In some ways it was inevitable; neither side was content with the status quo. Kiev was loathe to accept the de facto suzerainty that had been established in the east, and the ongoing civilian and military casualties were becoming a political liability, a symbol of President Poroshenko’s refusal or inability to bring the Donbass back under Kiev’s control. The separatist republics — and Moscow — could not leave the situation as it stood with Kiev essentially controlling most of Donetsk Airport and Debaltsevo. Without Debaltsevo and the Airport, the ability of Moscow to recognize the breakaway regions as viable pseudo-states was virtually non-existent, their connections to Moscow and the wider region would be hampered without the transportation infrastructure that those points represent.
That is why it is not entirely surprising that the separatists launched an offensive to retake the airport from Ukrainian government control. What had been surprising was the ability of Kiev to contest the airport for so long, thanks in almost full part due to the tenacity of the “Cyborgs,” who repelled the separatists from most of the airport for 242 days.
Yet, like so many other times in this conflict, progress by Kiev has been quickly met by defeat thanks to the quick and precise injection of Russian forces.
The battle over the airport was an opportunity to change the chessboard, an adept tactical awareness that Putin and the Kremlin have often displayed. And with the pressure from sanctions having a discernible and painful effect which show no signs of weakening, the Kremlin has gained an even more pronounced ‘bunker mentality,’ making its risk tolerance heightened. Though the Minsk Accords were in name only, the Kremlin realized that with the situation untenable, and the separatists too weak to change the nature of conflict, they needed to significantly escalate their involvement once again.
The Russian-backed separatists are now advancing on three fronts, not just around Donetsk. Within days Kiev had lost Donetsk airport, its forces were under attack in Lugansk as separatists sought to increase their control of border crossings with Russia, and Mariupol came under significant threat (including artillery attacks against heavily civilian populated areas that Human Rights Watch have identified as coming from the separatists).
Yet, as tempting as Mariupol as a target is, the order of difficulty and effort required to seize it may be slightly more than Moscow is willing to risk.
Until this point the separatists and Kiev have been in a kind of equilibrium for months. The Ukrainian military has maintained a superiority in capabilities in terms of equipment and numbers of troops. However, with Russian support (equipment, tanks, ammunition, training etc) the separatists have been able to maintain a status quo where Kiev’s ability to retake territory (or to properly support Donetsk’s “Cyborgs”) and the separatists’ ability to gain ground have both been at a standstill. Kiev, with its forces hampered by uncoordinated and inefficient leadership — in both the military and political realm — has seemingly been more focused on internationally lambasting Russia than supporting their troops. And the separatists have been well supplied and trained by Russia, but hampered by their own infighting and Warlordism. (Such infighting recently resulted in the ambush and assassination of the so called “commander of the LPR’s rapid-reaction battalion, Aleksandr Bednov (Batman)” and the dissolution of his unit).
Even with the infighting and dependent support on Russia by the separatists, commanding a disparate force with a somewhat limited ability to coordinate operations, they are faced by a just-as-seemingly disparate army fielded by Kiev. Ukraine’s reliance on volunteer battalions, national guard units, and all sorts of hurriedly thrown-together units makes the injection of coordinated and well trained Russian units (such as Airborne and Naval Infantry that are not representative of the Russian Military as a whole) all the more important. With Russian Battalion Tactical Group acting as spearhead forces, they have been able to blunt and dislodge Ukrainian troops along with keeping them off balance enough for the separatists to exploit whatever advantage is gained.
Despite this benefit, the injection of Russian troops is meant to tip the scales of the conflict, not upend the board. To fully repel Ukrainian troops, Russia would need to inject far larger amounts of troops than it currently has, all the while significantly exposing Russia to even more powerful responses by the West, such as shutting Russia off from the SWIFT banking network, a devastating blow but one that would also limit the West’s leverage over Russia in the future and is not without its own significant drawbacks.
This dynamic is especially evident in the Russian-backed forces’ attempt to take Mariupol. With Donetsk airport acting as more of a symbolic objective, the taking of Mariupol would truly solidify the ability of Russia to recognize the breakaway republics as legitimate pseudo-states. As NYU Professor Mark Galeotti noted:
If Mariupol falls to rebels + they can hold it, a real game changer. Kiev credibility falls further, DNR more viable as a pseudostate [1/2]
— Mark Galeotti (@MarkGaleotti) January 24, 2015
Yet to take Mariupol, a large port city that has become Kiev’s new administrative center for the region, it would not only require larger amounts of troops but also of supporting artillery and firepower (and some would argue airpower), much of which the separatists already possess, but not in large enough quantities. It is one thing to take a city when the country is not at war and there are no troops, it is another to seize it from entrenched and committed combatants. (That is part of the reason that DNR leader Zakharchenko and Moscow seemed to differ on the issue of taking the city, with Moscow signaling that Mariupol would not be attacked, understanding the cost in civilian lives that it would entail.) That leaves Debaltsevo as the key piece in Moscow’s claim in creating a new pseudo-state. A key transport hub between Lugansk and Donetsk, its capture would allow for greater communication and re-supply, making a breakaway republic more of a reality.
— Andrew S. Bowen (@Andrew_S_Bowen) January 24, 2015
And it seems that the separatists are pushing hard to make that dream a reality, relentlessly attacking the almost surrounded Ukrainian troops. With Donetsk airport and Debaltsevo taken, Moscow would have a semi-viable state that could be sustained — albeit with massive subsidies that the Russian government can ill afford.
Since Yanukovych was thrust from power, it has been plain to see that the Kremlin would not tolerate the new state of affairs. It has become just as apparent that the state of the east was just as untenable with neither Kiev nor Moscow happy with the situation. The new offensives are just the latest attempts by the Kremlin to seize a strategic opportunity. Knowing that the ceasefire was in name only, they have used this latest round of fighting to attempt to redefine the boundaries in a more acceptable fashion. When the fighting will truly end no one knows, but is a safe assumption that it will not be soon.