Mariupol and Debaltseve bring Russia closer to military endgame

Mariupol and Debaltseve bring Russia closer to military endgame

In Ukraine, the latest rebel assault on the strategic transport hub of Mariupol signals the possibility of a full-scale invasion to secure the Crimean peninsula.

Following last weekend’s offensive on the strategic port-city of Mariupol and the ongoing battle for Debaltseve between Ukrainian military and Russia-backed separatist forces, signs point to the possibility of Russia launching a full-scale incursion into Eastern Ukraine.

These acquisitions, alongside the loss of the Donetsk airport, would provide the separatists with the necessary infrastructure to be self-functioning pseudo-states. Since the collapse late last year of the Minsk peace talks, separatist forces have made substantial gains in East Ukraine, acquiring key strategic infrastructure and lines of communication.

Analysts and leaders alike are evaluating Putin’s next move as the situation deteriorates rapidly. Despite an economic crisis brought about by Western and EU sanctions, Putin has committed to spending billions to boost Russia’s military capabilities by 2020. As the Ukrainian army faces battlefield setbacks and the US and allies consider providing lethal aid to the Ukrainian military, the question of how far Putin will go to retain influence over Ukraine will be determined by the extent to which Russia’s short and long-term goals are realised.

Strategic gains

Debaltseve is strategically positioned between Donetsk and Russia, and connects the two rebel strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk by road and rail. Capture of the town would not only consolidate the rebels’ hold over East Ukraine as a logistical transport hub, its conquest would deprive Kiev of access to the Azov coast.

Another strategic objective for Kremlin-backed forces is the industrial port city of Mariupol, which on 24 January faced an attack (attributed to both the Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian military forces) on a civilian area which left 30 people dead and nearly one hundred injured.

As the country’s fifth largest port, Mariupol would likewise be a strategic gem for the separatists. Sitting squarely between Russia and occupied Crimea on the Black Sea coast, its industrial and port facilities make it an attractive prize. If captured by Russian-backed separatists, its convenient position could be utilized by the separatists to bring in supplies from Crimea, which was illegally annexed by Russia in early 2014.

Short and long-term goals

In the short term, Putin would likely be inclined to make a deal to lift Western sanctions, which boosted by low oil prices are pushing the Russian economy into recession. The new offensives are seen by some observers as part of a plan by Putin to create a frozen conflict that which could last years or possibly decades, forcing Kiev into concessions and slowing down its integration into the European Union.

Renewed fighting in the east could also intensify Ukraine’s own economic problems, forcing Kiev to increase military spending. A broader goal, would be the acquisition of more territory to create a land corridor to connect the self-proclaimed ‘people’s republics’ of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Such a ‘frozen’ conflict existed in Georgia for almost two decades. Once Russia had secured its hold of break-away republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it set the terms on which it demanded a political settlement. When Georgia refused to abide by these terms, it faced a crushing military campaign. NATO experts are stating that Russian-backed units fighting now have proven far more effective than those in the 2008 war with Georgia.

Separatist capabilities

In recent days, the self-proclaimed leader of the Donestk Peoples Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, declared that separatist forces aimed to mobilise 100,000 men in 11 days to push government forces out of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions and capture the strategic town of Debaltseve.

Official Ukrainian government statements suggest that separatist forces have the capacity for further incursion as arms continue to flow to the region from Russia. Kiev’s ability to deter and defend against further attacks remains uncertain.

It is also difficult to gauge how far Putin will allow his tanks to venture this time. If he is willing to put up with further sanctions, Russian forces could take Mariupol and Debaltseve or make the final push into Odessa. The situation remains highly volatile.

Categories: Europe, Security

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