By Riccardo Dugulin for Global Risk Insights
Since the enactment of the Minsk II agreements on February 12th and the subsequent ceasefire put in place on February 15th, the eastern Ukrainian conflict has entered a new phase.
The final battle for Debatlseve initially raised concerns over the potential collapse of the agreement and the resumption of full scale combat operations just a few days after European, Russian and Ukrainian negotiators had reached a deal.
However, the fighting in the strategic transportation hub, located between Donetsk and Luhansk, were the last scenes of the offensive initiated by pro-Russia separatists in late 2014 rather than a new step in their fight against Ukrainian nationalist forces.
Since mid-February, the geographic position of the front line east and north of Donetsk and Luhansk has not been altered. Rival armed groups facing each other in eastern Ukraine periodically resort to rocket, mortar and artillery fire.
The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) promptly reports ceasefire violations in areas that can be reached by its personnel.
While these transgressions against the internationally recognized agreements cause casualties among fighting units and the civilian populations on both sides of the front-line, they do not yet amount to an offensive by either of the belligerent parties that would result in the collapse of the current situation.
The situation is different in the northern and eastern peripheries of Mariupol. Since the beginning of the conflict, pro-Russia separatists have been eyeing the coastal town located on the shores of the Azov Sea given its strategic value for an independent territorial entity in eastern Ukraine.
Controlling Mariupol would also provide pro-Russia forces with a connection between the Russian Federation and the Crimean Peninsula. The city is located 60km west of the Russian border and less than 10km from the current front-line.
Since mid-March, fighting has been reported in the village of Shyrokyne, southeast of Mariupol. In light of the current situation in the periphery of Mariupol, additional military and para-military units loyal to the Kiev government have been deployed southwest of the coastal city. The ultra-nationalist Azov Battalion is engaged in training exercises in areas controlled by the government west of the city.
Pro-Kiev forces claim that a large-scale offensive conducted by pro-Russia separatists is likely to occur in the Mariupol area in the short term. They consider that the February ceasefire is being used by separatists to regroup and prepare for the next phase of the conflict.
The local strategic situation suggests a potential evolution in the separatists’ strategy in the Mariupol area.
On March 17th the Ukrainian parliament agreed to grant special status to the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist regions, inside Ukraine, following a nationally recognized election. The decision resulted in a demarcation line that does not take into account the latest territorial gains made by separatist forces. The territorial delimitation solution has been rejected by Donetsk and Luhansk authorities and by Russian officials.
Separatist fighters are likely to adapt their strategy in light of Kiev’s apparent wish to settle for a negotiated solution rather than a complete victory.
Instead of carrying out a large-scale offensive against Mariupol that would lead to an increased international pressure on Moscow, separatist forces may try to push for additional progressive territorial gains that would diminish their enemies’ defensive capabilities.
In the short-term this could lead to increased offensive operations involving small-scale infantry actions, ambushes, roadside bombs as well as rocket and artillery fire in areas north and east of Mariupol with the objective of closing in on the nationalists’ supply lines around the city. Without engaging the urban center directly, each separatist operation would constitute a low-impact action that would not necessarily trigger an escalation.
The current separatist strategy is aimed at strengthening its potential negotiating power while consolidating its territorial control of areas north and east of Mariupol to create “facts on the ground” that will make it more difficult for nationalist authorities to deny them their positions.
In the coming weeks, it is likely that the ongoing tensions in Mariupol will lead to further clashes on the outskirts of the city. These operations may be accompanied by increased Russian military activity, deploying combat ready troops and conducting training exercises along the Russian Federation South-western border near territories held by the separatists.
If Donetsk and Luhansk separatists sense that attempts to gradually cut off Mariupol will not result in any major response from government forces, the situation in the periphery of the city may deteriorate leading to a renewed series of clashes.
Regardless of the immediate scenario, the focus on the strategic coastal city comes as a stern reminder of the heavy economic and humanitarian price that eastern Ukraine is paying in the current conflict.