[Occasionally, the gremlins of the Internet conspire to reroute messages and lose them for a period, only to raise their heads and bite unsuspecting Editors at inopportune moments. Such is the case with Miles Quartermain’s story below, which disappeared for exactly a month before surfacing once more! Nevertheless, we reproduce it here since the commentary is still pertinent, despite the passage of time. – Editor]

On 18 February forces of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic (DPR and LPR respectively) launched an offensive against Ukrainian forces in the Zolote area, which is near Luhansk and has been at the centre of Ukraine’s efforts to disengage from combat. The Ukrainian MoD’s report noted that 67 152mm artillery rounds and 56 125mm tank rounds were fired during the eight-hour battle, which left one Ukrainian and four LPR soldiers dead.

The week continued in this vein, with additional assaults made on various Ukrainian positions that included the use of UAS and 122mm artillery. The Ukrainian MoD also notes that “taking into account the lack of personnel within the occupation troops, it is foreseen that new so-called “cosacs units” will be deployed from the territory of Russian Federation.” This is accompanied by LPR and DPR efforts to build new artillery positions and ammunition stores, as well as increased crew readiness.

On the night of 23 February, the day of Russia’s Defender of the Fatherland, a further 20 122mm artillery rounds were fired at Ukrainian forces, according to the MoD. A Facebook post from the Joint Forces Operation – the Ukrainian body responsible for fighting in the Donbass – states these attacks were preceded by the LPR fighters shelling their own positions.

The initial attacks fell on the sixth anniversary of the Maidan shootings and the 5th anniversary of the Battle of Debaltsev, which ended in defeat for the Ukrainian forces.

According to the Kyiv Post, President Zelensky said “this is not just a cynical provocation...This is an attempt to disrupt the peace process in Donbas, which has begun to move forward, albeit in small, but relentless steps."

The attacks show a number of things, despite Zelensky’s assertion: the Kremlin’s denial of any involvement in the attacks indicates that Russia will not willingly break off any talks, and would instead leave this ball in the Ukrainians’ court.

The attacks do add to the Russian narrative that any Ukrainian efforts towards peace and clsoer relations with NATO will lead to bloodshed: however, this is arguably the purpose of the war in Ukraine as a whole.

The apparent lack of any LPR success suggests that Russian forces were not directly involved in this round of escalations, which in turn suggests that LPR forces were responding to the “Red Letter days”. Some independent sources indicate the Kremlin’s attitude towards its LPR and DPR proxies is lukewarm. If this is the case, it seems unlikely that Russia would risk any further aggravation in Ukraine at a time when it is busy balancing its very precarious relationships between Syria and Turkey. This in turn raises the prospect that the ‘proxies’ may have staged an escalation in order to remind their parent that they too need attention if they are to survive.

Overall, the events of the past week serve only to show that nothing in Ukraine has changed. Zelensky’s diplomatic efforts can be derailed by actors who feel no connection to the Normandy Talks. The Kremlin’s efforts to distract from its war in Syria by progressing talks with Ukraine are equally vulnerable. On the other hand, Ukraine continues to offer Russia a diversion, which can be turned up or down as the situation dictates and serve as a distraction from the situation in Syria, which is spiraling out of control. In any case, it is clear that Ukraine has lost sovereignty over the Donbas and there is no evidence it will be returned in the short term.

Miles Quartermain in London for MON

Ukrainian soldiers observe enemy positions from trenches in the Donbas. The war has been largely positional since 2015, and the attacks on 18 February marked the first such attempt in two years. (Photo: Ukrainian MoD)

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