The British Royal Joint Institute for Defense Studies (RUSI) analyzed the reasons for the sharp escalation of the military conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The British think tank notes that the rise in tensions at the frontline in the Donbas between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebels is evident through an increase in ceasefire violations and military casualties. This frontline in eastern Ukraine separates Ukrainian government-controlled territory from the Russian-backed, so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. Although the east has not seen the intense fighting of 2014–2015 for a number of years, things have continued to simmer.
The recent uptick in violence is significant, since it follows a period of particular calm after both sides agreed to additional ceasefire measures in the Minsk Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) in July 2020. The agreement sought to curtail violence, particularly by reducing return fire for more minor violations.
Russian TCG representative Boris Gryzlov accused Ukraine of bringing new forces and assets to the line of contact, looking for a pretext for military adventurism. The head of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, has been particularly vocal in his accusations that Ukraine plans to escalate the confrontation.
A concerning signal was that the DPR’s armed wing recently announced that they had been authorised to use pre-emptive fire in response to allegations that the Ukrainian armed forces had targeted civilian settlements.
And for his part, the head of the Ukrainian delegation to the TCG, Leonid Kravchuk, assessed this announcement as a possible sign of the unilateral withdrawal of Russia from the ceasefire agreement, something that has not yet occurred. Ukraine’s ministry of defence has said rebel militias have been put on high alert. This could lead to a vicious cycle of tension, frustration and provocation.
Furthermore, the cluster of violations may be higher around traditional hotspots – something that has happened for many years. For example, the Luhansk region has generally been quieter compared with the Donetsk region, but the hotspot area of Zolote continues to see violations. This inconsistency again makes it difficult to understand whether this is a prelude to some form of escalation.
The situation in eastern Ukraine is clearly worrying. Yet rather than immediately pointing to a deliberate escalation or large-scale attack, it is likely for now that violence will continue to intensify, but remain localised. Both sides have incentives to accuse each other of spoiling for a fight. Yet initiating a return to full-scale war would be very damaging for both sides, and inflict even higher economic damage on top of the severe difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic.