By Anton Zverev
DONETSK, Ukraine – Politicians and military sources in Russian-backed breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine say they do not see an imminent risk of full-scale war while attempts are still under way to find a diplomatic solution.
A long-simmering conflict between the Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian army is part of a deeper crisis between the two countries in which Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, prompting U.S. warnings of a possible attack within days or weeks.
Andrei Purgin, a local politician and former separatist leader, told Reuters he expected no significant changes for now in low-level hostilities along the line of contact between the two sides, where international monitors keep a tally of explosions and other ceasefire violations that sometimes runs to hundreds of incidents a day.
But he said he expected the next six months to be “very difficult”, predicting a big shift one way or another in a conflict that the Ukrainian government says has killed about 15,000 people since 2014 in the eastern Donbass region.
“This will either be a final peace, or there is a very high probability of very serious escalations,” he said.
Two separatist sources told Reuters they did not expect a major military escalation until at least spring. “The time for diplomacy has not yet passed,” said one of the sources, who is close to the separatist command.
Their comments could represent an attempt at disinformation and do not preclude the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin could order an attack on Ukraine either via the separatist regions or on a completely different front. Moscow has strongly denied it plans to invade Ukraine.
On Monday another separatist leader said full-scale war could break out at any time and his forces might need to turn to Moscow for support.
All sides see the breakaway Donbass region as key to the evolution of the wider Ukraine crisis, as a sudden escalation there could explode into wider war. France, Germany and the United States are among western governments pushing for a return to a 2015 peace agreement for Donbass that has never been implemented.
A Reuters reporting team that has spent the past week in Donbass saw only occasional signs of military activity, including destroyed and damaged buildings near the front line and an armoured personnel carrier and groups of fighters with AK-47 assault rifles on the streets of the main city, Donetsk.
Alexander Khodakovsky, a former political leader in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic who now oversees a military unit, said negotiations had so far pushed back – but not eliminated – the danger of a devastating all-out war.
“I perfectly understand how many human casualties will be suffered, how much infrastructure destroyed, how it will affect the minds and souls of people afterwards. And I well understand that it will be almost irreversible. Maybe only after three generations will this all calm down,” he said.
“If there was an opportunity to avoid war, then we would take advantage of this opportunity.”