Why Russian operation focuses on Donbass, Black Sea regions

Firebombed German city of Dresden after horrific British- American aerial bombing in the closing phase of World War II

A veteran Indian journalist and world class war correspondent, recently wrote with a touch of humour that when BBC’s Lyse Doucet landed in Kiev a week ago, he was reminded of the howling cry of monkeys in the Corbett Park alerting the jungle that a tiger was on the prowl. “As soon as I saw Doucet I knew that “action” would begin (in Ukraine),” he wrote. 

However, BBC erred this time around. The MI6 probably anticipated a devastating Russian attack on Kiev — something like the horrific British-American firebombing of the Dresden on February 13-15, 1945, when heavy bombers numbering 1300 planes dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs on the city and killed an estimated 22,700 to 25,000  people. 

Indeed,  a full week has passed and the Russian bombers are nowhere to be seen. But this doesn’t mean that Kiev is not a prime target. Russia seems to be counting on an eventual “implosion” in the city as a climactic moment of the war, triggering the eclipse of the western-backed regime installed in Kiev February 2014 following the CIA-sponsored coup.

Arming Ukrainian civilians was a horribly cynical propaganda stunt by the regime, acting on the advice of western mentors. But the blowback has begun. Armed gangs are roaming the streets of Kiev adding to the mayhem. If it continues, an army takeover cannot be ruled out at some point.

The Russian forces would much rather avoid fighting the Ukrainian army as the “enemy” — with the exception, of course, of Neo-Nazi formations (as in Kharkiv and Mariupol, or elsewhere in the southeastern Donbass region.) 

Evidently, Russians do not want to destroy Ukraine. The objective is revive Ukraine’s sovereignty under a Ukrainian leadership and help in its build-up as a strong enduring buffer against any future western invasions. 

Germany’s rearmament must be ringing alarm bells when French, German and British military budgets already exceed three times that of Russia’s. The deep involvement of France and Germany in post-2014 Ukraine is not in the public domain. They kept their heads below the parapet but were digging in for the long haul. That explains the scale of their wrath toward Moscow. 

Unless this complex matrix is understood, the dynamics of the current Russian campaign cannot be grasped. From available indications, the Russian operation appears to have three objectives:

  • subject Kiev and other major cities to siege warfare (attrition); 
  • cut off the escape route for the Ukrainian forces deployed in the east to retreat to Kiev; and, 
  • consolidate in Donbass and a contiguous coastal belt along the northern Black Sea coastline .  

The above map below shows the state of play as of Monday, 28th February. The Russian operation is going on in the Donbass region in southeastern Ukraine and along the Northern coastline of Black Sea but this is escaping attention. The propagandistic western media is concentrating on sensational stories, although the regional balance in south and southeastern Ukraine is hugely consequential.  

Interestingly, Moscow has recognised the two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine Lugansk and Donetsk as independent states as per their boundary claims. President Putin said in his remarks on the issue that Moscow has recognised all these two regions’ “fundamental documents.” 

What does this imply? Clearly, Russia’s recognition of the borders claimed by the two separatist republics’ as per their respective constitutions means boundaries containing all the areas they had controlled on the day of their “founding” in 2014 from where they have since been systematically pushed back by the Ukrainian (Neo-Nazi) forces through organised violence against the Russian population during the past 8-year period. It stands to reason that Russian operations will aim at restoring the lost territories  to Lugansk and Donetsk. 

Meanwhile, Moscow also has a score to settle with the neo-Nazi militia deployed in Donbass and the Black Sea region who committed terrible atrocities against the hapless Russian communities, which is an emotive issue within Russia. Putin calls it “genocide”. A dossier on the atrocities has been sent to the US. 

The “denazification” campaign aims to ruthlessly suppress the neo-Nazi groups. The Russian intelligence has prepared a “hit list” of the notorious ring leaders to be brought to justice.

As of Tuesday, the Russian advancing column in the south reached Kherson oblast, which also has an important port on the Black Sea as well as on the Dnieper River and is the home of a major ship-building industry. Further to the east, the strategically important port of Mariupol, the steel centre on Black Sea coast, has also been secured.

Equally, Russian troops have destroyed a concrete dam built in Ukraine’s Kherson Region in 2014 to cut off water to Crimea in reprisal for its annexation by Russia. This solves the problem of acute water shortage in Crimea, which is a major political issue.

Kherson is just about 145 kms east of the great port city of Odessa (founded by Catherine the Great) with a concentration of Russian population despite the “Ukrainisation” in the demography in recent years. It remains to be seen whether the Russian operations will now move toward Odessa and further along the Black Sea coastline leading all the way to the breakaway region of Transnistria (Moldova) where Russians comprise around one-third of the population.

Coastline from Rostov-on-Don (Russia) to Odessa (Ukraine) & Moldova

Sandwiched as a thin stretch of land on the Moldova-Ukraine border, Transnistria remains the de facto forward operating base for Russia’s interests in the broader region.

Moscow considers the US military base in neighbouring Romania a significant threat; therefore, it likely considers the military presence in Transnistria to be more important than ever. A land route from Rostov-on-Don (Russia) all the way to Transnistria (Moldova) along the Black Sea coastline can be a strategic asset. 

In all of the above, a sub-text cannot be overlooked — namely, that Donbass is both Ukraine’s rust bet and granary. It is a heavily industrialised region that has a great future in economic development with the string of Black Sea ports providing easy access to the world market.

The above map of regional economic development of Ukraine displays the strong industrial base of Donbass. To be sure, the Russian objective will be to rapidly build up Lugansk and Donbass as economically viable regions that will not be a financial drain on Moscow.

Evidently, a great deal of thinking has gone into the planning of the Russian operation, starting with the historic decision to recognise Lugansk and Donetsk as independent states. The fury with which Berlin and Paris are reacting is self-evident.

With the ‘big picture’ in mind of rebuilding Ukraine to its past glory as the most prosperous ex-Soviet state, Putin thoughtfully picked one of his trusted aides, Vladimir Medinsky, to lead the delegation for the talks with the Ukrainian officials. Medinsky was born in Ukraine.

Apart from being an accomplished political scientist and historian and a senior figure in the ruling United Russia party, he bears a famous name. His father, Rostislav Medinsky, while serving as colonel in the Soviet Army, became a national hero, having taken part in the disaster management at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986.