Escalating Tension in Donbass: Conflict between Russia and Ukraine

The tension between Ukraine and Russia is increasing day by day. As a matter of fact, four Ukrainian soldiers lost their lives because of an attack by the Russian separatist forces in the east of Ukraine on March 26, 2021. Russian armed units were also deployed near the Ukrainian border. Following this situation, the Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Ruslan Khomchak notified the Ukrainian Parliament.[1]

Although it is stated by Russia that these troops are directed to the region within the framework of training exercises, American officials said that the positions where the soldiers were placed and the lines determined for training exercises were not the same.

The fact that the Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his telephone conversation with the leaders of France and Germany, acknowledged the escalation of the tension with Ukraine and expressed his concern about what happened in the line of contact[2] shows that there is a hot conflict and even the risk of war between the parties.

As it is known, Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. While the United States of America (USA) and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) do not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the U.S. provides millions of dollars aid in both military and other fields to Ukraine each year.

Wishing to open its markets to the European Union (EU) and cooperating with American companies to develop natural gas reserves, Ukraine also welcomes these aids and wants to expand its relations with these states. However, this situation is perceived by Russia as a major threat to the country’s economy. In this regard, there is a tension due to the positioning of Ukraine as a pro-Western actor, rather than the border problems between the two states. However, the tension emerged in 2021 occurred due to the ceasefire violations in the line of control in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine.

In fact, in July 2020, both the Ukrainian Army and Moscow-backed separatists brought up the issue of suspending hostilities after a ceasefire was reached and both sides started to withdraw their heavy weapons from the front as of July 27, 2020. Subsequently, the ratio of armed conflicts between the parties has decreased. However, it is known that the ceasefire violations recorded by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers have increased since February 2021.

Upon the increase in these violations, the parties started to deploy the heavily armed troops in the line of contact again. With this, both Ukraine and Russia called each other provocateurs and made mutual recriminations. Although the armed clashes and mutual recriminations in Donbass are nothing new, this time, military officials in both Kiev and Moscow think that rising tensions in the region could cause war.

The option of war is interpreted as a strong possibility because of the declaration of mobilization by Ukraine, the calling up the reserves who had previously participated in armed conflicts in Donbass and had vast experience, the Ukrainian reconnaissance groups to conduct research in the defense line and the Ukrainian high-level soldiers to inspect the troops in the region. Russia’s non-response to the call of Ukraine and OSCE representatives to fully comply with the ceasefire as of 00:00 on April 1, 2021, also points to the risk of the rising tension in the region turning into a hot war.

While all these developments were taking place, the general meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group was held on March 31, 2021. The meeting started with the proposal of Leonid Kravchuk, Head of the Ukrainian Delegation, to ensure full and comprehensive compliance with the ceasefire from 00:00 on April 1, 2021. The proposal was also supported by Halit Çevik, Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. He proposed to endorse the explanation of a statement confirming the parties’ desire to strengthen the ceasefire and save the lives of civilians as well as military personnel. Thus, two of the three contact group representatives made concrete suggestions on the turning to a full and comprehensive ceasefire. However, these proposals were not supported by the Russian delegation.[3]

At this point, it raises questions on why Russia pursues such a strategy against Donbass. Actually, Moscow’s attitude stem from Kiev’s turning toward the West in order to overcome economic problems. Russia perceives Ukraine’s foreign policy choices as a threat to its own security. The increasing public debt and the rise of customs taxes impoverish the Ukrainian people and this causes a great economic crisis. As a matter of fact, in order to eliminate the discontent of the people, Zelensky brought along some measures in the country and the strategy of getting closer to the West, especially to the U.S. Yet, this policy disturbs Moscow. Therefore, Russia uses the separatist forces in Donbass as proxies. In this regard, the reason why Moscow adopted this policy can be listed as follows:

  • Closing of pro-Russian television channels in Ukraine
  • Imposing sanctions on Viktor Medvedchuk, the pro-Russian opposition leader and close friend of Putin, by the Ukrainian Prime Minister Zelensky
  • Getting support from the West and the U.S. to strengthen the Ukrainian Army
  • US and Ukrainian troops planning joint exercises
  • Ukraine’s determination to push the Russian occupying forces beyond its borders with the help of the West
  • Moscow’s efforts to distance Ukraine from its alliance with NATO and the EU
  • Russia’s desire to respond to the West via Ukraine, thinking that it has been attacked both from inside and its immediate surroundings after the Navalny protests.

The Russian media accuses the Ukrainian Army of getting external support and claim that Ukraine is preparing a major attack on Donbass. Therefore, Moscow accuses Kiev of provoking conflict. However, there is a point that should not be dismissed: just like the Crimean Issue, Russia’s possible Donbass intervention has no legal basis. Although Russia may try to legitimize the issue by stating that it can intervene in Ukraine by claiming to protect its citizens with Russian passports, as in Crimea, it should be noted that both cases are against the international law and constitute a violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

In fact, in the background of the issue is Russia’s desire to gain absolute dominance in its immediate surroundings. Explanations should be included in Komsomolskaya Pravda. For instance, the question of “Will Russia intervene in Ukraine?” has been opened for discussion as follows:[4]

“This depends on how quickly Zelensky will turn into Saakashvili during the war in South Ossetia. Hundreds of thousands (!) of Russian citizens already live in Donbass and carry Russian passports. According to our Constitution, the state is obliged to protect its citizens wherever they are. If Kiev executes a military intervention in Donbass, if Russian citizens die en masse under Ukrainian tanks, American bullets and Turkish drones, Moscow will not remain indifferent. In this case, the international arena will not face the peaceful side of the Russian peacekeepers in Donbass that emerged on the axis of the war in Nagorno Karabakh but with similar events in Georgia in August 2008.”

From this statement, it is understood that Russia can actually intervene in the region to protect its own citizens. In this case, the question of “If Russia intervenes in Donbass and gains the upper hand in the possible war, what will be the results?” should be evaluated.

If Russia prevails in the event of war, Ukrainian troops may be forced out of administrative borders in Donbass, including Mariupol, Slavyansk and Severodonetsk. This could automatically mean the separation of Donetsk and Luhansk from Ukraine and the official establishment of Russian military bases in the region. However, these developments would be against the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Thus, it is possible for Russia to confront the U.S. and NATO in the region and face new sanctions. However, it is known that various sanctions were also applied in the annexation of Crimea and no concrete results were obtained.

To conclude, it is obvious that the possibility of intervening in Ukraine, which Russia sees as its “close brother,” increases the tension in the region. The developments are not just a crisis between Ukraine and Russia; it also reveals the geopolitical rivalry between the East and the West. Undoubtedly, current situation indicated that Donbass can become a hot conflict zone.


[1] “U.S. Watching Escalation of Armed Confrontation near Ukraine’s Border with Russia”, CBS News, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/russia-troops-ukraine-border-concerning-united-states/, (Date of Accesion: 01.04.2021).

[2] “Путин Провел Переговоры c Меркель и Макроном (Putin Provel Peregovory s Merkel i Makronom)”, Gazete.ru, https://www.gazeta.ru/politics/news/2021/03/30/n_15803006.shtml, (Date of Accesion: 01.04.2021).

[3] “Київ: Росія на ТКГ Відмовилася Підтримати Перемиря з 1 Квітня (Kyyiv: Rosiya na TKH Vidmovylasya Pidtrymaty Peremyrya z 1 Kvitnya)”, DW, https://www.dw.com/uk/kyiv-rosiia-na-tkh-vidmovylasia-pidtrymaty-peremyria-z-1-kvitnia/a-57068147, (Date of Accesion: 01.04.2021).

[4] “Когда Начнется Война в Донбассе и чем Она Закончится (Kogda Nachnetsya Voyna v Donbasse i chem Ona Zakonchitsya)”, Komsomolskaya Pravda, https://www.kp.ru/daily/27248/4377008/, (Date of Accesion: 01.04.2021).

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Nazrin ALIZADA
Nazrin ALIZADA
1992 AZERBAYCAN doğumlu Nazrin ALİZADA, 2013 yılında Bakü Devlet Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler bölümünden iyi bir derece ile mezun olmuştur. Aynı yıl Azerbaycan Devlet İktisat Üniversitesi Türk Dünyası İşletme Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler ve Diplomasi bölümünde yüksek lisans eğitimi almaya başlamış ve 2015 yılında yüksek lisans derecesi almıştır. 2016 yılında Gazi Universitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler bölümünde doktora eğitimi almaya başlamış ve halen eğitimi devam etmektedir. Daha önce farklı uluslararası kongrelere katılarak sunumlar yapıb yazıları yayımlanan Nazrin ALİZADA, iyi derecede ingilizce ve orta derecede Rusça bilmektedir.

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