By Igor Shchebetun
The situation in Eastern Ukraine is heating up. Videos published on social networks show military columns moving towards Donbass. Kiev has put its troops on high alert. Washington is considering sending the navy to the Black Sea, while Moscow is pulling heavy weapons and landing troops to the border.
Ukraine is a buffer state located in the center of Europe that serves as a road to an attack to the East or West. Today, the European Union and NATO, mainly represented by Poland, see Ukraine as a place where Russian influence on the European continent can be stopped. Russia sees Ukraine as an indispensable buffer zone against the West. To be fair, both Moscow and Kiev have internal motives for escalating tensions. President Zelensky's rating is rapidly goes down. In 2021, only slightly more than 20% of Ukrainians are willing to vote for him. Putin faces the same problem, his level of support in February 2021 is only 32%. The bottom line is that both sides have reasons to use the tensions in Donbass to influence the opinion of their voters. But let's still imagine that the conflict is not limited to Donbass, but fully involves Ukraine and Russia, what would it look like? Despite Kiev's efforts to reform the army in recent years, the balance of power between Ukraine and Russia has changed little. Russia has the ability to defeat its adversary and can implement its strategy in a variety of ways. Let's consider which ones? It can conduct small operations along the entire border with Ukraine, which will disperse Ukrainian forces. On the other hand, a small offensive will not bring additional influence in terms of politics or security. Another option for Russia and the Donbass it supports is to expand controlled territory into the rest of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, making the separatists more self-sufficient. However, increasing the buffer territory is too little. Especially considering that such an action would also evoke an even stronger pro-Western sentiment in Ukrainian society and guarantee Moscow additional sanctions, something it cannot afford.
A third option for Russia could be to advance along the Southern coast of Ukraine and the Dnieper River and connect Donbass with Crimea creating such an overland corridor would strengthen Russia's control over Crimea and Donbass and allow it to control 75% of the fresh water supplied to Crimea. In such a situation, the supply lines of the overland corridor will be greatly stretched. And that's not to mention their vulnerability for about 400 km this will not be a problem for Russia unless other regional forces are measured in the conflict otherwise the supply will probably be cut off and the whole campaign proves unsuccessful. However, if no outside force intervenes, then technically Russia could advance further it could seize all of Ukraine and link up with its forces in the region of Transnistria (а separatist region of Moldova) in which case Ukraine would be undermined it would lose access to the Black Sea, reducing the importance of its alliance with Turkey. The apathy of the port city of Odessa would cause significant damage to the Ukrainian economy. From Russia's point of view, having a regional territory along the Black Sea would ensure that most of its interests in the region would be achieved. Geographically, if Russia intended to attack Ukraine, the Dnieper River would be the ideal anchoring point. Capturing all of eastern Ukraine and controlling all crossing points across the Dnieper would allow Russia to focus only on specific points. This would have provided it with a much more reliable line of defense than the buffer zone of Donbass. However, the seizure of such vast territory would instantly provoke fierce resistance that would be difficult to pacify. Such cities as Kharkov, Kiev and Dnepr would become particularly problematic and hotspots. In addition, the seizure of Ukrainian territory would be guaranteed to lead to covert or overt interference by other countries, as well as the maximum application of sanctions by the U.S. as in the case of Iran.
Not much has changed between Ukraine and Russia, at least militarily and politically. Ukraine still does not have the ability to defeat Russia The US is now satisfied with the current situation, Germany does not want to interfere in the situation, and France remains a de facto ally of Russia. Turkey is increasing its support for Ukraine, but they do not have enough resources to affect the status quo. Meanwhile, Russia continues to insist on constitutional autonomy, not wanting direct annexation, so despite all the hype, the resumption of a large-scale conflict is unlikely. However, given the amount of weapons along the borders, it cannot be completely ruled out. In all likelihood, Donbass will remain in limbo, because in political issues diplomats often welcome something new and only when it is actually no different from the old.