This article was originally published on Myśl Polska.
In recent weeks Ukraine has been again at the forefront of the media due to the possible resumption of military operations in this country or in its vicinity. This was due to a complete blockade of the implementation of the agreements aimed at bringing peace to the Donbass region.
In this peace process, the most important thing is the agreement negotiated in Minsk in 2015 (Minsk II Protocol) and detailed in the so-called the Steinmeier formula in 2019, which provides for holding local elections in areas controlled by the self-proclaimed republics of Donbass; then, after the approval by the OSCE, introducing changes to the Ukrainian constitution by granting autonomy to these areas; then transferring control over the border with Russia to Ukraine.
The new president of Ukraine, Zelenskiy, had high hopes for this project for the end of the war, but there were fierce protests in the country, which sparked political forces who saw these agreements as capitulation to Russia and a betrayal of Ukraine’s interests. Instead of a political process, they considered it possible to take military control of the DNR and LNR territories.
Such an option would be an imitation of the events of the Yugoslav war, where in 1995 Croatian forces led by General Ante Gotovina, in a swift military operation, seized the territory of Republika Srpska Krajina, inhabited by Serbs who did not want Croatian power in their lands. The result of this operation was the exile of about 200,000. Serbs from their homes, which is nowadays considered a war crime. General Gotovina was then prosecuted, tried and sentenced by the Hague Tribunal, but was finally acquitted. One might expect that the occupation of Donbas by Ukraine would result in a similar expulsion of its inhabitants to Russia.
The events of last year, when Azerbaijan regained Armenian-controlled territory around Nagorno-Karabakh in a short war, further increased the appetite of Ukrainian nationalist forces for a similar solution. A candidate for the Ukrainian Gotovina has also emerged. It is undoubtedly the general of the Ukrainian special forces Sergei Krivonos, a former deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council. A man with political ambitions, he said that already in 2014 it had been possible to recover Crimea from the Russian hands, but this was supposedly thwarted by treason. Krivonos was removed from office by Zelensky because he openly criticized Zelensky’s policy and pushed for a confrontation with Russia.
Supporters of the forcible regaining of territories do not seem to take into account that Russia is not Serbia or Armenia, and that this is a player of a completely different weight. Nevertheless, at the beginning of this year, after the peace process was stopped and military incidents escalated, Ukraine decided to exert military pressure on the Donbas republics and began to draw troops to the conflict area.
Leonid Kravchuk, former president and representative of Ukraine in the so-called The Tripartite Contact Group for the regulation of the situation in the Donbass blatantly stated that if the “Russian occupiers” did not accept the Ukrainian plan to regulate the situation in Donbas, the Ukrainian side would move on to more decisive action.
Russia cannot be intimidated by an escalation of military tension. Therefore, few were surprised that Putin accepted the invitation to his favorite game, and he also began to put his pieces on this chessboard. There has been a great concentration of Russian military forces near the borders of Ukraine. According to various estimates, it could cover up to 160 thousand. soldiers, over a thousand tanks, two and a half thousand combat vehicles, hundreds of planes and dozens of ships. There were gathered elements of as many as five armies (1st Panzer Guards, 6, 20, 41, 58), 3 airborne divisions (7, 76, 98), a brigade of marines ready to land on the coast of Ukraine, and ships from the Black Sea Fleet , Baltic, Northern and Caspian Flotilla.
The world has not seen such a huge accumulation of military forces since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. After such a concentration of forces, the USA usually started a military operation, therefore, this time, speculation began when the war would occur and what areas of Ukraine Russia would occupy. Will it limit itself to taking over the southern regions of Ukraine (in Russia referred to as Novorossiya), or will it also reach for Kiev?
For those in power in Ukraine, the situation became very nervous and they began to seek support from potential allies, primarily in the USA. From there, only verbal support came and not even the expected shipment of the two American ships to the Black Sea, which was a great disappointment.
The behavior of Canada, which has traditionally supported Ukraine due to the strong position of the Ukrainian diaspora in that country, was also very painful for Ukraine. Well, as CBC reported on April 16, Canada decided to suspend its own military training mission in Ukraine after cases of coronavirus infection appeared there.
145 years ago, in his famous speech at the Reichstag, Chancellor Otto Bismarck said that the Balkans “are not worth the bones of a Pomeranian grenadier.” Today the Canadian government is hinting that Ukraine is not worth putting the health of a Canadian soldier by risking Covid. Interestingly, Bismarck made these words in a situation very similar to the present. Then, in 1876, Russia started a war with Turkey in defense of the Bulgarians and entered the Balkans, which disturbed the then balance of power. Western powers wondered how to react to this. As you can see, the then assessment of Bismarck is still shared by Western countries, although only Canada expressed it so clearly.
This should also be a topic for reflection for Poland. On April 16, Zelenskiy flew to Paris for talks with Macron and Merkel, but everything indicates that he did not receive any significant support there. Dissatisfied with this, Zelenskiy called on the US, Great Britain and Canada to join the negotiations to end the Donbas crisis. Ukraine has also asked Germany to hand over defensive weapons, but knowing the position of the current German government, it is highly unlikely that Ukraine will receive weapons from Germany.
Seeing himself, Zelenskiy came up with bizarre ideas, such as as to meet Putin in the Vatican. In the absence of any positive effects from his actions, President Zelensky clearly lowered his tone by declaring that “the Ukrainian army is capable of resisting anyone, but Ukraine has chosen the diplomatic path of reintegrating its territories.”
Meanwhile, on April 22, Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoygu, quite unexpectedly announced the end of military exercises in Crimea and the start of withdrawing some of the forces to places of permanent stationing. This evoked a clear sense of relief and the conviction that open war, however, would not take place now. It can be assumed that this was the result of certain arrangements in the Moscow-Washington-Paris-Berlin relations, as a result of which Russia received credible assurances that Ukraine would not try to resolve the Donbas problem militarily.
This massive concentration of Russian armed forces ultimately had an unexpected de-escalation effect and showed radical politicians in Ukraine that no other state is willing to engage militarily on their side and simply risk war. Thus, the only option for Ukraine is to accept and fulfill the provisions of the existing arrangements with Russia, at the same time abandoning the daydream of a military solution.
Perhaps Zelenskiy will use this situation as his last chance to bring the peace process to an end. If he fails to do this again, it will be his main failure as a politician, as he went to the elections with the slogan of ending the war. Then Russia will finally cut the Ukrainian Gordian knot with the means at the disposal of Defense Minister Shoigu. Fewer and fewer observers of political life still believe that the current state of affairs can be dragged on for a long time.