From Vedomosti, April 6, 2021, p. 7. Condensed text:
The current exacerbation of the Donetsk Basin conflict is not accidental – it stems from the desperate situation that has developed in the region since 2014.
After the events of August 2014, when the “north wind,” as the DPR/LPR call Moscow’s tacit help, stopped Ukraine’s attempt to resolve the issue with the rebellious republics by military means, Russian leadership tried to repeat in Ukraine the political settlement [it achieved in] August 2008 in Georgia. That time, through the mediation of Europe, Tbilisi was forced to accept a moderate but Moscow-friendly compromise with the cessation of hostilities and a de facto guarantee of independent status for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow tried to build the Minsk agreements [for a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine; see Vol. 66, No. 37‑38, pp. 3‑6, and Vol. 67, No. 7, pp. 3‑7 – Trans.] along the same model. However, this approach did not work in Ukraine. After the intervention of Russian troops, Georgia was on the verge of complete military defeat, and Russian tanks were on the outskirts of Tbilisi. However, at the end of August 2014, Ukraine got off with only a local encirclement and a big scare after its “battle in the cornfields.” As a result, while nominally declaring its “adherence” to the [first] Minsk agreements, Ukraine then basically resumed hostilities. The defeat near Debaltsevo in early 2015 forced Kiev to radically reduce its [fighting] intensity and once again sign [a second set of] Minsk agreements.
However, Ukraine finds these agreements, which were imposed at gunpoint, unacceptable. If they are implemented, the status of the pro-Russian republics will be legalized, and they will guarantee themselves a blocking influence on Ukrainian policy. Which, by the way, is the goal of the Russian side. Therefore, the main task of Ukraine and its Western partners is to dismantle the agreements. The goal is to eliminate not only the DPR and LPR, but also any Russian influence in Ukraine, which will pave the way for Kiev to join NATO. Ukraine’s entry into NATO, in turn, is a strategic goal for the US, since it will enable the deployment of American military units and weapons (including nuclear ones) in the immediate vicinity of Moscow.
The revised Minsk agreements can be based on only one principle – revenge for 2014, which will come in the form of a military defeat and the occupation of the pro-Russian republics [by Ukraine]. Ukraine never prepared for any other scenario or any kind of peaceful solution, and the only obstacle to creating this desired scenario was the military threat from Moscow and the specter of a large-scale Russian intervention. Now, Kiev sees a window of opportunity – namely, the coming to power of [US] President Joseph Biden, the longtime and most senior point man on Ukrainian affairs in Washington. . . .
All of the current Ukrainian authorities’ hopes for Russian noninterference are in vain. Moscow cannot afford for the DPR and LPR to be defeated, all the more so in a situation where it will look like surrendering positions to a clear US satellite. At the same time, the Americans are not going to provide any serious military guarantees to Ukraine and will not fight Russia for Ukraine. In turn, Moscow is clearly demonstrating (including through the deployment of troops in the Crimea and even in Belarus) that if Kiev starts a war in the Donetsk Basin, the entire territory of Ukraine and the very existence of the Ukrainian state in its current form will be in jeopardy.
However, it is possible that the Ukrainian authorities are not currently aiming for overarching goals. Most likely, they will attempt limited offensives with the aim of capturing certain positions and settlements. These will be presented to the Ukrainian public as “major victories,” while at the same time minimizing the risks of a direct military response from Russia.
However, by exacerbating the situation in the Donetsk Basin, Kiev is trying to act as a “tail that wags the dog”: It wants to force the new US administration to become more closely involved in the conflict. This factor is probably key in the current crisis, since Ukraine is inherently interested in internationalizing the conflict. The Ukrainians may try to play a rather primitive combination: aggravate the conflict, and then appeal to the US for “mediation,” thus allowing Kiev to bury the Normandy format of negotiations, which it finds inconvenient. This whole setup clearly demonstrates the importance of the military factor in Russian policy. It is Moscow’s readiness and determination to use military force to defend its interests that are the main lever of influence on Ukraine, and the main means of forcing peace on Kiev.