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Will Ukraine Launch a New Donbass Offensive This Summer?

Russia is warning that Kiev may launch a new offensive against supporters of the self-proclaimed republics in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. Moscow is urging Paris and Berlin to put pressure on the Ukrainian authorities to prevent a potential renewal of violence

As hostilities threaten to break out again in eastern Ukraine, Moscow is warning that Kiev may be on the verge of launching a new offensive against the self-proclaimed rebel republics in the region.

At a meeting with the German and French ambassadors on July 6, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told them that heightened tensions in the Donbass indicate that the Ukrainian troops are preparing for action to try and take back territory occupied by Russian-backed rebels as part of a two-year-old conflict with the central government in Kiev.

Karasin urged the two ambassadors, who represent the two countries whose leaders – alongside the presidents of Russia and Ukraine – form the four-party negotiating group for resolving the Donbass crisis, “to exercise their influence to put pressure on Kiev in order to prevent a military scenario…”

On the following day, the situation in eastern Ukraine was discussed in a telephone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama.

This time, a similar appeal was made to the Russian leader in relation to the rebel regimes in Donetsk and Lugansk, which enjoy Moscow’s patronage. Obama asked Putin to “take measures to end the significant uptick in fighting in eastern Ukraine.”

Fears regarding a dramatic increase in hostilities in the Donbass were voiced not only in Russia but in Ukraine too. Kiev linked this eventuality to the Kremlin’s desire to destabilize the situation in Ukraine as a whole and in the Donbass in particular. Ukrainian parliamentary speaker Andrei Parubiy said that Moscow may be tempted to do it against the backdrop of “the U.S. election and the crisis in the EU.”

Rise in ceasefire violations

There is no doubt in any quarters that tensions along the contact line in the Donbass have risen recently. According to media reports, over the past several weeks, reports of shelling in the region have risen by a third, while the OSCE is also reporting more frequent ceasefire violations.

At the same time, Russian experts do not believe there are grounds to say that the Ukrainian military are preparing a large-scale offensive on the rebel-held areas of the Donbass.

According to Vladimir Yevseyev, deputy head of the CIS Institute, “one should not be saying that Kiev is deploying a large number of troops.” Rather, he said, one could talk of acts of provocation staged by radicals (there are many fighters from volunteer detachments at the contact line known for their radical views) who are keen to see relations between Russia and the West deteriorate.

Viktor Murakhovsky, a military expert and editor-in-chief of the Arsenal Otechestva (Arsenal of the Fatherland) magazine, told RBTH that he had no data to confirm that the Ukrainian side is preparing “a large-scale military action.”

Meanwhile, Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy head of the Moscow-based Institute of Political and Military Analysis, pointed out that despite the lack of reports that Kiev is preparing an offensive, hostilities in Donbass have never really stopped and a real war “could flare up once again at any moment.”

Khramchikhin attributes this to the fact that neither of the parties is satisfied with the status quo – both Kiev and the rebel regions would like to have more.

‘Pointless outcome’

Russia continued its attempts to appeal to Germany and France on July 8, this time at a more senior level.

In a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, Vladimir Putin urged them to put pressure on Kiev to get the Ukrainian military to end “actions of provocative nature.”

Murakhovsky pointed out that “the Ukrainian side from time to time uses local operations to train its units, including with the use of heavy weaponry.”

This is particularly relevant for the volunteer battalions, he added, citing recent clashes near the key railway junction of Debaltseve, previously held by Ukrainian forces but controlled by the rebels since February 2015.

In the action, two companies of Ukrainian government troops tried to occupy the neutral zone but were repelled and had to retreat, Murakhovsky explained.

“From the military point of view, the outcome [of that operation] was absolutely pointless,” he said.

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