Separatist Violence Escalates In Ukraine’s Donbas Region

A member of the Ukrainian forces was killed by shelling from Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region on April 8th. According to the Ukrainian military, there have been five deaths in the eastern border region in the last week. Reports of renewed front-line clashes and the mobilization of troops on both sides of the Ukrainian-Russian border have increased concerns over significant escalation, despite a ceasefire agreement negotiated last July.

There have been clashes in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Donbas since rebels gained control of the territory in April 2014, allegedly with the support of Russian troops. The White House claimed last week that Russia has now placed more troops on the border with Ukraine than any time since 2014, drawing international concern. Russia has accused Ukrainian armed forces of “multiple” provocations in the region and denies that they are a participant in the conflict.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited the Donbas region on Thursday to “directly assess the situation on the spot,” according to his adviser Mykhailo Podolyak. This recent action follows Kyiv raising alarm bells over Russia’s build-up of forces near the border, with Zelenskiy urging NATO to accelerate Ukraine’s membership process with the security alliance.

He spoke in a press conference after a call with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, expressing that membership is the only solution to the insecurity in Donbas. He also called on NATO members to increase their military presence in the Black Sea region as a “powerful deterrent” to Russia. In a tweet, Stoltenberg expressed “serious concern about Russia’s military activities in and around Ukraine” and affirmed NATO’s support for “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

On April 11th it was announced that the US will send two warships to the Black Sea next week, according to a notice received by the Turkish government. Although the U.S. Department of Defense reported that ships are routinely sent to the region, the planned movement seems to support the U.S. government’s reaction to the developments in Donbas. The U.S. State Department expressed “concern” over Russia’s recent military activity along the border and asked Moscow to explain the recent “provocations.” These statements follow a call between President Biden and President Zelenskiy on April 2nd, where he expressed his “unwavering support.” The U.S. has been a significant ally of Ukraine since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.

The Kremlin has responded to the international community’s concerns by repeatedly denying that Russia is sending troops and arms to support the separatists in Donbass. They also announced that it is Russia’s right to mobilize troops on its own territory. In response to the U.S. Defense Department’s statements about “provocation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that Russia is threatening Ukraine and warned that Russia would respond to the deployment of NATO troops with their own security measures. Russia has insisted that granting Ukraine NATO membership would “worsen the situation” in Donbas, with Peskov telling reporters, “We very much doubt that this will help Ukraine settle its domestic problem.” He also claimed that Ukrainians living in the country’s east do not support NATO membership.

There have been many attempts at peace in Donbas since the conflict began in 2014. The Minsk Protocol was the first agreement to establish a ceasefire in September 2014, but violations on both sides quickly ensued. A new package of measures called Minsk II followed and was signed in February 2015. Though the fighting continued once again, the Normandy Format meeting dictated that the Minsk agreements must remain the basis for any future resolution to the conflict. The 29th attempt at a “full and comprehensive” ceasefire came into effect on 27 July 2020, significantly decreasing mortal losses until the recent escalation. Zelenskiy claims that there have been 24 Ukrainian servicemen killed since the beginning of the year. The United Nations has reported that there have been more than 14,000 people killed in the Donbas region since the start of the conflict.