The Donbas conflict: What Moscow wants from Ukraine

Putin wants the Donbas issue resolved diplomatically by Ukraine and NATO to stay away, writes Saurabh Kumar Shahi

The Donbas conflict: What Moscow wants from Ukraine

Saurabh Kumar Shahi

Reports of a possible Russian attack on Ukraine have dominated the Western media in the past few weeks. The reports presumed there would be a ground invasion followed by occupation of Ukraine by Russia. The Ukrainian forces warding off the invasion was not even deemed as a possibility.

But is Moscow willing to have a military showdown? The word ‘showdown’ because this correspondent believes the willingness is there on the part of Moscow. First, even after years of requests and threats, Russia has not been able to stop NATO from creeping further east. NATO is now literally at the borders of Russia.

Collective Russian memory remembers that every attack on it, by Napoleon, Nazi Germany or the Polish-Lithuanian Rus, had come through what is now Ukraine and Belarus. There is no way Russia can let these countries become part of NATO. It is an existential threat.

Russia also understands that as years go by, and Ukraine stalls on the peaceful solution of Donbas Question, the Ukrainian Armed Forces, supplied by NATO allies, is also closing the gap both qualitatively and quantitatively.

The supply of Turkish TB2 Drones to Ukraine changed the fate of the Karabakh War last year and has altered the military balance at the Donbas Front. A few dozen TB2 Drones might not pose a threat to a superpower like Russia but can be effective against Donbas separatists. And Russia wouldn’t just roll over and play dead as its brethren are butchered in the East.

Ukraine is also developing long-range tactical ballistic missiles. That, unlike TB2, would be a serious threat to Russia. All these factors have made Russia understand that a showdown in the future will be more costly than doing it now.

So, a showdown appears imminent barring a diplomatic climbdown by the West and Ukraine. Russia’s military objective is to put prohibitive costs on Kyiv by decapitating its medium and large fighting units, imposing debilitating casualties and reducing Ukraine’s defensive capability to rubble.

Armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine started in 2014. It has since killed over 14,000 people. The war pitted Ukrainian government forces against Russiabacked separatists for control over two heavily industrialised regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, also known as Donbas. Fierce battles in 2014-2015 ended with one third of the regions’ territory, its most urbanised part, in the hands of the self-described Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. An uneasy truce has prevailed.

Moscow will prefer to go for a showdown with stand-off weapons including tactical missiles, longrange rockets and concentrated long-range artillery fire. This can destroy army units, communication devices, command and control centres, operational headquarters, airfields, and bring the Ukrainian Armed Forces east of Dnieper River to its knees.

Would this be enough to prompt Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy to settle the Donbas question diplomatically? What happens if Zelenskyy doesn’t relent? What shall Russia do next? Well, that could lead to a ground invasion. Western analysts point to the principle of Chekhov’s Gun, which says that if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following act it should be fired. Why assemble shocking firepower at the Ukrainian border if Russia is not going to use it?

While this is quite likely, it may not unfold as the West predicts. The West had assumed initially that a ground invasion was unlikely because Putin would not risk body bags arriving home. But Putin applied deadly force in Chechnya, in Syria and there is little reason to believe he will hesitate in Ukraine.

The Russian ground invasion however will be limited, fast and quickly reversed if the objective is achieved. There shall be no long-term, drawn-out occupation of Ukraine that the West predicts and possibly wants.

NATO allies have been supplying weapons to Ukraine in the last few weeks. This includes not only ATGMs including FGM-148 Javelins and Stinger Man-portable air-defence systems but also offensive weapons such as M141 Bunker Defeat Munitions which are 83mm expendable rockets that can destroy hardened targets such as bunkers.

The West is under the assumption that these weapons will raise the men and material cost of the invading Russians, and will keep mounting these costs via insurgency and partisan actions. However, Russia seems to have calculated this cost and is willing to bear it.

Any thought of making Ukraine an Afghanistan for Russia is unrealistic because Eastern Ukraine’s terrain does not render itself well for partisan action as it is just a flat steppe. Partisan action against Nazi Occupation in Ukraine during WWII almost entirely happened in Western Ukraine and the forests of Belarus. Any such attempt in the east of the Dnieper remained unsuccessful. What chances are of an insurgency’s success against such odds?

However, that question will arise only if Ukrainian youths are willing to fight in the first place. Russia will likely restrict itself east of the Dnieper, a land dominated by a Russian-speaking majority. An insurgency by Ukrainians cannot take hold; leave alone flourish, amidst such hostile demography.

Ukraine has a median age of 42 years. Western Ukraine, as a more developed part of the country, has seen more creature comfort. Such a population doesn’t render themselves for bloodletting. A Western Ukrainian youth is no Afghan and neither is he a Chechen.

Putin knows it well.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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