Foreign Policy Research Institute

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Foreign Policy Research Institute

tel. +38 (044) 287 52 58

Vladimir Putin once again demonstrated: who controls the situation on the front line and what’s the worth of the so-called «disengagement of troops» in the Donbas

On February 18, 2020, at 5 am a massive offensive of Russian troops and militants began in the Luhansk direction. There are losses among the Ukrainian military. According to the headquarters of the Joint Forces Operation, the armed formations of the Russian Federation attacked the positions of Joint Forces Operation near the human settlements of Novotoshkivske, Orikhove, Krymske, and Zolote. The occupants were firing at our defenders with weapons prohibited by the Minsk Agreements. The enemy used 120 mm mortars, the enemy also fired from grenade launchers of various systems and heavy machine guns. Under the cover of artillery, the Russian regular troops attacked from three directions using the sector of disengagement in the area of Zolote and captured a tactically important stronghold of Ukrainian military units without much losses.

What was the response of Ukrainian troops to this Russian attack? Instead of organizing a powerful counter-attack and drive the enemy troops 10-15 km into the occupied territory, the Ukrainian leadership made another diplomatic statement, declaring its loyalty to the Minsk ceasefire agreements. Thus, President Volodymyr Zelensky considers the breakthrough of militants near the demarcation line in the Donbas an attempt to disrupt the peace process, which has begun to move forward. «On the fifth anniversary of the Debaltsevo tragedy, the militants and occupiers staged a cynical provocation. This is not just a cynical provocation, the purpose of which is to put pressure on the Debaltsevo wound, which will never heal completely. This is an attempt to disrupt the peace process in the Donbas, which has begun to move forward, albeit with small, but incessant steps <….> Our course to end the war and our commitment to international agreements remains unchanged just like our determination to fight back against any manifestations of armed aggression against Ukraine».[1]

Unfortunately there was no fight back. The result of its actual absence were new attacks by enemy units from the same advertised zones of disengagement of troops. Now near the Stanytsia Luhanska Russian soldiers went inside the Ukrainian positions and attacked deliverly supply belonging to the 46th Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on the rear road. The response of the Ukrainian side to such systematic military actions of Russian troops was also diplomatic. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine called on the world community to condemn the aggravation of the situation in the Donbas. «The use of prohibited weapons has led to a new wave of victims. This is the latest violation of the agreements reached at the Normandy Format meeting. We call on the international community to condemn this escalation» MFA Spokesperson, Kateryna Zelenko posted on Twitter. 

The European Union as always once again expressed its concern accusing the militants of violating the silence regime and hope that Russia will force them to observe the ceasefire. "There are great concerns about the use of weapons prohibited by the Minsk Agreements, which has led to victims. These offensive attempts by Russian-backed armed groups completely contradict the agreed ceasefire, which has not yet been fully adhered to» EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy spokesman said. «We expect Russia to make full and immediate use of its influence on the armed groups it supports "he noted.[2]

Russia responded to these diplomatic reproaches and concerns in the usual way «we are not there and we have nothing to do with it». Press Secretary of the Russian President Dmitry Peskov claims that the Kremlin does not know anything about the reasons for the escalation of the situation in the Donbas. He said this in response to a question about whether the Russian government intends to take responsibility for this provocation.[3]

Also super-diplomatic response to the Russian military attacks was the statement of the Ukrainian military headquarters of the Joint Forces Operation, which reported that once again after the end of the battle, the occupiers tried to shift responsibility for the attack on the Ukrainian side, spreading the relevant disinformation. It is obvious that the headquarters of the Joint Forces Operation also prefer diplomatic means in accordance with the position of President Zelensky on the need to resolve the conflict in the Donbas exclusively through peaceful political and diplomatic means.

What is the reality of these systematic attacks by Russian troops on Ukrainian positions, despite Zelensky's declared policy of peace? According to an interview with the "Fakty" newspaper national security and defense expert at the "Ukrainian Institute for the Future", Irakli Dzhanashiya: “These shots are Russia's laugh at Zelensky's attempts to stop the conflict by disengagement of troops and other peace initiatives. And we have been reminded about that already on February 15, when Russian patrol boats seized Ukrainian fishermen under the pretext of poaching in the Azov Sea.”[4]

By these systematic attacks Vladimir Putin showed the entire Ukrainian leadership and the international community the following things. Firstly, exactly Russian troops have not only a tactical but also a strategic advantage over the Ukrainian positions in the Donbas. On the next anniversary of the Debaltsevo tragedy for Ukraine and another military victory for Russia, Vladimir Putin once again demonstrated: who controls the situation on the front line and what’s the worth of the so-called «disengagement of troops» in the Donbas. And the one who prevails on the military front should also dominate on the diplomatic front. This means that any decisions of the "Normandy", "Minsk" or other formats will make sense only if they are made according to the Russian scenario, and not under what Ukraine would like.

Secondly, Russia is acting in accordance with the logic of war, not peace, as Ukraine intends to do in the Donbas. Therefore, the sectors of the disengagement of troops, of which Zelensky is so proud, are perceived by Russia as a retreat of Ukrainian troops from their positions, which fully meets the tasks of conducting combat operations by Russian units in the Donbas.

Thirdly, Vladimir Putin has shown by this systematic attacks that his troops can easily seize Ukrainian positions along the entire front line (which for some reason is considered by the logic of the peace «line of demarcation») in case Zelensky delays the implementation of the political part of the Minsk Agreements. Therefore, further negotiations on a peaceful settlement will lead to nothing, and the fighting with further provocations of the enemy will only continue.