As Moscow continues to mobilize its troops along its border with Ukraine, a growing number of observers are directly posing the question that has loomed for years over the war in Donbass: is Russia preparing to invade Ukraine?
The ongoing Donbass Conflict stems back to 2014. Following the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine, Russian-backed separatists in the eastern, majority Russian-speaking Donbass region formed the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and declared independence from Ukraine shortly afterwards. Dozens of indefinite ceasefires were signed since the start of the conflict in the summer of 2014, but none of them held. In past years, separatist positions have regularly come under fire by Ukrainian mortars, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), and small arms. Moreover, these recurring rounds of intense skirmishes in urban environments have resulted in thousands of civilian and military deaths. Meanwhile, Ukraine recently signed an import contract with Turkey for a new batch of Bayraktar TB2 combat drones.
Accusing one another of provocative behavior, both the Russian and Ukrainian sides are now preparing for a new round of military escalation in Donbass. Russia’s recent troops surge near its border with Ukraine follows the Kremlin’s allegations that Ukrainian forces are trying to provoke the “escalation of armed confrontation on the [Donbass] contact line.” Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated Russian concerns in a call with reporters on Friday. “Our rhetoric [over Donbass] is absolutely constructive,” he said. “Provocations by the Ukrainian armed forces do take place. They are not casual. There have been many of them.”
Echoing earlier statements made by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov issued a grim warning to Ukraine and its western allies: “Russian President Putin said (this) not long ago, but this statement is still relevant today, that those who would try to start a new war in Donbass - will destroy Ukraine.” The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expressed concern that “Russia’s destabilizing actions undermine efforts to de-escalate tensions.” President Joe Biden spoke with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier today, promising “the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea.”
Nevertheless, the current situation on the ground indicates that Russia likely is not preparing for a massed westward march into Ukrainian territory—at least not preemptively. Since the signing of the Minsk Protocol agreement that laid out a political process for the reintegration of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics into Ukraine, the Kremlin has supported the Donbass separatists indirectly whilst threatening an powerful military response if Ukrainian forces try to retake the breakaway regions by force. Whichever side first launches a major offensive could then be blamed for tearing up the Minsk agreement—a diplomatic liability that neither Moscow or Kiev have been willing to accept.
Russia’s Donbass strategy has been to wait for Ukraine to make the first major military move; as of the time of writing, there is no indication that this core geopolitical calculus has changed. Fully aware of the grave international consequences of preemptively moving its army westward, it appears that the Kremlin continues to adhere to a retaliatory doctrine as the Donbass crisis enters a new escalatory phase.
Mark Episkopos is the national security reporter for the National Interest.