Tanks were on the move in rebel-held territories in eastern Ukraine this week
Tanks were on the move in rebel-held territories in eastern Ukraine this week

Columns of tanks are crossing the border; sophisticated weapons systems are again trundling through the streets of Donetsk and Lugansk; and trucks labelled “Cargo 200” – the Russian military code for the bodies of servicemen killed in action – have been spotted.

Moscow is again ratcheting up its support for the pro-Russian rebels of the Donbass in eastern Ukraine. The Russian build-up – documented this week by Nato’s secretary-general as well as international observers – has coincided with a bout of renewed fighting that threatens to undo a fragile ceasefire agreed just two months ago in Minsk.

It raises again a question that has dogged western policy makers throughout a conflict that has killed more than 4,000: What is Russia up to?

Military analysts and Kremlin watchers posit a number of potential scenarios.

Some fear that Russia plans to carve a zone of control stretching all the way to the Crimea – a notion that has gained particular traction in Kiev. Such a scheme also looms large in the minds of many in the separatist movement itself, which harbours revanchist visions of a new nation dubbed “Novorossiya” – an echo of an eponymous Tsarist territory stretching all the way along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.

A land connection to Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in March, would be a huge strategic prize for Moscow, given the difficulty of supplying the peninsula by sea during the winter and the rising costs of building a bridge over the Kerch straight. But the military effort would be huge, say sceptical analysts – probably too tall a task for the eight battalions Moscow currently has on the Ukraine border. It would also almost certainly trigger all out war with Kiev.

Instead, most analysts see a more limited Russian objective of consolidating its rebel allies’ gains. As Nato’s military chief, General Philip Breedlove said this week: “My strategic team believes that . . . these forces will go in to make this a more contiguous, more whole and capable pocket of land in order to then hold on to it long term.”

If the Donetsk and Lugansk regions are to survive as a separate, defendable entity, then Ukrainian forces need to be pushed out of key points such as the airport at Donetsk – scene of the fiercest fighting in recent days – that render the separatists vulnerable to a renewed Ukrainian military offensive.

Another possibility, viewed by Nato strategists as probable, is a more ambitious Russia-backed southerly offensive. While this would undoubtedly shatter the Minsk agreement, it would serve a clear strategic purpose.

“The real problem with the [rebel held area of] Donbass is that Putin doesn't want to pay for it,” says Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group consultancy. “Russia wants an economically viable statelet and that has to include Mariupol – a significant port.”

The Ukrainians fear this and have responded by reinforcing the army there at the start of the month.

“Russia will continue to wage this de facto war with the near term aim of capturing the Azov Sea coast,” says Oleksandr Danylyuk, who advised Kiev’s defence chiefs in military operations this summer.

As much as such clear-cut geostrategic aims, though, stoking the conflict in eastern Ukraine presents broader political opportunities for Russia.

By keeping the conflict brewing, Moscow forces Kiev to direct scarce financial resources to defence.

“Worsening Ukraine’s financial situation is a part of their plan,” says Yuriy Vitrenko, director of international business at Ukraine’s state gas company Naftogaz, pointing to nearly $1bn of revenue that Kiev expects to lose because of unpaid utility bills in the war zone over the course of a year.

The looming threat of a return to full-scale conflict is also seen in Kiev political circles as a means to bully the country’s pro-western government into backing away from EU integration.

“Putin’s objective is not to capture a part of our territory, but to prevent all of Ukraine from becoming a European country . . . For the Kremlin the war is a way of derailing our Euro reforms,” Yury Lutsenko – who topped the party list of President Petro Poroshenko’s group in parliamentary elections – wrote on his blog this week.

Some analysts warn against reading a carefully honed Russian strategic vision into recent events.

Map showing rebel-controlled areas in Ukraine

“Many things indicate that a lot of the strategy is simply being cooked up as it goes along,” says Jonathan Eyal, international director at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank. “There are three key guiding principles but everything else is a tactical response to those: number one, how to do the most but still avoid all-out war with Ukraine; number two how to get the most without provoking too strong a response from the west; and number three, how to do the most without too many Russian casualties.”

Russia is probing and exploiting moments of weakness, Mr Eyal says. With winter on the way and the possibility of a more hawkish US Congress offering greater support to Kiev next year, the latest escalation may be driven by a keen sense of timing.

It is an assessment shared by many in the western intelligence community. Much of it stems, they say, from the fact that Mr Putin is in direct charge of a conflict that increasingly bears the imprimatur of his character.

“There is a difference between a Russian plan and a Putin plan,” says one British intelligence official. “Even in the Russian government, very few people appear to know what will happen next. [The situation] is driven by him [Putin] directly: him seeing what he can get away with and how far he can push the envelope.”

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