Re-escalation of fighting in the Donbass region of Ukraine

The conflict between the Ukraine’s armed forces and Russian backed separatists of the Donetsk Peoples Republic in the Donbass region began in 2014 and the most recent ceasefire has been in place since the 24th December 2016. There have numerous ceasefire violations recorded by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), but these have spiked since the 29th January 2017 near Avdiivka and both sides blame the other for the escalation.

While military casualties have been reported, the largest impact is on the industrial town’s population, with 17,000 residents left without water and electricity, and an impending refugee crisis as a potential evacuation looms. The use of heavy weapons, including Grad rockets, is in violation of the ceasefire agreement.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin has denied any Russian support for the separatist cause, which erupted after the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, yet the resources available to the separatist cause, the rapid annexation of Crimea, and returning Russian casualties point firmly towards a campaign of hybrid warfare aimed at destabilising Ukraine, which in 2014 was leaning towards seeking membership of the EU and NATO. The actual underlying causes of the 2014 revolution were related to governmental corruption, and division over the future political path of Ukraine, a country with a clear demographic boundary between a pro-EU West and a pro-Russian Eastern region. The reasons for this escalating into armed conflict remain in dispute, although it is undeniable that the Russian government did not want to see Ukraine added to a plethora of countries that have joined the EU and/or NATO, and the expansion of both organisations has taken them to Russia’s borders. It is not the first time that a former Soviet Republic with aspirations to join NATO has seen an intervention by Russia, a notable example being Georgia, where internal tensions between Russophile regions (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) and the Georgian government led to a Russian military intervention. Events in Georgia and Ukraine demonstrate the danger inherent in EU and NATO expansion into Russian spheres of influence and countries with significant Russian minorities.

We cannot really know if the accession of Ukraine to the EU or NATO would have proved feasible in the long term, but neither was guaranteed and the political situation and demographics of Ukraine may have rendered accession unfeasible. What we can be sure of, amid claim and counterclaim of blame, is that it is Ukraine that is suffering as a wider geopolitical confrontation plays out, and it is civilians of the Donbass region who have suffered the worst consequences of a costly war with military casualties from both the Ukrainian and DPR fighting forces.

It remains to be seen if the battle for Avdiivka is a temporary major escalation of the conflict or part of a wider strategy to expand the territory of the Donetsk Peoples Republic. Of the external actors with influence on events, the EU is distracted by internal problems and upcoming elections and the US appears to be heading into its own crisis, while Russia appears to have a free hand.

For more on the Ukraine Crisis see:

Dr Carl Turner,

Site Coordinator

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