Kiev / Moscow / Brussels (dpa) – The new tensions surrounding the Donbass conflict zone in eastern Ukraine are rejoicing Russian patriots.
She hoped the US media was right in their claims that 4,000 Russian soldiers had grown up on the border with Ukraine, said Margarita Simonyan, RT editor of the Kremlin. Russia does not confirm the force. But in any case, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said Russia would maintain its military presence there as long as the General Staff and the Commander-in-Chief, President Vladimir Putin, see fit.
Even after a visit to Donbass, Putin’s leading propagandist Simonyan reiterated that it was time to bring the Luhansk and Donetsk regions home to the realm of “mother” Russia. Putin’s spokesman Peskow promptly declined. There are no plans to include the self-proclaimed People’s Republics in Russian territory. But it is also clear that Moscow will not abandon the regions that have broken free from Ukraine.
Since the war broke out there seven years ago on April 14 with the start of a Ukrainian anti-terrorist operation, much has been going on in separatist-controlled regions such as Russia. The ruble is the official currency, only Russian is still the official language. Most residents still have a Ukrainian passport. However, hundreds of thousands have now had an identity card issued by one of the two “People’s Republics”. After Putin’s offer, more than 400,000 people now have a Russian passport.
“I would like to emphasize that the Donbass does not want war. And Donbass will not go to war either, ”said the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin. He describes the situation at the front as “quite uncomfortable”. And he complains that Ukraine is setting up its forces for new battles.
In fact, observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) recently pointed to growing activities on both sides of the conflict in the region. In February and March, videos circulated on social networks of Ukrainian trains heading east loaded with tanks and other military vehicles. On Sunday, the Ukrainian army also presented a video of the tank reserve exercises in the Luhansk region – not far from the front.
But above all, the latest reports of dead Ukrainian soldiers draw Western attention to the conflict in central Europe. According to the United Nations, more than 13,000 people have died there so far. The US Armed Forces in Europe Command (EUCOM) has recently seen the situation no longer merely as a “potential crisis” but as a “potentially impending crisis”.
According to many observers in Ukraine, this is also in the interest of Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyi. When he was elected two years ago, he pledged to resolve the conflict peacefully. However, the former actor has not yet had any success.
In a survey, more than 40 percent of Ukrainians recognized the implementation of the Minsk peace plan achieved in 2015 through the mediation of Chancellor Angela Merkel. In addition to the ceasefire, the plan provides for a demilitarization of the front, an amnesty for the separatists, elections in the breakaway areas and the granting of autonomy. Only one fifth of the population is in favor of a military recapture of the region.
Ukrainian army chief Ruslan Khomchak is convinced that Zelensky has no problem ordering a new offensive in Donbass. Against the current forces of the Moscow-loyal separatists, he invented, as he said, chances of victory. However, Khomchak also knows that Russia is not looking for a military solution.
If the separatist leaders in the major cities of Luhansk and Donetsk were to officially call on Moscow for help to protect their new Russian citizens in Donbass, Putin would be forced to take action. After more than 20 years in power, the 68-year-old is known for not avoiding conflict. Under Putin, Russia has long seen itself as a self-aware military superpower armed with state-of-the-art nuclear weapons – even though former US President Barack Obama once dismissed the country as a regional player.
Despite the high cost, Russia withdrawn the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, is still at war in Syria, and has also expanded its presence in the Arctic, where it claims mineral resources. In 2008, Russia put its neighbor Georgia in its place when the Republic of the South Caucasus attempted to forcibly take back its breakaway South Ossetia region. Russia not only has thousands of soldiers stationed there and in Abkhazia. It also recognized both regions as independent states.
Russian commentators have long maintained that such a scenario as in Georgia or Crimea would also be possible in Donbass. It is already certain that not only weapons and ammunition from Russia will reach the region, but also mercenaries. The Donbass is especially useful for Russia to put pressure on Ukrainian leaders, but also to solve demographic problems, writes the Moscow Carnegie Center think tank. Russia continues to receive a large number of migrants from Ukraine.
For the EU and the US, the Moscow-Kiev conflict will somehow be a test case for relations with Russia. President Zelenskyi recently had to wait a long time for a phone call to new US President Joe Biden, who is considered a friend of Ukraine – he pledged solidarity with the ex-Soviet Republic and NATO. The US is also supplying weapons to the country.
But neither in Washington nor at NATO headquarters in Brussels should become involved in open conflict with the nuclear power Russia. One reason is that to this day Ukraine is only a partner country and not a member of the defense alliance. According to diplomatic circles, no one can have an interest in risking World War III because of a regional conflict.
NATO initially reacts with growing concern and is closely monitoring the movements of Russian forces. It is currently considered a horror scenario that Russia could plan a major offensive with the insurgents in Eastern Ukraine to secure access to the North Crimean water channel to the Dnieper River. Moscow could end the chronic water shortage in Crimea. The Ukrainian government cut off water supplies to Crimea after the Russian annexation of the peninsula.
Above all, the Ukrainian leadership has long made no secret that they need the West to put pressure on Russia – and not just with sanctions. In Kiev, it is considered possible that Zelensky risks escalating the conflict with Moscow to have even more influence in the event of a Russian annexation of Donbass. Ukraine has long wanted the EU to shut down the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea. She fears for her billions in income from the transit of Russian gas to Europe. If the conflict flares up in Eastern Ukraine, so the calculation in Kiev, Nord Stream 2 could still fail.