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An offensive or a provocation?

Juriy Scheiko / dcAugust 19, 2015

Fighting has once again broken out in eastern Ukraine. But despite the escalation, military experts say there's no indication yet that Russia is preparing a large-scale attack. They say Moscow has another goal.

Situation in Donbass Symbolbild
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Ria Novosti/D. Levy

Fighting between the army and separatists is escalating in eastern Ukraine. In recent weeks, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has reported frequent ceasefire violations. The resurgence of fighting in Donbass has sparked speculation about a possible large-scale offensive against military positions. Aleksandr Turchinov, of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, has begun referring to "active combat operations." He says information that he has received about the strength of separatists and Russian troops indicates that "preparations are underway for a military attack."

Observers contacted by DW were more skeptical, however. "From a military perspective, these small battles are a provocation, or just a test to see how fast Ukrainian troops at different points along the front can react," said Gustav Gressel, of the European Council for Foreign Relations.

But Gressel did say Russian troops on the Ukrainian border are ready for a large-scale military offensive at any time. "In the region around Rostov am Don, there are 40,000 soldiers who could march into Donbass or support an offensive by separatist forces," he said. He added, however, that at the moment there was no clear plan about where, to what extent, and under what conditions a new offensive would take place.

Dmitry Tymchuk, head of the Center of Military and Political Research in Kyiv, also told DW that he saw no signs of a forthcoming offensive. Tymchuk said events on the front since last year had shown that armed Russian troops have always been at center of any larger offensives. "That was the case last year in Ilovaisk and in Debaltseve," Tymchuk said. At the time, separatists and Russian troops corralled Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer fighters in the small town of Ilovaisk. At the end of August 2014, 200 of them were killed. And, despite the ceasefire agreed to earlier this year in Minsk, heavy fighting in Debaltseve forced the Ukrainian army to retreat from the city, leaving it under the control of separatists.

"During such offensives, Russian troops entered Ukraine, fulfilled their missions, and were then withdrawn back to Russian territory," Tymchuk said. Currently, he said there were no grounds to speak of a "mass influx" of Russian troops into Ukraine.

'Still functioning'

According to Gressel, Russia has not yet achieved its goals in Ukraine. "The government in Kyiv has not changed," he said. "Economically speaking, the country is still functioning, and it continues to get support from the West." He added that pro-Russian groups barely have any support from the population in Ukraine, while Moscow, too, is losing support among residents of areas controlled by the separatists. "For Russia, it's very difficult to implement a large-scale offensive with the goal of victory over Ukraine," he said. "The conditions just do not exist at the moment."

Russia cannot simply put the conflict in Donbass on ice as the self-declared Luhansk People's Republic cannot independently maintain its existence. Russia's economy is anything but healthy, which is why Gressel believes that the Kremlin wants to turn people's attention to the "great war against the fascists." At the same time, continued aggression against Ukraine can only lead to increased sanctions on Russia and stronger discussion in Brussels about supporting Ukraine with weapons or training for its soldiers.

Gressel is of the opinion that the Kremlin is trying to create a "Georgian scenario." In the Caucasus War in 2008, Russia contributed to an escalation of the conflict in Georgia. "With these constant provocations and battles, Moscow is trying to put Ukraine off balance and prompt an attack," he warned, adding that this could endanger international support for Kyiv. "I don't see any other alternative for Ukraine at the moment except to sit out these provocations, as painful as that may be."

"The increase in the number of battles being fought shows that the ceasefire brokered in the Minsk Agreement is not being respected," said Nicholas Redman of Britain's International Institute for Strategic Studies. The current violence makes it clear: Even if military experts do not anticipate a major offensive, there can be no talk of a ceasefire.