Deciphering the Donbass Escalation: Part 1 – Media vs. Reality on the Donetsk Frontline

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February 7, 2017 – Fort Russ – 

By Eduard Popov – translated by J. Arnoldski –

Eduard Popov, born in 1973 in Konstantinovka, Donetsk region, 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 in Rostov-on-Don. 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. He has actively participated in humanitarian aid efforts for his native Donbass and has been a guest contributor to various Donbass media, such as the Lugansk-based Cossack Media Group. Popov has actively contributed to Fort Russ since June, 2016.

On January 29th, fierce fighting broke out in Donbass. By unleashing such, the Ukrainian side violated the already fragile truce between Ukraine and the unrecognized Donbass republics.  For most of the past week, heavy fighting has continued throughout Donbass. What are Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s goals in starting a new offensive on the positions of the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics? What are the military and political results of the fighting thus far? What are the losses in armed forces on both sides and among the civilian population? What can the Donbass republics expect and what domestic political consequences will the new fighting hold for Ukraine? In this article, we aim to provide concrete information and answer these burning questions.


Fighting in Donbass from January 29th to early February: Reality and Reflection in the Media

First, a word on sources. Over the past week, I’ve managed to contact representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republics military circles and periodically check reports with them over Skype. This offered the opportunity to obtain some insider information supplemented by information obtained from open sources (the mass media of the Donbass republics and Ukraine as well as blogs).

Thus, the overall picture of the fighting in Donbass looks like the following. The active phase lasting from January 29th to February 3rd began with the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ massive artillery bombardments of the DPR army’s positions and various Donbass cities (Donetsk and Makeevka). From the direction of Avdeevka (a small industrial city not far from Donetsk and controlled by the Ukrainian army), powerful artillery strikes were inflicted on the DPR’s positions as well as residential areas in Donetsk, Makeevka, Yasinovataya, as well as towns in the southern DPR. 

On the first day of fighting (January 29th), the DPR’s army opened retaliatory fire. This was an unpleasant surprise for the UAF who did not expect such a strong reaction. The DPR army does not usually respond to UAF provocative fire. Thus, the harsh response to Ukrainian shelling even came as a surprise to some DPR officers. According to reports by military bloggers and DPR artillery officers, ammunition reserves which earlier were sufficient for more than a month of shelling were used up in one day. 

As my sources in DPR military circles have confirmed in our conversations, fire was opened exclusively on the UAF’s military positions, bypassing the residential sector of Avdeevka. As a rule, the military of the unrecognized republic does not lay down artillery fire on Avdeevka for the very simple reason that the city’s population largely supports the Donbass republics and has developed a hatred for Ukraine. It is no small detail that there are many Avdeevka natives in the ranks of the DPR army. For these reasons, Ukrainian propaganda’s numerous allegations of ongoing attacks by “separatists” on Avdeevka are a deliberate lie. As for the humanitarian situation in Avdeevka, we will discuss this in more detail below.

Alongside heavy artillery, the UAF has widely employed volley fire rocket launcher systems (MLRS’). However, according to point two of the Minsk Agreements, long-range artillery must be withdrawn to a distance of 70 kilometers from the contact line, and Uragan, Smerch, Tornado-S, and Tohcka-U tactical rocket systems are supposed to be withdrawn to 140 km. To clarify, MLRS’ are missile/rocket weapons of mass destruction intended to destroy men, military vehicles, and an opponent’s defensive structures on a wide scale. The Ukrainian army has used precisely this type of weapon against the residents of the Donetsk-Makeevka city agglomerate, a verifiable megapolis. In doing so, the UAF in the beginning not only violated the foundational point of the Minsk Agreements (the withdrawal of heavy weapons, artillery systems, and MLRS’ from the contact line), but committed crimes against humanity by using heavy artillery and weapons of mass destruction (MLRS) against a civilian population.

For the sake of objectivity, it must be admitted that the DPR army also violated the second provision of the Minsk Agreements, as has been noted by international observers pointing to the violation of the ceasefire agreement and withdrawal agreement by both sides. However, the DPR army violated point two of the Minsk Agreements for the sake of self-defense. Meanwhile, the UAF has long been shelling the territories of the Donbass republics and the DPR and LPR armies, and the Ukrainian army’s preparations for an offensive were foreseen long ago.

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Allow me to quote one of my articles. In an article specially prepared for Fort Russ, “Popov: Ukrainian offensive likely around Trump’s inauguration day”, on January 10th, I relayed a commander of the DPR army’s warning that the republic was expecting a massive UAF offensive on Donetsk on January 20th, the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, or slightly before this event. I predicted in this article: “It is rather dubious that such an obvious violation by Kiev of the Minsk Agreements will draw broad international condemnation. Kiev has long since thought up an explanatory formula for justifying offensive actions and, in the least, the OSCE mission has literally closed its eyes more than once to violations by the Ukrainian side. An offensive, however, will most likely end in another tactical defeat.”

Let us allow the foreign reader the opportunity to independently assess just how realistic our forecast was on a potential international reaction to the actions of the Ukrainian government in Donbass. 

To continue, my level of knowledge of the coverage of the past week’s events in Donbass in American media leads me to conclude that they did not take note of these developments, which have effectively remained on the periphery of the public’s attention. 

Allow me to present my rather brief overview of American media. What I call “left-liberal media” denotes those resources representing the American interventionists and supporters of American liberal imperialism whose ideological genesis dates back to the ideas and principles of Trotskyism and other ultra-left tendencies [1]. These media outlets either ignored the fighting altogether or covered the events in Donbass in the following way. The Hill mentioned Russian-Ukrainian relations only in the context of sanctions and therefore did not write of the ongoing fighting in Donbass. Bloomberg, on the other hand, dedicated a number of articles to the fighting, one of which is dated February 3rd. The article speaks of the most violent firefights over the past year and mentions Avdeevka (but not a word about the shelling of Donetsk, Makeevka, and other DPR cities by the UAF) and humanitarian problems. The article quotes the head of the OSCE mission, Alexander Hug, speaking of the need for both sides to cease fire. The Economist also featured one article  addressing humanitarian problems in Avdeevka while maintaining silence over the humanitarian situation in Donetsk. The blame for the aggravation of the situation is expectedly placed by this article on Russia and “separatists.” However, it does mention the “creeping offensive” of the Ukrainians which has been admitted to by the UAF itself and which in fact began the conflict. The main idea of the article boils down to the following: Russia is testing Trump’s strength and sanctions policy with this escalation.

More conditionally moderate and conservative media (Fox News, The Observer, The New York Post, and One America News Network) were noticeably cautious in evaluating the situation. They commented on both sides, even blaming both, not only Russia and the Donbass republics, and not only the Ukrainians. However, here once again in the foreground is the humanitarian situation in Avdeevka covered from a Ukrainian-centric view. Perhaps this is partially due to the fact that experts on Russian-Ukrainian relations in the Western (American) media are often Ukrainians. Thus, pro-Russian and even objective views in the top-tier media are nowhere to be found.

Let us return, however, to the situation in Donbass. 

Based on reliable calculations of the UAF’s plans and the good work of the DPR’s intelligence, the republic’s army expected a massive Ukrainian offensive and was overall prepared for such. I would posit that it is none other than thanks to this that artillery and rocket systems were timely brought up to the contact line. This is, of course, a violation of the Minsk Agreements, but a compelled violation. 

To a large extent, this is the fault of the OSCE mission in Donbass which has repeatedly been urged to pay attention to the frequent cases of the republics’ territories being shelled by the UAF. The OSCE mission has been repeatedly blamed for extreme bias. Documentary evidence of the pro-Ukrainian positions of the OSCE has even appeared, as in the case of the photo exposing an OSCE employee in conversation with UAF troops and tanks between residential apartments in Avdeevka. The Minsk Agreements prohibit the deployment of such in residential areas. 

The deputy head of the Special Monitoring Mission of the OSCE, Alexander Hug, was forced to admit this: “Ukrainian forces have heavy weapons – tanks, missile systems, and artillery – deployed close to the contact line where they should not be.” If the DPR were to strictly adhere to the Minsk Agreements in this situation, Ukraine would establish artillery and missile supremacy and could seize Donetsk. 

As of February 5th (the time of this article’s writing), the situation in Donbass has normalized. At the current moment, the two sides are occupying the same positions that they did before the aggravation of the conflict. To quote the Red Queen in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place.”  

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But at just what price have the Ukrainian army and Donbass forces managed to bring back the status quo? We will examine casualty reports and the humanitarian situation in the next installment of our article. 

Continued in Part 2 


[1] The question of ideological affinity between neo-liberalism and Trotskyism is complex and requires a separate and detailed examination. In summary, the affinity between these ideologies and political practices can be traced through (1) the biographies of some modern liberal politicians in the US and EU who were seriously attracted to Trotskyism in their youth and (2) doctrinal questions. Experts on the American neoconservatives have noted that a number of those in the ranks of this grouping are outright or former Trotskyists. Irving Kristol, for example, is a former Trotskyist who called himself the “godfather” of the neoconservatives and is the father of The Weekly Standard’s editor, Wilhelm Kristol. In Europe, the former Prime Minister of France, Lionel Jospin, was a member of the Trotskyist International Communist Organization. Other examples include former German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, and many others. 

As regards doctrinal coincidences, as a specialist on political history and ideologies in Russia, I have noted the doctrinal convergences between the theoreticians and ideologues of modern neoliberalism, the neocons, and ultra-left trends in the USSR. Francis Fukuyama’s theory of the “end of history” (in which history is understood as a confrontation between ideological systems and the fin de siecle of world history comes after the universal, planetary victory of liberalism) is an example. As a point of comparison, at the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, under Nikita Khrushchev’s leadership (also a former Trotskyist), a new party program was adopted which proclaimed the building of communism in the Soviet Union by 1980. Furthermore, the Communist Manifesto in 1848 proclaimed the end of class struggle, resulting in the end of history, to be simultaneous with the victory of the proletarian revolution. History is therein seen as a habitual struggle between social classes reflected in ideologies and superstructure. In regards to Trotskyism’s key theory of permanent revolution, its impact on modern American imperialism (interventionism) is visible to the naked eye. Trotsky’s theory implied a series of revolutions in numerous countries for whom Russia was to play the role of igniting the powder barrel of Europe. This can be compared to the series of “color revolutions” carried out by the US Democratic Party’s headquarters in various countries of Eurasia. The February Revolution in Russia (1917) can be considered the first successful experience of a “color revolution,” whose main ideologue was Alexander Helphand (Parvus). Trotsky, of course, was one of the main organizers of this event. 

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