Staunton, August 27 – While Russia’s involvement in the fighting in southeastern Ukraine has been obvious for a long time, Moscow’s decision to send regular military units, and even more the loss of life of soldiers who were only following orders, is transforming the conflict there for ordinary Russians, according to Nikolay Mitrokhin.
Moscow took this step, the Russian commentator says, because the pro-Russian forces in Donetsk and Luhansk were in danger of losing and because Vladimir Putin needed to save face and improve his chances in negotiations by keeping his “Novorossiya” project going at least while talks are going on.
But in many ways, this step represents a crossing of the Rubicon for Russians because it means that those going to fight and die in Ukraine are not doing so for ideological or financial reasons as has been the case up to now but rather because they have been ordered to do so by Russian officers.
And that is already sparking demands by the mothers of these soldiers that those responsible for giving these orders be brought to justice, a demand that could soon escalate to demands that Putin himself, from whom such orders emanated, be held responsible as well.
However the situation develops in that regard, Mitrokhin’s article provides a remarkable survey of changes in the composition of the pro-Russian fighters in Ukraine. A survey that shows why Russians could be enthusiastic about what was going on because for most of them there was no risk that they or their family members would have to participate until now.
In his Grani.ru essay today, Mitrokhin says that the dispatch of regular Russian troops to Ukraine highlights something many Russians have been reluctant to acknowledge: “the project of forming separatist ‘republics’ in the Donbass will fail without the constant introduction of new forces and fresh blood from Russia.”
The commentator points out that the armed conflict in the Donbass has already “passed through several stages” as far as the composition of the forces fighting on the pro-Russian side is concerned.
In the first, which lasted from April 12 to April 20, there were several groups: “petty criminal groups” which hoped to avoid punishment by the Ukrainian authorities, Russian spetsnaz, GRU and FSB officers, ideologically committed Russian nationalists who had earlier served in various wars and in the occupation of Crimea, and “the group least significant militarily but most significant politically” a small number of local people.
In the second when began from the middle of May and lasted into the summer, Mitrokhin says, the military needs of the pro-Russian forces changed because the Ukrainian army recovered its military capacity and was overwhelming the ability of the Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” to oppose its advance.
To help these entities survive, Moscow organized “channels for the identification, recruitment and transfer of potential fighters for ‘the Russian world,’” primarily by means of attracting to the colors Russian veterans of the Chechen, Georgian and Afghan wars “who were in financially or morally difficult straits.”
Joining them were “politicized ‘volunteers,’” and together these two groups, who came primarily between May and July, were able to slow the advance of the Ukrainian army. But as this flow dried up – summer vacations and the failure of the “republic” leaders to pay them on time had an impact — and as the Ukrainian army gained the initiative, the situation became dire.
By early August, both Donetsk and Luhansk were at risk of falling, and that forced Moscow to act. On August 7, “the situation changed in essential ways,” Mitrokhin says. The Muscovites who had headed the two “republics” were dismissed and replaced by locals, even as the Russian military expanded its actions in the region.
Indeed, only “the participation of Russian military personnel” is the only way for “continuing the war and preserving any territory” under the control of the so-called “republics.” Russia could of course “at the cost of thousands of lives of its own citizens” even with the war but that level of involvement would spark more serious sanctions from the West.
Moreover, Mitrokhin says, Western reaction could put the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad “under threat of transportation isolation,” something which could have a major impact given that in that region “there exist separatist attitudes” which might be the basis for a new challenge to Moscow’s control.
“It is not excluded,” he continues, “that Russian forces are now fulfilling a different task,” that of an ambulance brigade sent to prevent the Donetsk and Luhansk regimes from failing any time soon, to “preserve Putin’s face,” and “to prolong the existence of these ‘republics’ at a minimum until the end of talks” and thus allow Moscow to pull out men and materiel from the region.
But whatever happens next, one thing is clear, Mitrokhin says. “The Donbas has finally been transformed into the latest field of responsibility of the [Russian] ministry of defense” – or at least that is what “military bureaucrats” are calling it when they explain to soldiers’ mothers why their sons are “disappearing.”