Eastern Ukraine has witnessed a steep increase in armed-related incidents since August 2020 (Source: ACLED)
Besides the intensification on the Donbas battleground, there has also been the massive deployment of Russian forces to Ukrainian borders, including Crimea. Sources from the US are already indicating that there are more troops at the border by mid-April than at any time in 2014 when Crimea was annexed by Russia. The exact numbers are difficult to grasp as most reports emerge from social media accounts, with some having been proven fake or outdated.
There is currently no broad consensus among the international community on what is Russia’s endgame with the escalation in tension. The size of the deployment and the overall context in the area seem to point at a display of coercive political pressure. Hypotheses considering both posturing and concrete military offensive have emerged amid weeks of hostility. They include:
Military drills: Russian representatives have claimed in early April that drills were the motive behind the military moves. The high number of deployed troops likely to discredit this idea.
Full military invasion of the Donbas: Unlikely at least until mid-May, when the terrain in the area would be dry enough for troops to move forward. There are no signs of this intent on either side of the border. The perceived visibility of Russia’s movements also indicates that the actions have an intention of display of force.
Creation of a water supply corridor between the Donbas and Crimea. Since the annexation of Crimea, water supply has been a problem as Ukraine switched off the transport through the North Crimea Canal, previously responsible for 85 percent of the water supply in the region. The annexation of territory to form a supply corridor through Azov Sea coast has been vented by analysts. Although the water crisis is often linked to increased conflict in the region, the extension of the territory and the military cost of the endeavor deters its feasibility.
Political pressure at the United States and NATO: The change in administration in the United States combined with sanctions imposed by President Joe Biden regarding Russian interference in the elections and other frictions do not sit well with the Kremlin. No direct link can be established with the aggressions at the Ukrainian border. President Vladimir Putin, however, demonstrates that his military and strategic positions are a force to be reckoned with.
Political pressure in Ukraine: The ceasefire in the Donbas has been ongoing since the signing of the Minsk protocol in 2014. Consistent violations led to the reshaping of the agreement in 2015 with the so-called Minsk II, which has also not been respected or fully implemented. Its full recognition would mean that the Donbas territory would remain under the Ukrainian administration although as an independent body. The increase in conflict could mean, at least on the Russian side, a pressure on Ukraine and its Western backers that a low conflict ceasefire could not stand the lack of progress to implement the Minsk II clauses.
Whatever the conjecture or combination of conjectures that plays out, there is an ongoing practical risk when it comes to the region:
Amassing forces near an active frontline means that any action, intentional or not, could lead to a massive military escalation. Presence in Eastern Ukraine and border areas in both countries is highly unrecommended.
Civil aviation is under potential risk as anti-aircraft capable weapon systems, and electronic warfare activity are possible during the conflict. Travel through the region air space is also not recommended, especially with private aircraft. Flight restrictions have been imposed in the area on 20 April.
There has been a significant increase in military activities near the Line of Demarcation between the main part of Ukraine and ORDLO (separate areas of Donetsk and Lugansk regions) since early 2021.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) had already sounded an alarm in early April, calling the vaccine rollout in the most affected regions, including Europe, as “unacceptably slow”. As the more transmissible variants rage, the increase in mobility due to religious holidays such as Easter in the western hemisphere or Holi festival in India have also fueled the pandemic, causing cases to rise consecutively for several weeks. Throughout April, lockdowns were imposed in a handful of countries such as Brazil, where the death toll hovered at about 3,000-4,000 daily. In India, dozens of states also reverted to various levels of restrictions, while the Easter celebrations in Europe were largely somber for a second consecutive year as most large gatherings were significantly curtailed.
Although some of these measures were credited in reducing the strain at hospitals, the fatigue among the populace has also made such decisions becoming increasingly unpopular. The German chancellor, Angel Merkel, for instance, had to make a “U-turn” in early April after receiving backlash for her decision to impose a hard lockdown over Easter. Amid such a delicate situation, it is no surprise that calls have been growing louder for vaccination efforts to be accelerated so that herd immunity could be reached earlier.
While many countries intend to speed up vaccination, challenges remain with regards to the supply available.
World Health Organization
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Brazil National Health Surveillance Agency
Public Health European Commission
The blame game between governments or supranational organization such as the European Union (EU) and drugmakers also did little to help, pointing out to the bureaucracy involved in getting the vaccines to those who needed most. With the exception of Israel, the United States, and the United Kingdom, most of the advanced economies across the globe, particularly in Europe appeared to have fallen behind initial targets partly associated with missteps in vaccination strategy, lack of supply, and skepticisms over some of the vaccines, among others.
As production is expected to ramp up during summer and more people set to get vaccinated, it has been hoped that the lockdown measures will finally be scaled down in many of these countries. Over-reliance on the vaccine as however, could prove to be a fool’s errand as the false sense of security could result in a lax attitude on hygiene measures among the general public even before herd immunity is achieved.
What to look out for this month:
Chan Hoi Cheong
Senior Analyst and Office Manager Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Senior Analyst São Paulo, Brazil
Analyst Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Analyst Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Senior Analyst Lund, Sweden
Analyst Lund, Sweden