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Donbass: Conflict Escalation Or Empty Threats?

Donbass: Conflict Escalation Or Empty Threats?
Battalion Donbass Open training
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Russian president Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart met for the first time on December 9 in Paris but they did not make much progress in resolving the Donbass conflict. In the meantime, both sides are reportedly preparing for a new potential – although not very likely – “hot phase” of the war that has been smoldering for the past five years.

According to some reports, the Ukrainian army is already holding drills which aim is to gear up for potential flighting in urban areas, as well as to enhance its ability to remove mines. Since the Donbass is an energy-rich region, it is likely that the Western-backed Ukrainian forces are getting ready to reinstate control over coal mines that are currently held by Russia-backed self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic. On the other hand, Vladislav Surkov, who is Putin’s personal adviser on relationships with Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ukraine, recently in Moscow organized the fifth congress of the Union of Donbass Volunteers. Reportedly, he told Russian volunteers, as well as current and former commanders of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic military forces, to get ready for a “worsening of the situation”. They were also told that “Russia does not intend to betray the Donbass”, and that there is no difference between former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the current country’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky. 

“Foreign powers that stand behind the Ukrainian puppet government do not want peace. They want a war with Russia. We are aware that the full-scale war will start sooner or later”, said Alexander Borodai, the chairman of the Union of Donbass Volunteers. This native Muscovite, who was the first Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, added that the war in the Donbass will get back to an active phase, and that Russian volunteers should be ready.

It is worth mentioning that the Donetsk People’s Republic recently defined its borders within the limits of Ukraine’s Donetsk’s oblast. Also, the Lugansk People’s Republic leadership announced that a law defining the borders of the republic within the limits of Ukraine’s Lugansk region will soon be enacted. That, however, does not mean that Russia will soon start a “land grab” in Ukraine. These moves and statements could rather be interpreted as Russian pressure on Kyiv to make a compromise over the gas dispute between the two countries. It is expected that Russia and Ukraine will sign a new gas deal by the end of the month. According to the Russian President, Moscow wants to maintain natural gas transit through Ukraine after two new pipelines are put into action.

“Despite the construction of new infrastructure projects such as Nord Stream, Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream, we will maintain transit via Ukraine,” the Russian leader said.

One of the main obstacles during the Russia-Ukraine energy talks was the fact that Kyiv sought a long-term deal that would also ensure such supplies, while Moscow was reportedly seeking only a short-term agreement. It remains to be seen what the final terms will be.

On the other hand, Moscow and Kyiv are still far from any agreement on the Donbass. The Kremlin insists on a direct dialogue between the authorities in Kyiv and leaders of the Donbass republics. Ukraine strongly denies such demands, as it is aware that the Donbass representatives are merely Russian proxies. Since the Kremlin is aware that Ukraine is heavily under the US sphere of influence, any peace agreements will be possible only after direct talks between Moscow and Washington.

In the meantime, many thousands of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic residents will keep getting Russian citizenship, and these entities will continue their de facto integration with the Russian Federation. Unless Ukraine starts a major military offensive, there will unlikely be a hot phase of the war. Instead, people on the both sides of the front line will keep living under constant shelling, and sporadic fights have already become a daily reality for the local population.

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