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“Strange war”: The internal and external political aspects of the ongoing bloodshed in the Donbass

The war between the Donetsk and Lugansk self-defenders and Kiev’s anti-terrorist forces has started again. The failure of the last week’s foreign ministerial talks in Berlin left no doubts that it would start. The only things the sides agreed on then were the next meeting of the contact group and the criteria they had to apply to withdraw their military hardware from the demarcation line fixed in the Minsk Protocol, but the Jan 23 shelling of Donetsk and the death of bus passengers near a local tram stop put an end to that modest result. After the incident, Premier of Donetsk People’s Republic Alexander Zakharchenko said, “We will be advancing towards the borders of Donetsk region and will make no more attempts to talk about ceasefire.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted urging to convoke the contact group. She also said that the talks between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union were quite possible. Later, the German Foreign Ministry disavowed her words by saying that they had not offered the Kremlin any specific economic benefits in exchange for peace in Ukraine. Perhaps, they in the Kremlin just ignored Merkel’s move. In any case, her contact group initiative has been left unanswered.

Thus, the goals of the self-defense forces are much wider than just to push the front far enough from Donetsk so as to make that city safe from new bombings. The goal they have declared – reaching the borders of Donetsk Region – has obvious political motives. The official reason why the Minsk ceasefire was wrecked was the sides’ controversy over where the demarcation line should be. Russian president’s last proposal to apply the Minsk agreements to the de facto existing contact line was dismissed by US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power. She called it unacceptable and “legitimizing the territories occupied by the separatists.” So, the key reason why the self-defenders seek to advance to the administrative border of Donetsk region may be their wish to fix a specific dividing line so as to be able to negotiate “autonomy” for Donetsk and Lugansk. The real motives of the self-defense forces will become known in the course of the war.

Very soon, we will see if their goal is just to drive the anti-terrorist forces out of the Donbass or to beat them with quick splitting attacks. With the existing frontline configuration, the Ukrainians have no single chance to beat the self-defenders or, at least, to retain their current positions should they face a decisive offensive from the Russian side. The point here is that today their right wing and rear are open all along the border to the very left bank of Dnieper. In Aug 1941, a similar attack was launched by the Nazis against the Soviet Southeastern Front. The only difference then was that General Guderian was moving to the east. The Kiev leaders tried to insure themselves against such a scenario when they said that they would impose martial law if the Russians crossed the borders of Chernihiv or Kharkiv regions. They said that if that happened, they would declare a war against Russia. Strategically, the Russians have just a few months left for solving the Ukrainian problem by force. If they fail to do this, in summer the Ukrainians will be much stronger and they will need much bigger resources for beating them. Last week it turned out that time here is on the side of the Americans, their allies and their puppets in Kiev.

This is the most sensible but the least probable scenario. Here the self-defense forces play a containing role. The other, more probable scenario is that with the arms the self-defenders possess, they will hardly be able to destroy the whole of the Ukrainian army. On the other hand, the Ukrainians’ plan to build strongholds all along their three defense lines is not a guaranteed solution for them as modern intelligence and artillery systems can easily find and crush any local strongholds. The best example is the second Chechen campaign.

In any case, in practice the self-defenders’ attempt to force the Ukrainians out of Donetsk region will end in a series of bloodsheds, a new ceasefire and a new search for a peaceful solution. By the way, no sooner had the war started than Poroshenko began seducing the Russians with promise of a compromise with the Americans.

Whatever the case, the Ukrainians will use that new ceasefire for rehabilitation. This would mean that the war in the east of Ukraine would develop in the same way as the war in Bosnia did in 1992-1995. What Russia needs here is something like a new Dayton Agreement, but if things in Ukraine go the way they did in Bosnia, in some three years Russia will face the music. The worst outcome for the war in Ukraine would be no outcome at all. This would mean an endless positional warfare with no hope for quick peace – a new Vukovar-type exhausting senseless war.

Purely strategically, Russia should be interested in growing military activity in Ukraine. Today the self-defenders are stronger and better motivated. They are angry with the anti-terrorist forces as for several months they have bombed their cities. But the problem here is that the military advantages the self-defenders enjoy today – due also to backup forces from Russia – will end once the Americans send more arms and instructors to Ukraine. The experience of Krajina is the best example of what may happen to Novorossia. They in Kiev have bigger resources, and this will be a decisive factor in this war. In this light, the recent visit of the newly appointed chief of the US Allied Land Command in Europe Ben Hodges to Kiev must be a signal for Russia.

Once the Ukrainian army gets stronger, it will pose a real threat to Crimea. Today Russia has no stable communications with that region. The Taman bridge is good in time of peace but will be vulnerable in case of war. In fact, Crimea has turned into an “island.” Should the Crimeans face a war any sea or air contacts with them can be easily be blocked. The current blockade of Crimea will become an easy job for the Ukrainians once they get stronger.

One more threat was the West’s reaction to the incident in Mariupol. In fact, they acted precisely as they did in Bosnia - they suggested internationalizing the conflict. President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Finnish MP Ilkka Kanerva appeared with an initiative to send international peacekeepers to Ukraine for dividing the conflicting parties. Obviously, the OSCE mission acting in the conflict zone is on the side of the US and the EU. It was Russia’s mistake to let it be there. No sooner had the incident in Mariupol occurred than the OSCE observers hurried to claim that the fire was from the rebels’ side. Obviously, they will close their eyes on the military crimes to be committed by the Ukrainian side. In fact, they represent one of the conflicting parties and are not impartial.

On Jan 24 2015, Ukraine convoked the UN Security Council to discuss the incident, but Russia vetoed its final resolution. Today, this case is being used for “demonizing” Russia and the Russians in the eyes of the Western community. Here too we can see parallels with Serbs in the Bosnian conflict.

Mariupol has encouraged the Americans and their European allies into new threats. US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the attack was committed by the Russia-controlled rebels. He promised that the United States and its allies would increase their pressure on Russia and its supporters.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz also reacted to the Mariupol attack. Stoltenberg blamed Russia for escalating the war by actively arming the rebels. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini promised that if that continued, the EU’s relations with Russia would be spoiled.

While visiting India US President Barack Obama promised that the Americans would continue their economic pressure on the Russians and “would look at all additional options that are available to us, short of military confrontation.” One such “option” may be Russia’s removal from the global banking system.

Russia’s economic problems are growing along with the diplomatic consequences of its offensive activities in Ukraine. In terms of economics, the sanctions are not decisive for the economic decline in Russia, but in terms of politics, they are quite destructive for the legitimacy of the Russian president and government. In this light, the offensive campaign in the Donbass has another, internal political implication for Russia. It is supposed to show the West that more and more Russians are beginning to support President Putin as the conflict is escalating.

Now, the western expert community is trying to find out what is actually going on and what military and political motives are pushing the Russian leaders to restart the military campaign in Ukraine. The EU Foreign Affairs Council put off its meeting on Ukraine from Jan 26 till Jan 29, with President of the European Council, Polish politician Donald Tusk saying that “it was time for Europe to step up its policy based on cold facts, not illusions.”

The escalating tensions in the Donbass and the almost open confrontation between Russia and Ukraine are developing amid some “strange war” between those two post-Soviet nations. Last week Naftogaz of Ukraine paid for Russian gas. It was then that President Poroshenko said that Ukraine was planning to stop importing Russian gas in the following two years. Very soon, Naftogaz will start negotiations on Gazprom’s price after Apr 1 2015. The EU is ready to be the third party in these talks. Gazprom has warned that it is not going to revise the terms stipulated by the contacts for 2009-2019.

As the war in the Donbass continues, Ukraine is running increasingly short of money. George Soros has said that this problem is crucial for Europe and has found some virtual $50bn in two European crisis funds. He advises the Europeans to give this money to Ukraine as this comes from their strategic interests. In their turn, the Europeans are planning to consider increasing their financial assistance to Ukraine. They believe that the €1.8 earmarked by the European Commission in Jan 2015 may be increased to some €2.5bn. Hence, the IMF remains the key potential donor of Ukraine. So, it turns out that the IMF will fund daily life in Ukraine, while the US Congress will sponsor the local war though special military assistance funds.

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