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Russian military movements in Crimea and along the Ukrainian border have sparked fears of a major escalation in Donbas. A full-scale war could break out in Ukraine’s eastern and even southern regions, under the pretext of protecting local Russian speakers from a potential assault by Kyiv. The military presence near the borders could be a warning to Joe Biden – who is expected to be closely involved in Ukrainian affairs.
Escalation of tensions
On March 26, four Ukrainian servicemen had been killed by militant fire near Horlivka in Donetsk Region. After this, Ukrainian Armed Forces commander-in-chief Ruslan Khomchak said that Moscow had deployed 28 battalion tactical groups along the Ukrainian border, in rebel-held areas and annexed Crimea, warning that this number could double soon.
According to the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Defense Ministry of Ukraine, Russia is in the final stages of preparing a set of measures that are to provoke Ukraine’s military response to the hostile attacks on the contact line in the east of the country.
“Also, Russia plans to bolster its military presence in the territory of the so-called ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’ by sending its regular troops with the explanation that it needs to protect the Russian citizens in the self-proclaimed republics,” the intelligence statement reads.
“Besides, the Russian troops may attempt to advance deep into the territory of Ukraine. What we also know is that the Russian diplomatic missions abroad and media are on alert to reach out to the international community covering the alleged aggression by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and Russia’s ‘peacemaking’ activities in response,” the intelligence agency said.
For their turn, rebels have said that Ukraine was ready to launch an assault on the separatist-controlled areas as soon as a “decisive order” was issued.
Ukraine accelerated efforts to turn international attention to annexed Crimea, publishing a “de-occupation strategy” for the Crimean Peninsula in late March. In addition, Ukraine had halted water supplies in Crimea from the mainland following the 2014 annexation, which caused a major water crisis in the peninsula. Ukraine’s refusal to resume water supplies before “de-occupation” could prompt Russia to launch an incursion into southern Kherson Region to secure access to the Dnieper River, which earlier provided Crimea with water.
On April 6, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry denied reports that a five-year-old boy in the rebel-held village of Oleksandrivske was killed by a Ukrainian drone strike.
Russian and Ukrainian rebel media have earlier accused the Ukrainian military of killing the boy, while fact-checkers have dismissed the Russian claim as disinformation, amid concerns that Moscow may use it as a pretext for military action.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, US President Joe Biden, the foreign affairs ministry of Germany and France expressed their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
What will happen next?
According to the Ukrainian website LB.ua , there will be three possible scenarios:
1. Russia was merely brandishing weapons;
2. Russia may indeed invade Donbas on the pretext of protecting Russian-speaking locals;
3. Russia could launch an incursion into southern Ukraine to resolve the Crimean water crisis.
A “big war” could be beneficial to Washington since it would make it possible to disrupt the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project and impose more sanctions on Russia, the Strana.ua website says.
Meanwhile, the Russian influential business daily Kommersant said that “Kyiv is betting on the West’s help and is trying to persuade it to let Ukraine join NATO. The developments are beginning to resemble the situation in 2008 ahead of a war in another conflict region – South Ossetia”.
According to director general of the Russian Council for International Affairs, Andrei Kortunov, the Russian side has apprehensions that Kyiv will resort to an escalation of the conflict and launch a large-scale offensive of the Ukrainian Armed Forces along the contact line aiming to change the territorial layout in its favor.
The director of the Progressive Politics Foundation Oleg Bondarenko said that “Russia will react depending on the situation. If there is a real war and Ukraine will try to cut DNR and LNR from Russia, Moscow may bring in troops,’ the expert added. ‘I am afraid we are going to see a repeat of the South Ossetian conflict scenario back in 2008 when Russia conducted ‘the operation of coercing [Georgia] to peace’.”
Meanwhile, on April 5, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected suggestions that the Russian military poses a threat to Ukraine, referring to reports that Russian forces were moving “with concealed licence plates” through its Rostov Region, which borders Ukraine.
“The Russian army is moving on Russian territory in directions it considers necessary [and] in a way it considers necessary to ensure our country’s reliable security,” Peskov was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.