Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits a front line in the Donbas on June 9, 2021. Photo: AFP / Ukrainian Presidency / Anadolu Agency

The situation in Ukraine continues to be very tense, fluid and evolving. The Donbas conflict that erupted in 2014 threatens to escalate, while Western media, politicians and analysts speculate about the exact date Russia may invade its neighbor. 

The very same pundits who claimed Russian President Vladimir Putin would attack Ukraine on February 16 now insist Moscow plans to launch massive strikes on the Eastern European country on February 20.

At the same time, certain Western intelligence services published maps that show Russia’s “plausible” invasion routes into Ukraine. From a purely military perspective, predicting the dates of an “imminent” Russian intervention in the former Soviet republic does not make much sense.

Politically, such announcements aim to prepare Western public opinion for provocations that could eventually lead to a large-scale conflict, and also to discredit Russia for allegedly not following the path of diplomacy.

In reality, the Kremlin was waiting for 40 days for the United States to respond to Moscow’s security proposals that would end NATO expansion eastward.

After the US finally handed over its response to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the Kremlin continued to hold talks with Western officials, even though Russian officials previously accused its European and American partners of attempting to drag Russia into an endless negotiation process.

On February 16, Russia released its 2,300-word written response to the US response on Moscow’s “ultimatum.” According to the document, the US side did not give a constructive response to the basic elements of the draft treaty on security guarantees, and Russia will be forced to respond, including through military-technical measures.

Does that mean that a large-scale war in Ukraine is really a matter of time?

US President Joe Biden says an invasion is imminent. Photo: AFP

Invasion in ‘next several days’

According to US President Joe Biden, Russia will invade Ukraine “within the next several days.” The Kremlin, on the other hand, claims it has started withdrawing some of its units from Belarus, as well as from Russia’s Western regions bordering Ukraine, after the Russian army completed its military drills in the region.

However, given that shelling escalated along the entire front line in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, it is entirely possible that Russia will, sooner or later, one way or another, decide to intervene to protect its proxies – the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic.

At this point, Ukrainian military officials claim Kiev does not plan to launch a military offensive in the region, but the very nature of the Donbas conflict indicates it can be resolved only by war. 

Given that not a single point of the Minsk Agreement – signed in the Belarusian capital in 2015 – has been implemented to this day, the chances for a peaceful solution to the Donbas conflict are very slim.

Some reports suggest the Russia-backed self-proclaimed Donbas republics have started evacuating people living in several villages near the front line, which could be a sign that another round of hostilities is coming.

In addition, on February 17 the Russian embassy in Kiev was seen with smoke billowing out of its chimneys, which raised concerns in Ukraine that Russian diplomats were burning documents.

The very fact that Russian diplomats still haven’t abandoned Kiev and other Ukrainian cities could mean that the Kremlin, at least at this point, does not intend to invade the Eastern European country.

It is worth remembering, however, that some Western countries have already closed their embassies in Kiev and moved to the Western Ukrainian city of Liviv. Do they know something the rest of the world doesn’t? 

Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: WikiCommons

Rumors and recriminations

Rumors are rife that Russia and the US have reportedly made behind-the-scenes deals of partition of Ukraine. Indeed, in May 2021 Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky voiced fears that Washington could strike a deal with Moscow behind his country’s back.

Such an agreement, according to the Ukrainian leader, would mean “a new redistribution of spheres of influence.” The coming weeks and months will show if Zelensky was right.

Meanwhile, the Donbas conflict is expected to escalate, but as long as members of the Special Monitoring Mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are on the ground, there are chances to avoid a full-scale war.

If, however, major hostilities eventually break out, it remains highly uncertain if they will be localized to the Donbas region, or if the conflict will spill over to the entire southeast of Ukraine, and potentially even to Kiev.

Militarily, both sides seem to be ready for a full-scale conflict. If there is a political will, the war can start within days, or weeks. But even without large-scale hostilities, Ukraine is already suffering heavy losses.

Many international companies have reportedly left and potential foreign investors will unlikely dare to start their businesses in Ukraine while tensions in the region remain high. 

Finally, given that Russia once again stressed that the US should withdraw all its troops and weapons from Central and Eastern Europe, and provide concrete legally binding proposals on no further NATO expansion eastward – something Washington is unlikely to accept – a new Cold War between the two superpowers is expected to go on.

Ukraine, and especially the Donbas, will likely serve as a territory where another proxy war will be fought. 

Follow Nikola Mikovic on Twitter: @nikola_mikovic

Nikola Mikovic

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”