There is no doubt about Russia’s ultimate objective, which is the return of Ukraine in Moscow’s political and economic orbit. Whatever means might serve this purpose, including military offensive, will surely be used by the Kremlin.
Russian president Vladimir Putin is ambitious and merciless, because Ukraine must be put on its knees as soon as possible. The renewed military operations from Donetsk and Lugansk occupied territories in different directions will likely accelerate the economic, military and political attrition of Ukraine. So-called DPR and LPR will significantly enlarge their territories, whereas Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko would be constrained to make considerable concessions for peace (and gas, coal etc). The EU may not reach consensus on adopting additional sanctions against Russia. Even US could hesitate in that respect. That’s probably what president Putin might calculate at this very moment.
There are several indicators and warnings for Ukraine, and the West, that this new military offensive is probably not limited in time and scope and it may prove to be decisive, either by cementing a stalemate situation for years to come or significantly deteriorating president Poroshenko’s position, destabilizing Ukraine and ceding significant portions of Ukrainian controlled territory to Kremlin led forces.
First, Russia has smuggled into so-called DPR and LPR huge numbers of heavy military equipment and troops in support of the most likely pre-planned offensive. Two more Russian Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) are reported to have crossed the Ukrainian-Russian border bringing the total number of Russian troops in the area to around 9000, followed by large numbers of armoured vehicles, tanks and artillery systems (in total around 1200 pieces, excluding those captured earlier from Ukrainian armed forces). The Russian armed forces have also brought in air defence and other sophisticated systems, obviously handled by their own officers. Even marine infantry detachments from Kaliningrad oblast have been reported to take part in the battles at Donetsk airport. Other Russian BTGs stand close to the border, ready to get into action. Given the large amount of Russian equipment and troops, it is clear that the “separatists” cannot be considered independent actors, but rather an extension of Russian armed forces on Ukrainian territory.
Secondly, the capture of territory by the “separatists” has already gained momentum. From September 2014, in clear violation of the Minsk agreement, they have seized some 550 sq km of territory previously controlled by Ukrainian armed forces, mostly south of Donetsk. The strategic Debaltsevo “pocket”, still under Ukrainian control, is under heavy attack. There has been dramatic fighting during last days at the totally destroyed Donetsk airport, an iconic and strategic “mini-Stalingrad” for Kyiv. The “separatists” – with direct support from Russian troops – make great efforts to inflict major losses and ruin the morale of Ukrainian armed forces all along the line of contact. The offensive seems to follow three directions – from Lugansk towards Kharkiv, from Donetsk to the West, and from Novoazovsk to Mariupol and Crimea. If the Ukrainian line of defence crumbles, the military and political consequences could be fatal for Kyiv. President Putin’s armies of “voluntaries” and “separatists” will advance as far as they can, up to Transnistria, if possible.
Thirdly, Russia has issued to Ukraine arrogant demands concerning the status of so-called DPR and LPR, and outright threats against Ukrainian statehood, if Kyiv does not immediately stop the anti-terrorist operation. So-called DPR “leader” Aleksandr Zakharchenko vowed not to hold any more ceasefire negotiations and not to stop the invasion until the whole Donbas is under “separatist” control. In addition, president Putin needs once again action in order to regain initiative in Ukraine and divert domestic attention from deep economic and financial problems. He may eventually disregard additional Western sanctions and intensify the offensive that would seem to many Europeans and Americans to be completely irrational.
Last but not least, the invaders will move forward to gain control over the entire Donbas and possibly create a land bridge to Crimea, if not beyond. In Russian terms that is more doable than building a bridge over the Strait of Kerch. Putin’s fig leaf does not cover any longer the Russian direct and massive military involvement in this conflict. President Poroshenko makes desperate efforts to save his country, but he – and the West – hasn’t yet officially and legally proceded to declare this conflict to be Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. When Russian tanks start rolling towards Kharkiv and Odessa, it may be too late.