Eastern Ukraine: how serious is the situation?

US President Joe Biden has called Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin to propose a summit meeting in a third country. Tensions between the two countries escalated after Russia deployed troops to the border with Ukraine, and the US responded by sending two warships to the Black Sea. Moscow says its troops were sent to carry out a military exercise, but Kyiv fears a military offensive. Commentators discuss whether the situation will escalate further.

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LB.ua (UA) /

Russia setting up a pretext to go to war

According to media reports, 450,000 citizens of the People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk have now been issued Russian passports. This could be a deliberate pretext for an offensive, LB.ua speculates:

“In the mid-2000s, Russian passports began to be issued in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The 'protection of compatriots' became the formal pretext for Russia's aggression against Georgia on 8 August 2008. At the time, Dmitry Medvedev cited Article 61, paragraph 2 of the Russian Constitution: 'The Russian Federation guarantees its citizens protection outside its borders'. ... Putin will be meeting with the Federation Council on 21 April, where he could request permission to deploy troops abroad.”

NV (UA) /

Only a strong Ukraine can defend itself

Ukraine also seems to be an easy target because the constant friction in its domestic politics is wearing it down, writes former president Petro Poroshenko in NV:

“The key to success is to fight corruption and the influence of the oligarchs, as well as purging Russian agents of their power. ... Russia will decide to launch a military offensive only when it feels that our state is weakened and the price of aggression will be minimal. Until then, it will focus on hybrid methods to weaken our democratic institutions and social cohesion. ... The presidential office must stop persecuting the opposition, harassing activists and volunteers and dividing society with questionable initiatives.”

Strana (UA) /

US aiming for de-escalation

Strana attempts to interpret Biden's proposal for a summit meeting:

“This is all very sudden from a man who, just a few weeks ago, called his Russian counterpart a 'murderer'. ... Clearly, the Russian Federation's military actions were the main reason for the call. ... On the one hand the invitation to a meeting promises a way out of the impasse - theoretically the presidents can put together something more conceptual regarding Ukraine than just a ceasefire. ... On the other hand the meeting hasn't been scheduled yet, meaning it's also possible that it won't take place at all. And Moscow has not yet agreed. Obviously, they're waiting for the White House to take concrete steps towards 'pacifying' Ukraine.”

La Stampa (IT) /

Dangerous muscle-flexing

Political scientist Lucio Caracciolo sees the situation as a dangerous showdown. He writes in La Stampa:

“Both sides are making a show of their willingness to take extreme action should it come to an aggression. ... In view of the extremely tense Russian-American relations, it would therefore be unwise to underestimate the explosive nature of the muscle-flexing along the new Iron Curtain. ... It would be naïve to believe that there are not those on both fronts who are ready to unleash a limited blitzkrieg - under the illusion that once the conflict has erupted it can be settled calmly. This is not the case. There is too much frustration, too much violence, and too little willingness to listen to the other side.”

Neatkarīgā (LV) /

Imperialist phantom pain

Neatkarīgā sees Russia's actions against the backdrop of the disintegration of the Soviet Union:

“Russia is currently suffering from what is called the Versailles syndrome. In 2014, 'A' was said in Crimea, and there are enough people in Russia who want to say 'B' as well. The problem is that Crimea, Kharkov and Mariupol aren't enough for Russia. These conquests won't end the imperialist phantom pain. Russia needs all of Ukraine, or at least the Ukraine that lies east of Crimea. Even if this goal brings with it major problems once the war ends, the idea of Russia being willing to break with all the commonly observed norms isn't that unrealistic.”

La Razón (ES) /

Moscow will present the world with a fait accompli

Cástor Díaz Barrado, a lawyer and political scientist, predicts in La Razón that Russia will gain the upper hand in the Donbass in the long run:

“The long-standing disregard for the rights of the Russian minority in Ukraine and Moscow's interest in expanding its sphere of influence, even if this violates Ukraine's territorial integrity, have brought about the current situation. The Ukraine conflict is difficult - not to say impossible - to resolve. The most likely outcome is that the Donbass will end up under Russian control. The lamentations of the international community will be heard for a while and then fall silent as the policy of presenting it with fait accompli is consolidated.”

Artı Gerçek (TR) /

Political messages packaged as war threats

Putin is not aiming for a real war, Artı Gerçek argues:

“Realistically, such a war would do more harm than good. It's very unlikely that a victory like the one in Crimea could be repeated. The scale of the sanctions and the losses would be very high. And it's not even clear what the military outcome would be. ... But if no war is planned, why is there so much propaganda, and why are so many soldiers being stationed on the Ukrainian border? They most likely are only meant to intimidate Ukraine and remind it of the suffering in its lost territory. Europe should be dissuaded from giving advice. And the US should be told to leave Nord Stream 2 alone.”

Hospodářské noviny (CZ) /

Spring mud will prevent the worst

The weather alone makes it impossible for Russia to launch a military offensive right now, Hospodářské noviny notes:

“The Kremlin is unhappy with the current situation and is trying to exert pressure. ... However, a Kremlin spokesman roundly rejected statements made by one of the Kremlin's most important propagandists, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the state television news channel Russia Today, according to which 'Mother Rus should bring the Donbass back home'. ... Nonetheless, a large-scale open clash is hardly to be expected at the moment - if for no other reason than because the heavy military equipment would sink into the deep spring mud.”

Ekho Moskvy (RU) /

Takeover would cause endless fighting over Donbass

In a blog post for Echo of Moscow, historian Yuri Pivovarov sees a toxic situation developing in the Donbass:

“If Russia takes control in the Donbass and snatches more pieces of land from Ukraine, a wave of revanchism will ensue - and the next war won't be long in coming. If Ukraine and the 'collective West' successfully oppose a Russian 'invasion', revisionists will emerge in the former Third Rome and current sovereign Russia advocating an end to the status quo. An historical example of a similar constellation is the competition between Germany and France in Alsace-Lorraine. It could not be resolved militarily. It was only European integration in the second half of the 20th century that took the issue off the agenda.”

Adevărul (RO) /

Ukraine in Nato: squaring the circle

President Zelensky tweeted that Ukraine's quick accession to Nato is the only way to end the war in the Donbass. Adevărul journalist George Damian is sceptical:

“I remember that one of the conditions for Romania's accession to Nato [in 2004] was the renunciation of any territorial claims against its neighbouring states. ... It will be difficult for Ukraine to conclude a treaty with Russia that recognises the annexation of Crimea and the existence of the breakaway republics. ... In fact, Russia started the war in Ukraine precisely to prevent it from entering a pro-Western orbit, as it did in Moldova, Georgia and Armenia. ... Does Nato really want to get involved militarily in this war, as Ukraine is ultimately demanding that it do by pressuring to be admitted to the alliance?”

Ukrinform (UA) /

More propaganda, please!

Ukraine must understand that it is caught up in a media war with Russia, writes journalist Miroslav Liskovich in Ukrinform:

“In a war, even taking into account the standards of democratic journalism, fighting the influence of the aggressor must come first. And that's why you have to change your attitude to the term 'propaganda'. ... This means that we absolutely have to use certain techniques. For example, coverage of events such as a press conference by Dmitry Kozak [of the Putin administration] cannot be limited to 'photographing' the news from Russian sources, as the vast majority of Ukrainian media outlets do. This is where our reaction and assessment must immediately be brought to bear.”

Gordonua.com (UA) /

Several scenarios, from war to diplomacy

Vadym Denysenko, director of the Ukrainian Institute of the Future, sees three possible courses of action for Russia in gordonua.com:

“Option one: a real war over the dam [of the North Crimean Canal]. They take control of it and immediately start negotiations on ending the conflict. ... Option two: a large-scale offensive in which Russia comes from the Crimea and breaks through 'the corridor' to the Donbass at about the point where Kachovka lies. ... The third option is an attempt to increase the level of confrontation to the maximum while at the same time working only with diplomatic means. For example, the fighters of the 'Donetsk People's Republic' block the water supply to Mariupol. Then, with the involvement of international mediators, the possibility of reopening the water supply in exchange for Ukraine letting water back into the North Crimean Canal is negotiated.”

Contributors (RO) /

Prospect of Ukraine joining Nato would change everything

For political scientist Valentin Naumescu the logical consequence of the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian tensions is obvious. He writes in Contributors:

“If there is one quick, relentless and strategically masterful move that the Biden administration can make at this point in the power struggle with Russia, a move that could fundamentally change conditions in Eastern Europe and Russian influence in Europe, it is this: invite Ukraine to join the alliance at the NATO summit. ... In the protracted game between Russia and the West this move could undo the entire 'strategic construction' that Putin has been building since 2008, in other words, the inauspicious 'buffer zone' that Russia claims to need as a security guarantee against the West's 'aggressiveness'.”

Die Presse (AT) /

Minsk Agreement is obsolete

Lingering dissatisfaction makes escalation quite possible, Die Presse concludes:

“The agreement has always been unpopular in Ukraine because it was reached under military pressure. Moscow may now have reached the point where it sees the Minsk commitments solely as an obstacle. ... The question is to what extent an open escalation would benefit the Kremlin. If it were to annex the separatist republics, Moscow would take on a huge economic burden. ... Whether it would be a propaganda success is uncertain. ... And if Russia were to attack Ukraine directly, it would not only risk a massive increase in international sanctions. It would be nothing less than its final renunciation of the Western world.”

Radio France Internationale (RO) /

West hasn't never managed to impress Putin

Journalist Ovidiu Nahoi also wonders just how explosive the situation really is. He writes in his column for the Romanian service of Radio France International:

“For some analysts the military operation is impressive at first sight, but still too small for a large-scale offensive. ... They believe the Kremlin is flexing its muscles to revive the peace negotiations and test the commitment of the new US administration vis-à-vis Kyiv. Other experts fear that this rearmament is just a prelude to a new round of Russian aggression - after the attack on Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. In fact, both incidents took the international community completely by surprise, and the West's response has never been able to defuse Vladimir Putin's aggressive policies to this day.”

Iswestija (RU) /

Kyiv just muscle-flexing

Izvestia sees military finger exercises on the part of Ukraine, but no realistic plans of attack:

“After 2015, it was not the peace agreements or national pacifism that stopped Ukraine from resolving the issue of the 'parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions' militarily, but the realisation that victory was not achievable at an acceptable price. The political and military leadership there never had reason to abruptly and fundamentally revise this assessment. Regardless of all the demonstrative manoeuvres, it is therefore not to be expected that Kyiv will really have its troops advance in the spring. They are merely elements in a big political game taking place in the run-up to high-level negotiations among the 'Normandy Four'.”

LB.ua (UA) /

Smokescreen for recession and stagnation

Putin is using the same old tactics to try to divert attention from economic problems, says lb.ua:

“The decline of the Russian economy in 2020 was the sharpest in the last eleven years (since 2009). According to the latest figures from Rosstat, the country's GDP fell by three percent. This is a result of the coronavirus pandemic, sanctions, and a global decrease in the demand for energy. ... The economic situation of the citizens of the Russian Federation will worsen, and at the same time state spending will increase. Secondly, the Russian economy is facing years of stagnation. And thirdly, Moscow sees a military campaign as a potential solution to the current economic crisis. Hence the provocations.”

Postimees (EE) /

Escalation as leverage

Postimees says Moscow is clearly responsible for the current escalation:

“Russia has several reasons for upping the conflict with Ukraine. The first and strategic one is the water shortage in annexed Crimea since Ukraine closed the North Crimean Canal that supplied Crimea. The second reason could be Volodymyr Selensky's political decisions which have removed Ukraine from the Russian sphere of influence and brought it closer to the West: closure of three pro-Kremlin TV channels and sanctions against pro-Moscow anti-Europe Viktor Medvedchuk. ... One way of slowing down this trend is to allow the frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine to flare up again, or even to fuel new areas of conflict.”

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (DE) /

Sanctions would no longer help

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung suspects Russia wants to test the new US administration's resolve when it comes to Ukraine:

“Biden [has] promised support to the struggling country. But of course the basic problem that Ukraine is not a member of Nato remains. In such cases deterrence is largely based on political and economic instruments. If Russia were to escalate the conflict once more now, it would risk new sanctions. That could be painful in the pandemic, but such prospects have never diminished Putin's willingness to engage in low-level conflict in the past. The recent controversy over Navalny may well have strengthened his view that he is in an all-out competition with America and Europe in which the very survival of his regime is at stake. The West no longer has many options.The West no longer has many options.”

Polityka (PL) /

This will go no further than warnings

Polityka also believes the West will only provide Ukraine with limited support:

“Kyiv is doing a lot to create the impression that the Americans are on its side, and that Nato will not stand by idly if it is attacked. However, it seems obvious that no one in the European capitals or Washington is keen to go to war with Russia to defend Ukraine, which is not a Nato member and does not have a bilateral alliance either with the US or with any European power. ... One can imagine an increased Allied military presence in Romania, more frequent patrols of the Black Sea and a stronger show of force with the help of US strategic bombers. But all these measures would only serve as warnings. ”

El País (ES) /

Not an option but a necessity

Turning a blind eye on the situation in Ukraine would be fatal, warns El País:

“It is vital that the EU now acts with efficiency and unity, updating its own strategy and coordinating it with the US administration without losing its independent voice. Every aggressive gesture by Putin reminds us that this is not an option but a necessity. The severity with which the pandemic is raging in Ukraine is another reason not to underestimate the risks of crisis and destabilisation. The EU cannot afford to allow a neighbour like Ukraine to be drawn into a vortex of problems.”

Radio Kommersant FM (RU) /

Normandy format obsolete

If the countries of Western Europe don't take effective action a situation like that in Nagorno Karabakh could be the result, Radio Kommersant FM observes:

“The number of interested parties is growing: now there's not only the US but also Turkey. The classic Normandy format is clearly losing its importance. No surprise, really, because nothing has been done to improve the situation since 2015. It's no secret that attractive positions don't remain vacant for long. The tolerant Macron and Merkel could soon be replaced by other players. After all, they've achieved nothing in Nagorno Karabakh, merely confining themselves to fine words and expressions of concern. ... But if nothing is done, we could end up with a new Nagorno Karabakh.”