Writing for Eurasia Daily Monitor on March 24, journalist Yuri Lapaiev noted a “creeping escalation” along the line of contact between Ukrainian and Russia-backed forces in Donbas. This creeping escalation comes despite a ceasefire that was brokered last year and started officially on July 27, 2020. Mr. Lapaiev wrote that the ceasefire, while technically still in place, “is functionally over.”
Since December of last year, the region has seen regular shelling along the contact line.
Perpetrators have used grenade launchers and even heavy artillery, according to Mr. Lapaiev. The number of casualties supports the assertion that conflict along the contact line is escalating. Per Mr. Lapaiev, six Ukrainian frontline troops were killed or wounded in action from October 2020 to January 12. That number went up to 30 by February, and there have been 10 casualties in the first 20 days of March. According to a report by Radio Svoboda on March 4, Russia was guilty of a record number 180 ceasefire violations in February.
It is troubling to consider these numbers in the context of recent events in and surrounding Russia and President Vladimir Putin, who appears to be increasingly agitated by various statements condemning him – U.S. President Joe Biden’s comment calling him a killer while promising further punishment comes to mind, as does the recent statement by the foreign affairs ministers of the G-7.
“We deplore recent military escalations by Russian backed armed formations at the line of contact. We call on the Russian Federation to stop fueling the conflict by providing financial and military support to the armed formations it backs in eastern Ukraine, as well as by granting Russian citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens …,” a portion of the G-7 statement said.
Instead of a de-escalation, it appears that the number of “separatist” forces near occupied Horlivka and Mospino, both in the Donetsk region, have increased recently, according to a March 20 report by Radio Svoboda.
Add to this that Russian state and social media outlets are increasingly accusing Kyiv of preparing for a full-scale war in Donbas, indicating that Russia is once again preparing to justify its use of further violence in the region.
In an interview with the Voice of America’s Myroslava Gongadze, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent was asked about the situation. Ms. Gongadze said that there is a lot of fear in Ukraine that “Russia will take on Ukraine in response to U.S policies, even with possible escalation in the Donbas.”
Mr. Kent replied by saying that the U.S. is very concerned and is monitoring the situation. “You can see it in open-source reporting, different actions along the line of contact. New trenches near the old Donbas (Donetsk) airport. I think the key thing is our expectation for Russia, the same as Ukraine, is that President Vladimir Putin and Russia need to live up to the obligations and commitments that Mr. Putin made in February of 2015, six years ago. There would be a total cease-fire, foreign forces, by which I mean Russian forces, are recalled to Russia and that Ukraine recovers the control of its sovereign border.”
We, too, believe Russia should live up to the obligations and commitments made six years ago, but we also believe that the Russian president is a pragmatist who will take what he is given. Now more than ever the statements coming from the U.S. presidential administration and the G-7 must be backed by concrete support. The only way to ensure that Mr. Putin does not escalate the situation is for him to know that, if he does so, there will be real, concrete, painful consequences.