Main Image Credit Pro-Russian rebels shoot in the air. Courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons
As the situation deteriorates at the frontline, there is always the danger of a serious eruption in hostilities and escalation. But it is more likely that each side is trying to provoke the other into committing further ceasefire violations.
The rise in tensions at the frontline in the Donbas between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebels is evident through an increase in ceasefire violations and military casualties. This frontline in eastern Ukraine separates Ukrainian government-controlled territory from the Russian-backed, so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. Although the east has not seen the intense fighting of 2014–2015 for a number of years, things have continued to simmer.
The recent uptick in violence is significant, since it follows a period of particular calm after both sides agreed to additional ceasefire measures in the Minsk Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) in July 2020. The agreement sought to curtail violence, particularly by reducing return fire for more minor violations.
Source: Map of eastern Ukraine. Courtesy of pavalena/Adobe Stock.
While it was never expected that the ceasefire would bring violations down to zero, there is no doubt that tensions are certainly rising. Russian TCG representative Boris Gryzlov accused Ukraine of bringing new forces and assets to the line of contact, looking for a pretext for military adventurism. The head of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, has been particularly vocal in his accusations that Ukraine plans to escalate the confrontation.
A concerning signal was that the DPR’s armed wing recently announced that they had been authorised to use pre-emptive fire in response to allegations that the Ukrainian armed forces had targeted civilian settlements.
And for his part, the head of the Ukrainian delegation to the TCG, Leonid Kravchuk, assessed this announcement as a possible sign of the unilateral withdrawal of Russia from the ceasefire agreement, something that has not yet occurred. Ukraine’s ministry of defence has said rebel militias have been put on high alert. This could lead to a vicious cycle of tension, frustration and provocation.
A Frozen Political Process
This deterioration was perhaps inevitable due to the lack of progress in the political and security dimensions of the peace process. Simply put, there has been little incentive for things to remain calm. For months, the TCG has achieved very little as the conflict parties’ mutually exclusive political positions stall the process and frustration increases. This is despite attempts to revitalise road maps to a settlement based, to varying degrees, on the Minsk Agreements.
There is a particular gap on enhancing security. The July 2020 additional measures note that both sides were supposed to devise a coordination mechanism for responding to serious ceasefire violations, which would potentially enhance the ceasefire’s sustainability. It was never clear how this mechanism would work and, unsurprisingly, it remains unimplemented.
Some ascribe the deterioration in security at the border to specific political events in Ukraine. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has indirectly linked the rising tensions with recent sanctions his government placed on Ukraine’s pro-Russian politician and businessman Viktor Medvedchuk. Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov has linked them more directly.
Sanctions came into force on 19 February and followed those on Medvedchuk associate Taras Kozak. Indeed, a spike in ceasefire violations in the Donetsk region was reported at the time of sanctions on Medvedchuk. There was also a spike around the anniversary of the signing of the 2015 Minsk Agreements on 12 February, which is not unusual. It is unclear if these events and subsequent spikes are connected or a coincidence. Regardless, they do not alone explain the overarching deterioration at the frontline.
There are plenty of reports that both sides are strengthening their positions, and the Special Monitoring Mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has observed weapons outside of Minsk-designated storage sites and beyond withdrawal lines. This is the main pointer towards military build-up. But it is more difficult to know exactly what this means or how extensive the trend is. The OSCE daily reports are limited in use, for they purposefully give little explanation as to what observations might mean. For example, OSCE monitors previously reported observations of seven surface-to-air missile systems, four self-propelled howitzers and 11 tanks outside designated storage sites in government-controlled areas of the Donetsk region. It is quite possible these are part of regular troop rotations, but the lack of context allows for multiple interpretations and certainly causes concern as to each side’s intentions.
Still, events should be kept in perspective when considering the potential for a large-scale attack from either side. In general, the increase in violations now should still be seen within the context of an overall reduction of violence after the additional measures were signed in 2020. Heidi Grau, the OSCE’s representative in Ukraine and to the TCG, highlighted this after the last TCG meeting, stating that the number of ceasefire violations continues to remain well below the average level in 2020, before the current additional measures came into force. At least in the beginning, the additional measures have been crucial in reducing civilian casualties.
This trend diverged last week, showing how fragile the situation is. On 26 March, the OSCE reported 493 ceasefire violations in the Donetsk region, pushing the daily number above the 2020 daily average. This has not been the norm, but it was compounded by the loss of four Ukrainian soldiers shortly afterwards. Worrying reports also recently appeared of some civilian casualties. Yet this still does not necessarily mean Ukraine is on the brink of all-out war again, with Donetsk region violations dropping to 74 on 27 March. This constant fluctuation is what makes it difficult to draw conclusions or identify trends.
Furthermore, the cluster of violations may be higher around traditional hotspots – something that has happened for many years. For example, the Luhansk region has generally been quieter compared with the Donetsk region, but the hotspot area of Zolote continues to see violations. This inconsistency again makes it difficult to understand whether this is a prelude to some form of escalation.
The situation in eastern Ukraine is clearly worrying. Yet rather than immediately pointing to a deliberate escalation or large-scale attack, it is likely for now that violence will continue to intensify, but remain localised. Both sides have incentives to accuse each other of spoiling for a fight. Yet initiating a return to full-scale war would be very damaging for both sides, and inflict even higher economic damage on top of the severe difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.