The Russian Federation is concentrating troops and naval vessels on the border with Ukraine, in numbers not seen since 2014, the year of the crisis that irrevocably turned Russia into a monster in the eyes of the Western world and Crimea into its 22nd Republic.
The Donbass has always been a very ‘hot’ area. It has never enjoyed the media attention in Europe or the United States of America that Crimea has enjoyed since it has not been annexed by Russia. ‘Donbass’ is the name by which the geographical region of the Seversky Donets riverbed is known, coinciding with the two eastern Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk and Lugansk. The Donbass war has been going on for seven years, involving the two self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, more or less officially assisted by Russia, and the Ukrainian state assisted by NATO. Most of the population living in the two rebel Ukrainian regions is of Russian ethnicity and language – more than 70% according to statistics.
When riots broke out in Ukraine following then-President Yanukovych’s decision not to sign a free trade treaty with the European Union, which could have brought Ukraine closer to the ‘Western bloc’ and paved the way for future Ukrainian membership of the EU and thus NATO, Putin’s Russia felt it was its duty to intervene. The ‘excuses’ with which the Russian armed forces entered Ukraine were to rescue the fleeing president – to maintain the continuity of the democratically elected government – and to protect the Russian-speaking and ethnic population, which is substantial but still a minority in Ukraine, obviously concentrated in the Crimean Peninsula and border areas.
Today the conflict continues, and the violence in recent weeks has been increasing rather than decreasing. It could all be part of a plan by the separatist militias: to increase tension to force the Ukrainian armed forces to intervene. The Ukrainian intervention would consequently provoke the encroachment of the Russian armed forces – deployed, as already mentioned, at a short distance from the border – with the pacifying and humanitarian purpose to protect the local Russian-speaking population, a script already followed and which in 2014 led to the annexation of Crimea.
US President Biden has promised to treat Ukraine as a NATO partner and ally, and rumours of a substantial deployment of US naval forces to the Black Sea to protect Ukraine from possible Russian aggression are growing. However, many wonder whether the Biden administration might risk conflating the defence of Ukraine with an ‘Article 5’ situation. The reference is to Article 5 of the Atlantic Pact, the charter that founded the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in 1949. According to Article 5:
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them […] will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.Art. 5, The North Atlantic Treaty
Whether the Biden Administration wants to consider Ukraine as part of the Treaty, even though Ukraine is not part of the Treaty, remains to be seen. In our view, the naval movements have the sole purpose of showing Russia the US determination to intervene directly in a possible conflict. Direct intervention that, however, even according to what we could see in 2014, seems extremely unlikely. Russia will take note of the US moves, promptly ignoring them and proceeding with its original plans, while the US and Europe will stand by and watch.
For its part, Russia has not yet acted. It has candidly declared, through Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman, that it is preparing to respond to provocative actions by Ukraine. First and foremost, the statement by Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky that the country’s accession to NATO could lead to a rapid solution to the conflict. On the other hand, Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs led by Sergey Lavrov, made it clear that the accession of Ukraine to NATO “will not only fail to bring peace to Ukraine but will, by contrast, lead to a large-scale rise in tensions in the southeast, possibly causing irreversible consequences for Ukraine’s statehood“. It should also be remembered that just as Ukraine and other small countries bordering Russia may see an increase in their own insecurity due to troop movements within the borders of their unwieldy neighbour, Russia may similarly frown on NATO members’ demonstrations of strength in the Black Sea.
In conclusion, we can only watch, but we believe the situation will resolve itself. Perhaps with territorial adjustments that will not be recognised by the majority of the international community (and with the traditional economic sanctions) or perhaps, without any consequences, the tensions will decrease and disappear. We do not believe, however, that there will be exaggerated bloodshed or large-scale wars with direct intervention from overseas. At least for now.