Is the Kremlin’s new offensive in Donbas possible?
Russia continues to impose a scenario of local confrontation in Ukraine, just like in Transnistria, Abkhazia, or South Ossetia, while trying to "Ukrainize" the conflict in Donbas. UNIAN asked the experts whether a large-scale invasion is possible in this situation, given the escalation observed in the ATO zone in recent days.
For several weeks, fierce fighting has been raging in Donbas, the Russian proxies fired heavy weapons on the positions of the Ukrainian forces, despite the agreement on the withdrawal of heavy military hardware. Recently, the epicenter of conflict shifted closer to the militant stronghold of Donetsk. According to the ATO headquarters, there has been non-stop fighting in the area between the frontline and the villages of Avdiyivka and Maryinka. The enemy has pulled there a substantial reinforcement.
Recently, the newspaper The New York Times published an article claiming Russia has concentrated tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of APCs on the border with Ukraine. Various military experts admit that this may well be evidence of Moscow preparing for the summer offensive. President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko in his interview with CNN July 16 also admitted this possibility. "I have confirmation from [our] intelligence," he said.
In fact, some sort of spins about a possibility of another enemy offensive , the kind witnessed last year in Ilovaisk or Debaltseve stir the public several times a month. Besides, this information is being spread not only by the Kremlin Internet trolls.
However, regarding the mentioned statement of the head of state, a former deputy chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, General Ihor Romanenko said that it is "a kind of pre-emptive measure, to draw the attention of the West to this fact": "Even the mere fact that we are familiar with a plan of the offensive largely discredits such operations."
In turn, Oleksiy Melnyk, co-director of foreign policy and international security programs at the Razumkov Center assured that the multiple statements about a possible invasion are rather counterproductive and do not contribute to the mobilization of Ukrainian society to respond to this possible scenario. "For many months, the President has been constantly frightening the public with possible invasion. It is unlikely that this contributes to the mobilization of the Ukrainian society to respond to such possible scenario. It is clear that the President has much more reliable information, including from sources that are not available to the general public, but it does not seem too productive to constantly scare the Ukrainian people and our foreign partners," he said.
In his opinion, such messages should be dosed. Otherwise we may see the case with the famous fairy tale about a boy who cried wolf.
However, with all unlikelihood for Moscow to go on a full-scale invasion, considering the possible consequences, it is still impossible to completely exclude such a scenario. In this regard, Ukraine should also prepare for such developments. August is near, and this month is traditionally the most critical in Russian history. The most striking examples in this sense are the war in Georgia and the last year's events in Ukraine. "A high probability of the escalation of fighting is linked to Europe now being less keen to respond to any external threats, even at the scale of war. It’s the holiday season, total relaxation... It is possible that Putin could take advantage of this while assessing all cons and pros," said Melnyk.
Moreover, the current massing of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border and the information on the maneuvers of the Russian proxies are the factors which confirm the possibility of such aggression. "But they do not give grounds to confirm that there is a 100% possibility," said the expert.
If we draw parallels to August 2014, when the Anti-Terrorist Operation in eastern Ukraine has become a de facto full-fledged war with Russia, it is necessary to take into account that at that time there was a threat [ to the Kremlin] of complete defeat of the pro-Russian militants. It’s the incapacity and dependence of the so-called DPR and LPR [Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics] that became the main cause of aggression, according to Melnyk.
Today, Russia, as an aggressor, carefully assesses its chances to succeed and calculates what price the Kremlin will have to pay for it. Therefore, Ukraine should not just sit and wait for an offensive, but take concrete steps to reduce the likelihood of such developments.
Valentyn Badrak, a military expert, director of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament, shares this approach. According to him, Ukraine should work in several directions so that the Army is able to resist the aggressor. But, today, there are not enough resources for strengthening the defense sector. "The military doctrine and the number of [important] laws have not yet been adopted ... A draft bill on territorial defense was registered, but it’s still too raw, there are no bills that had been discussed in early 2015: on military-technical cooperation, on production of arms and military equipment , on protection of international investments…” he said.
According to the expert, a huge number of draft bills which failed to be passed suggests that the implementation of the reform in the defense sector has been taking place in a manual mode. Moreover, the state defense orders for the military industry are not complete, therefore there is a systemic problem in providing defense forces [with weaponry and equipment]. "All these factors allow Russia conducting subversive activities in the Ukrainian parliament and in the government, using the Ukrainian officials, a network of its agents of influence, and material resources ... It allows the Kremlin to constantly escalate the conflict in the ATO zone," he said.
Creating tactical threats
However, according to Badrak, the Kremlin understands that only with the use of terrorist groups, albeit backed by Russian weapons and Russian servicemen, it is impossible to seize new territories in Donbas. The expert believes that the militants fulfill the Kremlin’s quite important task termination of Ukrainian troops, in order to discredit the Ukrainian government and undermine the situation in Ukraine from within.
According to the military expert, in this situation, a large-scale confrontation is theoretically possible only in one case, if it’s the Ukrainian army which goes on the offensive. Since it is the kind of scenario which Moscow might interpret to its own benefit in the eyes of the West. In the meantime, while the Ukrainian Army is on the defensive side, and does not engage in any counteroffensive, Russia is unlikely to dare to attempt a new invasion. "In my opinion, today, the Ukraine’s defenses are in very decent condition and we are able to repel any attack of terrorist groups. But, from a strategic perspective, the risks and challenges in the form of a possible attack of the Kremlin and Moscow's use of the military leverage should be reduced to zero", - he says.
"But, unfortunately, re-equipping and rearmament of the Ukrainian forces are not carried out to the necessary extent," the expert emphasizes.
In turn, the former Deputy Chief of General Staff of Armed Forces of Ukraine, General Ihor Romanenko said that "three strike groups of Russian-terrorist forces formed this spring, but they have not yet engaged them in action." The reason for that is that Russia doubts the outcome of this operation.
Firstly, because in the past year, Russia failed to implement its plans following Crimea’s annexation: "Novorossiya " was supposed to cover a number of Ukrainian regions - from Kharkiv to Odesa. But it did not work out.
Secondly, nothing major is going to happen with few losses. And it is not only about a large number of soldiers killed in action, it’s also about a new round of sanctions. "If they conduct active military operations using the combined Russian-terrorist forces, the situation will further worsen for Russia, as the following possible measures against the aggressor state will be disconnecting it from SWIFT. The situation with Russia’s energy exports also seems to be depressing, as Ukraine does not buy a lot of gas, China rejects the Power of Siberia-2 project..." said Romanenko.
On the other hand, according to Romanenko, Moscow needs to resolve the stalemate, while saving its face. "Therefore, it seems that Vladimir Putin sees his goals in Ukraine in exerting military pressure on the tactical level. And, although he creates predisposition for a large-scale offensive, greater emphasis is being put on subversive actions. Unfortunately, many of our inner political circumstances play into his hands," says the expert.
To date, the Kremlin's fundamental goals in Ukraine are: prevention Ukraine from joining NATO, constitutional amendments and local elections in the militant-controlled territories in a form, beneficial to Russia. In this regard, Moscow is using tactical factors, creating the conditions for pressure, including military leverages, says the expert.
One of these tasks is mobilization in Transnistria. Ukraine should take it seriously and attract Moldova to find a solution for a potential problem.
Another factor of Russia’s pressure is a build-up of paratrooper forces in Crimea. "This is about some additional IL-76 aircraft, recently deployed in the peninsula, the delivery of a new type of attack helicopters (Mi-28N "Night Hunter"), upgraded Mi-8 helicopters and amphibious assault ships. That is, to create all conditions so that the southern direction is deemed to be a threat," said Romanenko.
For the Blitzkrieg, Russian troops can move in via Belarus / Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation
The expert did not rule out the possibility that "if Russia wants to perform a “Blitzkrieg”, its troops can pass through Belarus. Russians can really go that far." "It all contributes to the fact that they thereby exert pressure on Ukraine so that we make concessions on strategic issues. Of course, we need to buy time in order to continue enhancing our military capabilities, first and foremost, in the armed forces. We need time to carry out reforms that have stalled," said Romanenko.