Is Donbass on the verge of a new offensive and will there be a Minsk-3?


August 20, 2015

Andre Ivanov

Svobodnaya Pressa (Free Press)

Translated by J. Arnoldski

In the last few days, the situation in Donbass has seriously deteriorated. On Monday night, UAF shelled half the districts of Donetsk and there are victims. The shelling of Gorlovka and other populated areas of the people’s republics is ongoing.

Official Kiev continues to assure that the militia shelled themselves, but Kiev doesn’t hide that it wants to send heavy artillery to the front line. “We reserve the right to … return these types of weapons quickly to the front and use them against illegal armed groups,” – said the representative of the presidential administration of Ukraine, Alexander Motuzyanik, in response to questions about the special operation on August 16.

However, many observers have noted that Ukrainian heavy artillery has already been on the front line for a long time. According to the deputy minister of defense of DPR,  Eduard Basurin, the Ukrainian side has brought 435 tanks, 830 mortars, and 135 rocket systems to the line of contact.

As stated by Basurin, these actions of UAF demonstrate a violation of the Minsk agreements and the beginning of a new phase of the war.

“Kiev is preparing a new phase of special operation, which it intends to finish by October, as Ukrainian soldiers did not learn how to fight in the autumn mud” – stressed deputy head of the HQ of LPR People’s Police Corps [i.e. – second in command of LPR militia], Igor Yashenko.

Moscow and Berlin expressed concern. “The situation at the front is worrisome, unfortunately we can no longer talk about a contact line, but a front line…We are worried about the latest events, which very much resemble a preparation for military hostilities” – said the minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Sergey Lavrov. “The situation is explosive. Much is put on the line. If both sides of the conflict don’t return to the peace process, a new military escalation can occur at any time” – said the head of German Foreign Ministry, Frank Walter Steinmeier.

Representative of the DPR in Minsk, Denis Pushilin, has already stated that the people’s republics are ready for the new offensive of UAF and a shift to a counter-offensive.

Indeed, all previous experience suggests that each new attack of the Ukrainian side ends with its complete defeat. Thus it was in July of last year and at the beginning of 2015. Both times, the counter-offensive of DPR and LPR was stopped only by diplomatic means with the Minsk-1 and Minsk-2 agreements.

The last agreement was the result of the efforts of the leaders of Russia, Germany, and France. But Donetsk and Lugansk will hardly agree to a Minsk-3 in the case of another UAF defeat. It’s possible that the Kiev authorities need a new offensive against Donbass for their salvation. The American professor Steven Cohen said openly that many politicians in the United States are already comfortable with the idea of Donbass separating from Ukraine. Increasingly frequent negotiations between Moscow and Washington are drawing attention. It’s not excluded that Poroshenko has decided to bring about changes in the negotiation process between the world powers by a military operation.

– An important factor is that the Ukrainian side hasn’t respected a single one of the provisions of the Minsk Agreement, – pointed out the military analyst Boris Rozhin [Cassad]. – Heavy weapons have not been withdrawn from the contact line, there was no exchange of prisoners of war, and not even a cease-fire. It can be noted that after six months, the provisions of the Minsk Agreement have remained only on paper.

The intensity of nightly shelling has increased. In addition to regular weapons, 152 mm weapons are used, in the last days MLRS have been used. On Sunday there was a report that Ukraine has concentrated three assault groups at the front. Alexander Zakharchenko already admitted that the Minsk agreements have been broken.

The situation is on the verge of sharp escalation. It appears the sides will attempt to provoke the opponent, to have the legal basis for response. Meanwhile parity has been achieved in military terms.

I see no reason to think that the current situation can be resolved through peaceful negotiations. Most likely, the shelling on the front line will increase. The probability of a local advance of the Ukrainian army is not ruled out.

Svobodnaya Pressa (SP): Are we talking about a local and not a large-scale offensive?

– Exactly. In July of last year and in January of this year, the Ukrainian side could use the advantage in manpower and equipment. Now there is no such superiority. The mechanization of UAF is severely weakened, which makes it impossible to expand the offensive to a greater distance.

Ukrainian troops can really move at about 10-20 kilometers and take a few front-line cities, such as Dokuchaevsk, Slavyanoserbsk, and it’s possible to attempt to cut off Gorlovka from Donetsk. But in the present moment, the Ukrainian army doesn’t have the strength to defeat DPR and LPR.

SP: Then what goals did Kiev set before itself?

– The people’s republics are following the path of unrecognized state formations. They are strengthening state institutions and becoming more and more economically independent from Kiev. Their own central bank is working in the republics, and their own financial system is getting rid of the hryvnia. It’s appearing to be an analog to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. If Ukraine wants to keep Donbass, then it has to disrupt this process of state building.

It should be borne in mind that Kiev is not independent, and its policies are determined by Washington. If those across the ocean will be interested in an escalation, then the opinion of Kiev will be secondary.

SP: How can Ukraine explain the breakdown of the Minsk agreements to the world?

– I emphasize that in the last six months, Kiev has not fulfilled a single provision of the agreements, neither military, nor, even more so, diplomatic.

Let me remind you of the statement of the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada, Volodymyr  Groysman, who said that the Minsk agreements were needed by Ukraine only in order to halt the offensive of the militia near Debaltsevo, and Kiev signed the agreement under the pressure of France and Germany. Groysman said that the truce will be used only for restoring the fighting capacity of the army. Now his words are fully confirmed.

SP: Maybe Poroshenko wants to preserve his authority with the help of a new offensive, fearing that the fate of Donbass will be decided without him by Russia and the US?

– Of course, Poroshenko is concerned about political survival. After the visit of US Secretary of State, John Kerry, in Sochi in May, there were many rumors that there was an trade of Donbass for Syria. But in fact, we see that the Americans continue to threaten Russia with sanctions and have not ceased their aggressive rhetoric.

Attempts to punish Moscow are ongoing, the evidence – the initiative with the tribunal about the Malaysian Boeing. So far, there is no agreement which would satisfy both parties. Although it’s possible that it could appear in the future.

Generally, the only possible way to solve the conflict by diplomatic means is for Moscow and Washington to reach an agreement. Even the guarantees of Germany and France are secondary.

SP: Are the soldiers of the DPR and LPR capable of responding to a UAF offensive?

– The armies of the people’s republics have significantly increased their military potential, and completed the formation of corps. Over the past six months, the number of arms has increased. Numerically, the formations of the DPR and LPR are inferior to the UAF, but not critically as it was in the previous year.

They have sufficient forces to lead defensive and offensive operations. Of course, the management of troops is not always adequate to the situation, but the Kiev side has the same problem. Donbass is in the position to defend itself and strike back.

SP: Can the armies of the republics push back the UAF to a safe distance away from large cities?

– This requires large-scale operations. It would be necessary to break through the line of defense of the Ukrainian army and defeat a large force of the UAF. But you need a lot of troops and a political decision. As I understand, such a task is not on the table before the leaders in Donbass, who are more inclined to adhere to the Minsk agreement.

Most likely, we will see a counter-battery confrontation, a war of attrition of resources. But we are not yet talking about a serious shift in the front line.

SP: That means that there will most likely be an escalation of the conflict, both sides suffering losses, but the situation will not drastically change?

– Everything depends on Kiev. If UAF will try to capture a large city, then Novorossiya will try to surround the Ukrainian formation.

A serious change in the situation is possible if Russia or NATO intervene. But then the magnitude of the war will be very different. Otherwise there will be positional battles. The front may move by 10 kilometers. In principle, the situation can not be changed much by military means, as it requires a political decision at the highest level.

– Frequent attacks on the cities of Donbass show that the conflict is entering a new phase, – said the representative of the DPR in the Rostov region, Eduard Popov. – It is possible to recall the experience of South Ossetia, where in 2008 the periodic shelling from Georgia escalated into a full-scale attack on Tskhinvali. The same thing we see in Donbass. Ukraine would not pull all available resources to the front line for no reason.

Before Kiev just delayed the implementation of the Minsk agreements on granting autonomy to Donbass. Now the Ukrainian side openly and flagrantly violates the main principle of “Minsk-2” — the ceasefire. So we will soon see the resumption of hostilities.

In Donetsk and Lugansk they expected a UAF offensive at the end of last week. It is possible that the aggression will start in the coming days.

Of course, one cannot completely exclude an option, which can be called a “miracle”, that is, if Kiev will be pressed strongly from the outside. Say, from Russia or from the West, Poroshenko will be told about the very sad consequences of a new offensive. But I am afraid that this miracle will not happen.

The regime of Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk is between a rock and a hard place. First, it is under the pressure of the nationalist public opinion, which demands war to the bitter end under a threat of a new coup. Secondly, the US will do anything to light a fire on Russia’s borders.

Another argument in favor of the escalation of the conflict — the critical state of the Ukrainian economy. Due to the shortage of coal half of Ukrainian power plants are on the verge of closing. The threat of default is constantly increasing. In this situation Poroshenko regime is left with one option: to shift public attention to the war in Donbass. When there is a war, all socio-economic problems can be attributed to “Russian aggression”.

SP: If UAF suffered a defeat a year and six months ago, does it really hope for victory today?

– I’m not sure that the Ukrainian General Staff are certain about a coming defeat. The Defense Ministry and the General Staff are staffed with political appointees in uniform, but not military professionals. Contrary to common sense, they are trying to convince the public that an offensive is realistic.

At the same time, Poroshenko is threatened by a civil war across the Ukraine. In his own way, Poroshenko is logical, trying to transfer the threat of internal conflict, which he will not survive, into the war with Donbass.

It should be borne in mind that the Americans have begun to supply UAF with lethal weapons, although they are denying this fact. Since the spring of last year, the militia has faced Western technology, which is very hard to counter.

NATO instructors had time to prepare a number of Ukrainian soldiers. This is a small part of the army, but it is efficient. The militias of DPR and LPR are observing the increased level of professionalism of the enemy.

It is worth adding that a plant in Kharkov is now working seven days a week, repairing and churning out new tanks and anti-infantry vehicles. Apparently, the General Staff of Ukraine is also counting on this.

SP: Will the soldiers of the people’s republics repel an offensive?

– Ukraine will suffer another defeat. And it’s not about moving the front line 30 kilometers. We are talking about the annihilation of a significant part of Ukrainian troops and reserves. This is vital for the People’s Republic. Then the war will go beyond Donbass and spread to the territory of historic Novorossia. I think that the self-defense forces and DPR and LPR have enough to destroy the enemy.

SP: It won’t turn out that, after Minsk-2, there will be a Minsk-3?

– It will be a very bad “anecdote.” Minsk-2 was signed with much difficulty. Russian President Vladimir Putin had to use all his authority to persuade the leaders of the People’s Republics to sign the agreement.

The people of Donbass will neither bear nor accept a Minsk-3. Such arrangements would mean the beginning of the end for the authorities in Donetsk and Lugansk, as the people’s patience is running out. If Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky will want a Minsk-3, then more resolute people will come to power in DPR and LPR.

The Minsk agreement was signed in February thanks to the authority of Putin. The new agreement will affect his reputation not only in Donbass region, but also in Russia. So something like a “Minsk-3” is unlikely.

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