In her recent statement, Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office in Ukraine and in the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG), Ambassador Heidi Grau said: “I have to note that the security situation continued to deteriorate over the recent months: in particular, the territory around the disengagement area near Zolote is turning into a hotspot. In addition, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission continues to record an increase in the use of heavy weapons.” Grau seems to summarise the comprehensive ceasefire announced on 27 July 2020. De jure, it is still in effect today. While international monitors expressed restrained optimism about the de-escalation in Donbas in the first months after the ceasefire had been announced, the current state of affairs does not give grounds for positive forecasts.
Negative dynamics can be seen in the losses of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. In 2020, 49 Ukrainian soldiers were killed at the front, four of them after the announcement of a comprehensive ceasefire. Over the period from July 2020 to July 2021, the Armed Forces of Ukraine lost 45 members. Every day, the Joint Forces Operation Headquarters informs about ceasefire violations by militants, and there are frequent reports on the use of weapons by the “DPR” and “LPR” armed formations, which are prohibited under the Minsk agreements.
After the battle of Debaltseve in January-February 2015, the war in Donbas entered a phase, which by analogy with World War I is called “positional,” when the front line remains virtually unchanged. However, there were several serious exacerbations near Marinka, on Svitlodarsk Arc, and other troubled areas in 2015-2020. In some places, Ukrainian troops advanced and took control of settlements and the so-called grey zone. After the truce was announced on 27 July last year, such operations became impossible. Whereas the intensity of artillery shelling decreased, the activities of snipers and reconnaissance and sabotage groups (RSG) stepped up, and the role of drones grew stronger.
The most acute moment was during the spring of this year, when Russia, under the guise of exercises, amassed a 100,000-strong military group near the Ukrainian borders. Against this background, the militants intensified shelling and RSG activities. However, this turned out to be an act of demonstration of force without serious operational and tactical consequences.
Russia and Russian-backed groups used the year of the armistice to study in detail the Ukrainian defence (RSG activities), demoralise Ukrainian troops (constant sniper fire), practice a full-scale invasion (exercises near Ukrainian borders), and prepare a reserve (since April of this year, conscription into the “army” of “LPR” and “DPR” has been announced for the first time during the existence of the self-proclaimed republics). The elections to the State Duma of the Russian Federation in the territory of “LPR” and “DPR” in September this year should mark a kind of “consolidation” of Russia in the territory of the occupied Donbas. The issuance of 700,000 Russian passports to CADLR residents is a clear indication that Moscow is not going to make concessions in Donbas.
Apart from deterring the enemy at the front, the Ukrainian military conducted several large-scale maneuvers during this period, including Sea Breeze 2021, Rapid Trident, and Three Swords, during which interoperability with NATO troops was practiced. The asymmetric response to the deployment of large contingents of Russian troops on the Ukrainian borders was the adoption by the Verkhovna Rada of the law “On Principles of National Defence” which regulates the deployment of territorial defence units and, if necessary, guerrilla movement in case of direct aggression by Russia.
The ceasefire should have become a productive period in the activity of the Trilateral Contact Group. However, the talks do not yield tangible results due to a chronic misunderstanding between the parties: Russia insists on a direct dialogue between Kyiv and the separatists, which is obviously unacceptable for Ukraine. There is no progress on either the ceasefire or the prisoner exchange. There has been no such exchange over the year of the truce; the issue ends in verification of prisoners’ lists.
Nor was the past year an occasion for diplomatic changes. It is worthy of note that a comprehensive ceasefire was not the reason for the Normandy format meeting. In addition to deployment of troops and further integration of the occupied Donbas into its sphere of influence, the Kremlin pursues information and psychological operations. The last of these is a statement by Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office of the Russian Federation Dmitry Kozak that Russia is ready to protect the people of Donbas from “genocide.”. Therefore, it can be stated that the Kyiv-initiated truce did not make Moscow more appeasable and did not inspire international partners to intensify negotiations.