic announced that weapons and military equipment on its territory were brought to combat readiness. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, on the other hand, has said he wanted to show the whole world that Ukraine has a very strong army, but it does not want to provoke. He pointed out that if the Russia-back forces open fire, Ukrainian troops will respond, but will not attack first.
Such rhetoric, at least when it comes to pro-Russia forces, is merely an empty threat. Without involvement of regular Russian troops, the Donbass republics have no chance against Ukrainian army. People’s Militia of the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic does not have capabilities to remove the front-line and push Ukrainian troops back from crucial power supply lines. The Donetsk Militia can withhold Ukrainian forces for a certain time in case Kyiv decides to start a full-scale military offensive, but it cannot capture any new territory.
Ukraine, on the other hand, will not start any offensives until it gets the green-light from Washington, which at this point does not seem very probable. The main problem for Kyiv is that Moscow refuses to provide firm guarantees that it will not intervene to protect its proxies in the Donbass. That is why for both, Ukraine and Russia, the Minsk agreements remain a priority, although not a single point of the deal has been implemented for the past five years. In spite of that, Ukrainian and Russian leaders keep negotiating, although they occasionally create an illusion that a status quo on the ground can change very soon.
For instance, the famous pro-Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov recently hosted few Ukrainian pundits and told them if Ukraine wants to be respected by the people of the Donbass, it should withdraw its troops, change the law that gives Ukrainian the status of “the only official state language”, and start paying pensions and other social payments to people living in the self-proclaimed Donbass republics. That is something the Kremlin has been insisting on for years, but it is very improbable that Kyiv will obey to Russian demanads. On the other hand, Ukrainian propagandist Dmitriy Gordon recently interviewed Russian military veteran and an ex KGB officer Igor Strelkov, as well as Natalia Poklonskaya who is serving as Deputy of the State Duma of Russia. Apparently, the two interviews will be studied as possible extra evidence of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Even though the Kremlin attempts to camouflage its activities in the Donbass, it is no secret that Moscow supports the self-proclaimed republics. The West already has plenty of evidence of Russian involvement in the Donbass conflict, although it can impose severe sanctions against Russia even without any evidence, or simply with fabricated ones. The very fact that the United States and the European Union so far have restrained from suspending Russian banks from SWIFT financial messaging service is a clear sign that the West still sees the Kremlin as a partner, rather than an enemy. However, in this geopolitical game, Russia acts as a “younger partner” and often has to make conceptions to the West.
When it comes to Ukraine, it represents merely a chess-board. Presently, Moscow controls Crimea and eastern Donbass, while the United States and its European allies have control over the rest of the country. In spite of harsh rhetoric and threats from both sides in this conflict, the Donbass remains heavily integrated with the Russian Federation. Hundreds of thousands of its residents already have Russian passports, its economic and monetary systems are linked with Russia, and at this point a return of the Donbass to Ukraine does not look realistic.
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