Ukraine’s summary: Donbas prepares for a “knife fight”

Ukraine's summary: Donbas prepares for a "knife fight"

As forecast, the focus of hostilities in Ukraine has shifted away from Kyiv and north to south and east of the country where Russia is expected to launch an offensive at any time now. In addition to the siege of the port city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian marines are reported to have capitulated in large numbers this week, people in the eastern region of Donbas are preparing for a major attack.

The struggle for the Donbas region will have a different character from the urban warfare seen so far during the war in Ukraine. The area has seen fighting on and off since 2014 with more than 13,000 people killed, despite attempts to reach a negotiated solution. Now the battles are predicted to be tougher than ever.

It will be “knife fight“, writes Frank Ledwidge, an expert on military strategy, carried out around prominent, or geographical and strategic” bulges “where Ukrainian forces risk being captured and cut off. Ledwidge predicts that the next phase will be bloody and protracted, more like the World War II maneuvers than the battles that have taken place until now.

Read more: Ukraine: the fight for the Donbas will be protracted and bloody – military expert

The fighting in the Donbas since 2014 has – at least on the Russian side – involved pro-Moscow separatist militias. Militant warriors – who are not part of a country’s official armed forces, but are often state-funded and trained – are becoming increasingly common in modern warfare. Both sides are using militias in Ukraine to increase their military capabilities.

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Dale Pankhurst, whose research addresses the use of non-governmental armed groups, is concerned that the central control of these militias away from major cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv may become heavier. He points to human rights violations that have already been committed in the Donbas region over the past eight years and fears that this aspect of the war may intensify.

Read more: Ukraine’s war: the key role played by volunteer militias on both sides of the conflict

NATO is preparing

Next month, NATO will hold the Defender Europe 22 exercises in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. This is designed to test the ability of the US military to quickly deploy a large, credible force of soldiers and equipment from the United States to Europe.

If this sounds like it was tailored to respond to the situation in Ukraine and the threat of escalation, then it is not, writes Kenton White, senior lecturer in strategic studies and NATO expert. NATO holds regular exercises and these have been planned for some time. The thing to look at, writes Whiteis if – and how many – American troops remain in Europe afterwards.

Read more: Ukraine: NATO pursues a happy coincidence “only in case” of escalation

NATO looks set to grow in the coming months. Sweden and Finland will both discuss how to quickly track applications to join the alliance as a result of the conflict in Ukraine and what they see as a growing threat to security in their region. But Caroline Kennedy-Pipe and Afzal Ashraf believe that this move could add to the risk of an already dangerous security situation in Europe. If Ukraine’s westward turning point is partly behind Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, they write, the prospect of a growing NATO on Russia’s doorstep could lead to a more dangerous situation than ever.

Read more: Ukraine’s war: Sweden and Finland look at NATO option, but it is a security dilemma for the West

Putin’s Russia

Much has been written about the story available to ordinary Russians who watch the “military operation” in the state-run news bulletins or read about it in the country’s no longer independent press. Many have no choice but to accept at face value the disinformation that comes out of the Kremlin about their military’s conduct of the war – after all, the punishment for even calling the conflict a “war” is harsh.

But to Western ears, these excuses sound hollow. Few believe in the Kremlin’s insistence that the Ukrainian military has shelled its own hospitals and residential areas or staged atrocities such as those discovered in Bucha and elsewhere in the past two weeks as Russian troops have withdrawn. The Russian language has a word for such seemingly lazy excuses: “Vranyo”. As a linguist Neil Bermel explains, it is when someone tells a blatant lie that they do not expect anyone to believe. As a waving word it expresses:

Read more: Ukraine’s war: ‘vranyo’ – Russian because when you lie and everyone knows it, but you do not care

And, just maybe, Putin and his propagandists tell a growing number of Russians what they want to believe. Since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, and indulged in a flame of nationalism when it did, a growing number of Russians have said they identify more with the Soviet Union than with Russia. Neil Whitehead and Paul Chaisty, both experts on Russian politics and society, have tracked down attitudes to Russian national identity and has found that this is primarily about cultural nostalgia and a longing for the old Soviet welfare state, rather than a reflection of a dream of a renewed Soviet empire.

Read more: Putin’s Russia: people are increasingly identifying with the Soviet Union – here’s what it means

War crimes

And with the discovery of what appear to be war crimes in areas that the Russian military has been forced to refrain from, as well as a growing body of testimonies describing atrocities committed by Russian troops, the cry for the guilty – and the people who command them – to face justice becomes ever higher. The President of the United States, Joe Biden, has gone so far as to call what has taken place in parts of Ukraine a “genocide”, which is considered to be the most serious crime being investigated by the International Criminal Court.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – who also refers to what has taken place in his country as genocide – has announced that he will set up a “special justice in Ukraine” to try war crimes. International legal experts Kathryn Allinson and Lawrence Hill-Cawthorne consider what this particular mechanism can look like.

Read more: Ukraine: Zelensky’s “special mechanism” for prosecuting war crimes is explained

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Author: Jonathan Este – Associate Editor, International Affairs Editor The conversation


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