March 31, 2018 – Fort Russ –
By Eduard Popov, translated by Jafe Arnold –
On March 29th, two notable events took place in the diplomatic war surrounding Donbass.
At a meeting of the Normandy Four (Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine), the heads of states declared their commitment to the Minsk Agreements and announced the beginning of an Easter truce (starting at midnight on March 30th).
The Donbass republics, however, are not inclined to believe that this ceasefire will be effective, as they have spotted both the regrouping of Ukrainian forces and the preparation of saboteur groups.
It might seem as if nothing special happened, and that the involved sides once again swore a verbal oath of commitment to Minsk. However, if we take into account the fact that the new Ukrainian law on reintegration passed by the Verkhovna Rada and signed by President Poroshenko de facto annuls the Minsk Agreements, then this Normandy Four joint statement does not look so matter of course.
The declaration of an Easter ceasefire does inspire a little hope. After all, in Donbass, Orthodox are fighting Orthodox – if we don’t count the large group of neo-pagans in Azov and other Nazi groups as well as on the side of the Donbass republics – and Russians are fighting Russians.
The head of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, Alexander Hug, also arrived in Donbass two days ago. By train he went from the LPR and DPR to Yasinovataya, then visited the town of Konstantinovka on Kiev-controlled territory, and then he crossed the contact line and returned to the DPR. For the first time, Hug met with the new head of the LPR, Leonid Pasechnik, with whom he discussed security and freedom of movement for unarmed OSCE civilian observers. Hug also revealed that the monitoring mission will resume the use of long-range unmanned aerial vehicles.
But here comes the bad part. Just before the Easter ceasefire entered into force, reconnaissance attempts by Ukrainian Armed Forces’ units were discovered. On the night of March 29th, DPR fighters observed a UAF reconnaissance group of 8 people moving in the direction of the militia. The Ukrainian saboteurs hit a minefield, and DPR troops have claimed that two of the Ukrainian troops were killed and three wounded. This has been confirmed in a press release by the speaker of the DPR Ministry of Defense, Eduard Basurin.
Tellingly enough, these Ukrainian troops had attempted to break through during Hug’s visit to Donbass. One can imagine what kind of provocation they might have been planning.
The second part of Basurin’s statement is also telling. According to Basurin, DPR intelligence has learned that the Ukrainian command has opened four new hospitals near Mariupol. This fact, combined with trainings held for receiving wounded in the city’s medical institutions, suggests that a Ukrainian army offensive is coming soon. In February, I heard reports of military hospitals being set up on Ukrainian-occupied DPR and LPR territory. Moreover, Basurin claimed that the Ukrainian side is preparing to provocatively shoot down OSCE drones and blame the DPR.
Earlier in March, my sources in the military and political circles of Donetsk said that they expect a Ukrainian offensive to come from the direction of Mariupol. In particular, they drew attention to the accumulation of Ukrainian military vehicles and manpower near the village of Vodyanoe. I had the opportunity to visit DPR army units deployed in the area, in the town of Novoazovsk nearby. I can testify that this area is an open plane which is very convenient for forced tank marches and armored vehicles. And it is not far from the border with Russia. According to one of my colleagues’ theories, the Ukrainian army plans to rush all the way to the border with Russia and cut the DPR and LPR off from volunteers and humanitarian aid.
My sources in military circles in the LPR reported mid-March that they do not anticipate a Ukrainian offensive in the coming days, in contrast to one popular theory, which I myself thought likely, that the Ukrainians would go on a blitzkrieg around the time of the Russian presidential elections. But according to my LPR contacts, an offensive is unlikely for at least the next month (until late April), the reason for such being adverse weather conditions. The fields of Donbass have begun to thaw, and trenches and fortifications have literally drowned in snowmelt. Tanks and other military vehicles would get stuck in the mud, thus reducing the rapidity of the attack. My LPR friends believe that a Ukrainian offensive will begin no earlier than around the end of spring, when warm weather will kick in. But no one rules out an even later date.
This is not the first year that I’ve heard the same words from my friends in Donbass: “If only it would start sooner!” Not only they, but the majority of people in Donbas think so. On the one hand, a Ukrainian offensive would lead to numerous deaths among soldiers and civilians, but on the other such would finally put an end to this protracted conflict with a Donbass victory. The DPR and LPR armies, the backbone of which is made up by people from the now Ukrainian-occupied territories of Donbass, look forward to liberating their cities and returning home.
Eduard Popov is a Rostov State University graduate with a PhD in history and philosophy. In 2008, he founded the Center for Ukrainian Studies of the Southern Federal University of Russia, and from 2009-2013, he was the founding head of the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, an analytical institute of the Presidential Administration of Russia. In June 2014, Popov headed the establishment of the Representative Office of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Rostov-on-Don and actively participated in humanitarian aid efforts in Donbass. In addition to being Fort Russ’ guest analyst since June, 2016, Popov is currently the leading research fellow of the Institute of the Russian Abroad and the founding director of the Europe Center for Public and Information Cooperation.