Preamble: This opinion piece was written by its author while the battle for Mariinka was still being fought. Contrary to many assertions that the UAF had retaken the town almost immediately, the NAF have only withdrawn from the positions they seized in Mariinka in the last day or two. The opinions expressed in this piece may well go some way towards explaining the current withdrawal and the air of “phoney war” that surrounded the battle from the beginning. It is for that reason that we have published it below. To round out the discussion, we hope to publish two additional articles on the topic in the near future. [Réd.]
The battle for Mariinka very much looks like a provocation
Intensification of fighting in the Donbass may be a temporary aggravation or it may break out into a full-fledged resumption of the war. All depends on whether it is favourable to someone to start a third war in Ukraine or if we are dealing with a provocation timed for the G7 summit.
Less than four months since the second Minsk truce, fighting in the Donbass did not completely stop—local skirmishes and clashes periodically erupted, mainly in the region of the Donetsk agglomeration. But night-time clashes that began on Wednesday are of a different scale and come at a time when both sides are ready to resume the war.
In the battle for Mariinka thousands of people are involved, as well as tanks and heavy artillery, from both sides, which formally had to be withdrawn from the line of contact. Ukraine has shut down two of the four roadblocks leading to Donetsk. The number of dead is clearly counted in tens, and both sides accuse each other of starting an offensive and talk about a breakdown of the Minsk agreements.
“Fire was opened on our positions across all the front line,” said the DPR Minister of Defence, Vladimir Kononov. “This is a failure of the Minsk-2, this is an attempt to show that the situation here is out of control.”
“Russia instructed its terrorists to launch a military operation,” said Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, who, however, is actually refuted by Poroshenko’s representative, Lysenko, who said that the attack occurred on a narrow sector of the front.
Anyway, the battles continue, and the moment for hardening military actions seems not to be coincidental. Just the day before, the meeting of the tripartite group in Minsk ended with no results; on the weekend, the G7 summit will start in Germany, in which the Ukrainian theme will be at the centre of attention. The Ukrainian Army, like the Army of Novorossiya, used the truce to prepare for the resumption of hostilities; it now remains to be seen if one of the parties desires to resume them. Is anyone interested right now, in early June, in a new large-scale aggravation?
The fact that the Minsk agreements were unenforceable was clear even at their signing, but they gave a chance of a truce, which was used by all parties. A deal about the actual implementation of the agreements—the restoration of the unity of Ukraine through its reform and the assignment of a special status to the Donbass—was not achieved during four months. Kiev does not want the return of the Donbass in exchange for withdrawal from the Atlanticist course, the Donbass does not want to be part of a Ukraine controlled by pro-Atlantic elites. To split peacefully is impossible: the Donbass intends to return at least the whole territory of the Donetsk and the Lugansk regions while the Kiev government cannot afford to offer independence to even the current DPR and LPR.
The resumption of war in these conditions is imminent, but both sides want to wait for the moment when the internal and external political position of the enemy will begin to deteriorate significantly. The question is whether, in the opinion of Kiev and Donetsk, now is the moment? Or we are talking about a reconnaissance, which may or may not escalate into a full war?
Of course, both sides are really afraid of a surprise enemy attack, and they are not telling the whole story when they constantly say “the enemy is preparing for war”. But propaganda is propaganda, whereas the real decision on the resumption of hostilities will be based on an understanding that the next stage of full-scale hostilities may not end with a simple draw—all the stakes are higher; no one will start a war for no reason. From this point of view resuming the war now is hardly reasonable for Novorossiya.
What are the arguments in favour of Novorossiya striking against the Ukrainian army? By and large, there are two.
First, the high rates of re-equipment and training of the UAF, and the concentration of forces along the entire front line. If in Novorossiya they believe that time works more in the enemy’s favour then, given that the war is anyway inevitable, it is better to strike first, and the sooner the better.
Second, there is a complex situation in Novorossiya—after all, everyone understands that now the unrecognised republics have a temporary, unstable form. A long existence in the form of warring republics is impossible—they need either to start building an independent way of life, or to occupy all the territory of the Donetsk and the Lugansk regions (which, in turn, could be just a stage towards further hostilities over the rest of the Ukraine). Building an independent life within a truncated area is pointless; the entire Donbass needs to be quickly cleared of Kiev’s troops.
However, these arguments have a lot of counter-arguments.
Firstly, the Army of Novorossiya is also significantly strengthening its power and extra time would not do them any harm. It is beneficial for Novorossiya to go on the offensive only in extreme cases—to pre-empt an impending attack of the UAF, i.e. in the moment when accurate information about such is available.
Secondly, it is understood in Novorossiya that real peace will come to their land only after a change of power in Kiev and the establishment of a new Ukraine, from which the DPR and the LPR can either peacefully split, or with which they can enter into contractual, federal relations. That is, there are no illusions in Donetsk that victory will be quick or that it can be achieved in one military strike.
Thirdly, the political and economic situation in Ukraine has not yet become critical for Poroshenko, and another wave of clashes at the top and growing popular discontent are just about to arrive.
Fourthly, in the four months after Minsk, Kiev showed a complete unwillingness to make any compromise with Donetsk, which inevitably causes displeasure among the European backers of Ukraine, who need at least a simulation of movement towards reconciliation to be able to respond to Moscow’s criticisms. Continuous reprimands from Berlin will irritate Kiev and it will do more stupid things with respect to Novorossiya.
Fifthly, even in the event of a UAF surprise attack, Novorossiya will be able to protect itself; moreover, she can count on every possible form of assistance from Russia.
In general, Donetsk and Lugansk now have no serious reasons for the resumption of the war, unless, of course, they have adequate information about the time-frame of a Ukrainian offensive.
What about Kiev’s motivations?
On the one hand, Ukraine has effectively lost the Donbass and Poroshenko cannot fail to understand this. The attempt to regain it by force would be the height of folly. Kiev scares the whole world and itself with the Russian threat, but it is really afraid of an attack by Novorossiya, knowing it could be fatal for the current Ukrainian authorities. Hence, there is an increased concentration of troops on the border with Novorossiya and periodic statements about the “preparation of a Russian invasion”. However, Kiev is not able to abandon the DPR and the LPR as that would bring down the whole pyramid which props up the current Ukrainian government.
The weight of Novorossiya hangs on the feet of Poroshenko, not giving him the opportunity to become integrated into Europe—not in the sense of joining the EU, but in the sense of receiving cast-iron guarantees from the West of “protecting the Ukraine”. Poroshenko, without continuously manipulating the theme of the “threat from the East”, cannot, even for a moment, “forget” about Novorossiya and engage in an attempt to halt the collapse of Ukraine’s economy and statehood, as the attention of a growing number of his citizens will start to switch from Putin to Petr Alekseevich. Which can only end in no good for the Maidain President.
Kiev fears Novorossiya, and, even while realising the suicidal nature of a new war, could still strike first, if, again, it manages to convince itself that Donetsk is going to start a war in the near future. Other serious reasons, such as probing the situation of Donetsk’s defences or just maintaining morale in Ukrainian society, Kiev does not have at all, as the provocation carries huge risks.
But now, on the eve of the G7 summit, Kiev is likely to take a chance and arrange a provocation. Kiev does not want a major war, it just wants to demonstrate to the West their plight and “Russian aggression”. Yatsenyuk is actually directly talking about this: “I am expecting that at the G7 summit the world community will give a proper and adequate response to the Russian aggression.”
Whence Kiev’s confidence that Novorossiya will not respond by going on the offensive? Probably, they think that Russia currently categorically does not want any resumption of hostilities. Indeed, Moscow proceeds from the fact that “the fire is going according to plan” in Ukraine and that the Kiev authorities themselves are successfully arranging the failure of Atlanticist plans to separate Ukraine from Russia. But this does not mean that Russians promise to apply to Poroshenko the principle of pushing what is due to fall.