The weather in the Donbass is getting warmer which raises a possibility of another round of hostilities between Western-backed Ukraine and Russia-sponsored self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic. At the same time, tensions between Moscow and Kyiv keep rising, as Russia and Ukraine are reportedly increasing the number of troops not only in the areas close to the Donbass, but also near Crimea. How likely is a “great war” that certain media and analysts have been announcing since 2015, when the two sides signed the Minsk Agreements in the Belarusian capital?
The Western mainstream media have been mostly silent over the Donbass war for the past six years. Now they have now started reporting on the conflict escalation. In reality, there is no military offensive from either side. On March 31 The New York Times reported on four Ukrainian troops that were killed in the Donbass on March 26. It took five days for this newspaper to pay attention to the situation in Eastern Ukraine where shelling and sporadic firing never stopped despite two peace deals. It is unlikely a pure coincidence that global media started speculating on a potential full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine right after the US European Command raised its watch level from possible crisis to potential imminent crisis – the highest level – in response to the buildup of Russian forces on the border with Ukraine.
Indeed, according to various reports, dozens of Russian military vehicles – including self-propelled artillery installations “Msta-S” and airborne combat vehicles – were seen passing by rail over the Crimean Bridge from the mainland Russia on their way to the disputed Peninsula. Moreover, military trucks were seen in the Rostov Region near the border with the self-proclaimed Donbass republics. Ukraine, on the other hand, is also increasing the number of troops on the borders with Crimea and the Donbass. Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine General Ruslan Khomchak recently said that new groupings of forces are being created in the areas “where the enemy is most likely to strike” and that the Ukrainian Army is ready to deliver “an adequate response” in the event of an escalation. As previously reported by Russian RIA Novosti news agency, the Ukrainian military conducted air defense exercises near the border with Crimea.
Why is Kyiv so worried that Russia may invade Ukraine from the Crimean Peninsula? Russia reportedly holds 32,700 troops in Crimea, and according to the Office of the Federal State Statistics Service in Crimea and Sevastopol, since the region rejoined Russian in 2014, 205,559 Russians moved to the Peninsula. Although most of them live in the coastal areas, Crimea has been facing a water supply crisis for years. After the territory was incorporated into the Russian Federation, Ukraine imposed an economic embargo on the peninsula, cutting off its supply of water and power. The embargo resulted in severe economic and ecological problems, especially for northern Crimea that is bordering Ukraine. Russia managed to establish two power stations to strengthen the peninsula’s energy security, but the water supply issue remains unresolved.
In 2014 the Kremlin had an opportunity to permanently secure sustainable water supply to Crimea. Had Russia seized the whole of southeastern Ukraine, and not just Crimea, the water-supply problem would have been avoided. Ever since, there were speculations that Russia may invade southern Ukraine in order to ensure flawless water supply to Crimea. Such a scenario does not seem very probable. The very construction of the Crimean Bridge, that links the Peninsula with the mainland Russia, was a clear indication that the Kremlin is not interested in annexing southern parts of Ukraine.
On the other hand, Kyiv, backed by NATO, may eventually stage a medium-scale incident on the border with Russia, simply to see Moscow’s reaction. It is worth noting that in August 2016 Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the Ukrainian Defense Ministry of killing a Russian soldier and an FSB officer in Crimea, at the border with Ukraine, but the Kremlin never responded. Recent Russian military movements across the Southern and in some parts of the Western Military District seem to be a message to Ukraine and the West – Moscow does not intend to return Crimea and the Donbass under Kyiv’s jurisdiction.
The Kremlin recently stated it is concerned that the Ukrainian side “may take provocative actions that could lead to a resumption of the civil war in Ukraine.” Such a statement is another indication that Moscow still sees the Donbass as the Russian zone of influence, and Crimea as an integral part of the Russian Federation. Even if the conflict between Russia and Ukraine eventually escalates, it will very unlikely result in a Third World War, as some analysts prone to apocalyptic scenarios predict.
The very fact that leaders of Russia, Germany and France recently discussed the Donbass conflict clearly suggests that the Kremlin and its “dear Western partners” will find a way to manage a “potential imminent crisis”. Given that Ukraine was not involved in the video-conference means that both, Russia and the West, see that country merely as a tool in their geopolitical game.