Hostilities have increased in recent weeks in Eastern Ukraine between President Zelensky’s government in Kiev and the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics in Donbass. Kiev has yet again begun the nightly shelling of civilian areas in Donbass, the conflict zone in Eastern Ukraine which alongside Crimea has seen an estimated 14,000 people killed in skirmishes between Kiev and separatists since 2014. Russia has responded to these developments by deploying 40,000 Russian troops near the border between Donbass and Western Russia, leading to Biden calling Putin on Tuesday to ‘de-escalate tensions’. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed the redeployments had taken place “in response to the military activity of the alliance that threatens Russia.” Kiev’s actions are considered a declaration of war by many in Eastern Ukraine and a betrayal of the 2014 Minsk protocol which saw Russia and Ukraine agree to cease hostilities between Kiev and Donbass.
The escalation has come on the back of an authoritarian crackdown by Kiev in recent months. Zelensky ramped up tensions earlier in the year after signing a decree which took eight news outlets off the air, ostensibly to combat Russian disinformation. This was met with approval from Washington, with the US embassy tweeting praise for the crackdown by labelling it as an attempt to prevent “disinformation from being deployed as an information war against sovereign states.” Petro Symonenko, First Secretary of the now banned Communist Party of Ukraine, warned that the television ban was “the road to the establishment of a personal dictatorship in the country.”
After becoming president in 2019, many hoped that Zelensky would be a moderating influence who would broker a lasting resolution to the dispute between Kiev and the separatist regions of Eastern Ukraine. However, it is increasingly clear that Zelensky used conciliatory rhetoric towards Russia as a foil to garner support from Russian speakers in the East to ensure election victory. The Ukrainian military build-up in Donbass and continued shelling has made it clear that Zelensky trying to appeal to hard-line Ukrainian nationalists by taking a tough line on Russian backed separatists. Many far-right Ukrainian nationalists see a renewal of conflict as a means by which they can justify the need for their militias and for their nationalist cause. However, Russian FM Sergey Lavrov has warned that a new conflict in Eastern Ukraine could destroy the sovereign state of Ukraine by further alienating ethnic Russians from Kiev, with polling also showing that not more than 17-18% of the overall Ukrainian population supports renewed military actions against Donbass.
As well as the resumption of hostilities against Donbass, Zelensky has also signalled a desire to reclaim Crimea by signing a presidential directive on the 24th March this year which lays out a policy framework for the ‘De-occupation and Reintegration’ of Crimea. Having overwhelmingly voted to join Russia in the plebiscite held in 2014, there is scant evidence that Crimeans desire reintegrated into Ukraine. The Russian absorption of Crimea dates to the 2014 US backed Euromaidan coup in Ukraine which led to the suppression of the Russian language in Eastern Ukraine and the revival of hard-line Ukrainian nationalism into mainstream politics. This included the integration of neo-Nazis such as the Azov Battalion into the Ukrainian National Guard after numerous fascists such as Andriy Parubiy and Dmytro Yarosh took up senior positions in command of the Ukrainian armed forces after the coup.
The steadfast support given to Kiev by the US has brought to the fore a growing fracture in the Western alliance between Germany and the US. The US has said since 2008 that Ukraine would become part of NATO and has predictably supported Kiev’s latest aggression. Likewise, Washington and Kiev are united in opposing the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Western Europe despite it already being 90% completed. Because Nord Stream 2 bypasses Ukraine by instead travelling under the Baltic Sea, it is forecasted to deprive Kiev of significant natural gas transportation revenues. These economic concerns have also helped to entrench anti – Russian sentiment amongst Ukraine nationalists, with both factors combining to help increase tensions between Ukraine and Russia. The original Nordstream 1 pipeline between Russia and Western Europe already supplies 40% of Germany’s natural gas, with the construction of the second pipeline set to further increase ties between the Russian and German economies. The concern in Washington is that this will reduce Europe’s reliance on US energy companies and concurrently minimise Washington’s chances of building a unified NATO coalition against Russia. US secretary of state Anthony Blinken has warned that the pipeline is “a Russian geopolitical project intended to divide Europe and weaken European energy security.” Biden has threatened to sanction German companies over Nordstream 2, with murmurs in Germany that Biden is turning towards the Green Party to help obstruct the pipeline.
The chances of Washington helping to broker a lasting resolution to the antagonism between Kiev and the separatist regions has also been dashed by the deranged Russiagate conspiracy theory that plagued US politics during the Trump years. This has scuppered the possibility of improving relations between Russia and the US by effectively criminalising diplomacy between the two countries. The Russiagate debacle saw the liberal base of the Democrats champion an aggressive foreign policy as a means to attack Trump, whilst seemingly being unaware that they were being used to bolster the coffers of the arms industry. It was Trump’s pause on weapons sales to Ukraine that was part of the ‘proof’ needed to impeach him for being a Putin puppet. However, the defence official Laura Cooper confessed that people in the Pentagon were getting calls and pressure from the arms industry who were concerned about the effect that reducing co-operation with Kiev would have on their profits. Several of the most prominent Russiagate conspiracists such as Victoria Nuland who were also active in supporting the Euromaidan coup as members of the Obama administration have returned to key positions under Biden. Many Donbass residents blame the return of these anti-Russian hawks for the resumption in shelling.