Karabakh Is Settled, Who Is Next? No Peace In Sight For The Donbass.

On December 12, despite the ceasefire formally in force since July, Ukrainian mortars and grenade launchers hit several areas in the Eastern formerly autonomous regions of Donetsk (RPD) and Lugansk (RPL), including Jakovlevka, Spartak, and Trudovskaja. Two militiamen of the RPD were also killed in the village of Leninskoe by the 36th Marine Infantry Brigade. As signalled by these individual episodes, it seems that the situation in the Donbass is evolving, impacting stability in a place where, de facto, hostilities never ceased. According to the last report of the OECD, Ukrainian forces have started deploying heavy artillery, including more than 90 M-64 tanks, near the front line.

With the title “it will soon begin”, even a traditionally anti-war agency such as RIA Novosti has exposed the danger of open war re-starting in 2021. This can be seen in parallel with Baku’s military victory in Karabakh. As noted by Iščenko, on-field observer for Svobodnaja pressa, a two-day study of the conflict was held in Kyiv immediately after the peace. Kyiv would be willing to implement a similar strategy, shifting from small, destabilising actions to a massive and simultaneous attack on all fronts, testing both the defenses of the RPL and RPD and the limits of Russian involvement. Commenting on this situation in his annual speech, Putin underlined how Russia, if needed, would intervene directly in defense of the two republics. This means that Zelenskyj would have to challenge not just the RPL and RPD’s militias, but also the better organized Russian troops.

If it is true that helping Ukraine militarily is an activity that NATO itself would struggle to carry out, as it would clash too hard with Moscow’s regional interests, it is also true that there is a powerful NATO ally recently increasing its regional influence: Turkey. Turkey has proven to be a potential stabilizer and counterweight for Russia in the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea, and its leader, Erdogan, seems interested in rebalancing power in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. As Russian expansionistic aims collide with Erdogan’s intentions to reconstruct a neo-Ottoman empire, Ankara has already challenged Moscow indirectly in Karabakh, where it demonstrated that its role as a supplier of military equipment and strategic intelligence is not to be underestimated. However, Ankara cannot risk getting too entangled in Ukraine’s problems and Erdogan wishes to avoid open confrontation with Russia. Therefore, it is likely that Turkey will just stop at providing Zelenskyj with its Bajraktar YB-2 drones.

Lacking direct support, it is also likely that directly opposing Russia would result in the defeat of Ukrainian forces, said military expert Aleksej Leonov. However, even in the event of a defeat, ongoing hostilities would still beneficial for Zelenskyj’s domestic purposes. A protracted war would allow him to foment a climate of national mobilization around the president, consolidating popular consensus. Using the pretext of a new conflict, Zelenskyj could manipulate the conflict as a convenient scapegoat for the current socio-economic and health crisis.

In this context, the consequences of Joe Biden’s electoral victory also need to be assessed. Biden has already selected staff of veterans of the two previous administrations, including the new Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, a close associate of Hillary Clinton. And this is not a coincidence: it was under Clinton that the then director of the Cia, John Brennan, succeeded in fomenting the revolt in 2014, which ousted a duly elected president, Viktor Yanukovych. If Washington returns to meddle with regional powers by enacting a renewed Clinton-style type of interventionism, the situation might even get worse.

Luca Giulini