For various reasons I am upping my probability of intense fighting in the Donbass this year (probably this summer) to over 50%.
The Ukrainian buildup on the border continues. Wheeling in all those guns and equipment and letting them stand idle is expensive. The Americans have sent a cargo ship which is unloading more equipment in Odessa and a Global Hawk is making overflights over the Black Sea.
The other reason is that quite a few people I know who are connected with the Donbass are near certain about a coming conflict to an extent that I don’t recall seeing in years (this excerpt from a discussion featuring Igor Strelkov on Sergey Zadumov’s show is not unrepresentative). Expected timeline appears to be late April to July.
I covered the likely development and consequences of an escalation in another post from a week ago.
The Ukrainian Army is much stronger relative to the NAF than it was in 2014, so absent Russian intervention, the success of Ukraine’s “Operation Storm” is assured. There may be pro-Russian/Donbass cheerleaders who will claim otherwise, but the facts are that in 2014, the Ukrainian Army was dysfunctional, and the conflict was primarily fought by high-asabiya volunteers from both sides, with Russia lending its support to the rebels at critical moments. Today, after six years of spending 3.5% (SIPRI) or 5% (official numbers) of its GDP on the military – whatever the precise numbers, drastically higher than the 1% it was spending before 2014 – the Ukrainian military is much more capable. Meanwhile, most of the high-asabiya NAF volunteers have left and the bulk of it now consists of former Donbass miners collecting paychecks. This will now be more of a “classic” state vs. state struggle, and with Ukraine’s population and GDP being 8-10x bigger than that of the LDNR, the outcome of such a contest isn’t hard to guess. One can compare this with Karabakh War II, with the LDNR in the place of Armenia and Ukraine in the place of Azerbaijan (down to having received Turkish drones).
Putin can’t allow this to happen, so it will have to intervene, and more openly than in 2014. There will be a ramp up in American-European sanctions against Russia and what is very likely to be a last minute kibosh on NS2.
I would array the probabilities something like this:
- 10% Russia allows Ukrainian Operation Storm to succeed
- 50% Russia moves troops in forcing Ukrainians to retreat, but otherwise retains status quo
- 25% chance it recognizes LDNR/officially incorporates it
- 10% chance it expands LDNR to encompass the entire Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts and recognizes/incorporates it
- 5% chance it expands elsewhere (e.g. Kharkov)
Probably much will depend on the kremlins’ read of the international situation. If it looks like the West would stop at symbolic sanctions, then it will opt for the “retain status quo” option. But it looks like the West unifying around Iran-tier sanctions, then it will have fewer disincentives to opt for the hardline options.
For the Ukraine, the optimal outcome would be to “sever” the LDNR for good while minimizing military deaths (bad for Ze’s ratings) and provoking the hardest possible Western sanctions regime against Russia. This will kill reclaiming the Donbass as a third rail of Ukrainian politics, alleviating nationalist pressure against Zelensky; it will foreclose any possibility of the Donbass being “shoved back” into Ukraine and bolstering Russophiles; and it will also save Ukraine billions of dollars worth of gas transit fees. It’s a risky gamble, but it might just work out for Ze.