Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely attempting to leverage his gains in the Syrian Civil War to expand Russia’s freedom of action in eastern Ukraine. Russia and the separatists began to escalate operations in eastern Ukraine in mid-February, directly coinciding with the implementation of the Syrian cessation of hostilities agreement on February 27 and subsequent drawdown of Russian forces. The Syrian and Ukrainian theaters have been linked before. In September 2015, the Ukrainian military reported a partial withdrawal of heavy artillery and armor from the front line and a decrease in clashes with Russian-backed separatist forces, coinciding with Russia’s launch of its air campaign in Syria. Putin again directly linked the two theaters in his March 14 phone call with President Barack Obama on the Russian drawdown in Syria, stressing “the need for the complete fulfilment of the Minsk Agreements by the Ukrainian authorities.”
Russia and its proxies have escalated operations involving re-deployed heavy weapons in eastern Ukraine in February and March in order to set conditions for future operations and to test the levels of escalation the international community is willing to overlook. Russian-backed separatists likely intend to target multiple pressure points in order to stretch Ukrainian forces along the separatists’ western front in an attempt to disguise their intentions about which single position they intend to prioritize.
Specifically, separatists based around Donetsk city, who had concentrated fire on government positions to its west in February, redirected their attacks north of the stronghold in early March. Separatists escalated attacks on Avdiivka, north of Donetsk city, firing rare heavy artillery, tanks, and mortars and clashing with Ukrainian troops starting March 4. Separatists also launched “Grad” multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), banned from the front line by the “Minsk II” ceasefire agreement, west of Donetsk airport on March 3 and on February 16, showing their intention to escalate the conflict despite the ceasefire. Despite a mid-February withdrawal of separatist forces from a long-contested village east of Mariupol, separatists increased the scope of indirect fire attacks on Ukrainian positions east and northeast of the strategic port city. The tandem escalation of attacks in close proximity to the most populated government-controlled city in the region and Donetsk city may increase pressure on the Ukrainian government to make political concessions tied to the “Minsk II” ceasefire agreement, including recognizing the special legal status of occupied Donbas, in an effort to deescalate the conflict.
Heightened separatist operations in March are part of a larger trend of escalation since December 2015. Separatists have phased their operations as follows:
A) December 2015; January-March 2016: Separatists seize uncontrolled village of Kominternove, east of Mariupol; separatists increase mortar attacks east of Mariupol
B) February-March 2016: Separatists target frontline government-controlled civilian checkpoints (northeast of Mariupol, south and west of Donetsk city, north of Horlivka)
C) February 16 and March 3, 2016: Separatists launch “Grad” MLRS (northwest of Donetsk city)
D) March 4, 2016: Separatists shift focus of offensive operations from west to north of Donetsk city
The unenforced “Minsk II” ceasefire agreement grants Western leaders an attractive non-military response to limiting Russian aggression through negotiations, supported by strict U.S. and European economic sanctions. The “Minsk II” agreement, however, has allowed Russia to expand its political and military leverage over Ukraine. Russia is a belligerent posing as a mediator and can increase and decrease violence in order to coerce Ukraine into concessions. President Putin continues to blame hostilities along the front line on the Ukrainian authorities’ failure to uphold political obligations under the “Minsk II” ceasefire. European leaders’ support for maintaining sanctions may be weakening; the German and French economy ministers have made statements this year supporting the lifting of sanctions in the near term. The foreign ministers of Germany and France, who may prioritize the resolution of the Syrian Civil War over the war in eastern Ukraine, recently expressed hope that Ukraine would allow elections to be held in occupied Donbas by June 2016.
Putin is taking steps to change political as well as military realities on the ground. The separatist “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) began issuing its own passports on March 16, a landmark in Russian-backed efforts to transform the occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts into polities. The leaders of the DNR claimed the passports would be required to participate in local elections in the occupied region, thereby excluding internally displaced persons and pro-Ukrainian individuals from the vote. Despite Russia publically not recognizing the DNR as an independent state, the move may have been approved by President Putin to undermine Western-backed efforts to arrange elections in occupied territory in accordance with Ukrainian law and OSCE standards.
Russia will likely support political and military escalation in eastern Ukraine in the coming months while painting Kyiv as the spoiler of the ceasefire. Russian-backed separatists will continue to gradually escalate indirect fire attacks on Ukrainian positions and shift operations along the front near Donetsk city and Mariupol. Russia may privately support preparations for separatist pseudo-elections in 2016 in an attempt to bolster the legitimacy of its proxies. Previous separatist elections were held in November 2014 without Ukrainian approval, and the threat of another round of elections may be used as a bargaining chip during ceasefire negotiations. Western leaders previously engaged Russia to postpone separatist elections during the operational pause in eastern Ukraine in Fall 2015 and might again ask Russia to make this temporary concession, giving Putin leverage to request concessions from the West and from Kyiv.