Hussam Itani

Russia Wants a Decisive Battle in the Donbas

With the end of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral service, the world is back on track with its dilemmas. The war in Ukraine is becoming more complex, and peace is far from being reached, as new obstacles arise every day.

Referendums called for by the pro-Kremlin administrations in the four regions occupied by Russian forces in Ukraine, showed that the retreat in Kharkiv was not enough to turn the course of the war, as many observers expected.

In fact, the notion that has spread since the early days of the fighting in February that Russia cannot afford a total failure in Ukraine, at all costs, has been proven correct. It is a sinister and catastrophic reality.

The regime in Russia does not accept compromises. This produced a group of loyalists, who echo the positions of the regime and elevate its status.

The stances expressed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the recent Samarkand summit left no doubt that the two Asian giants do not want to slide into a rupture with the West.

Putin must look for ways to peace, Modi said, in what amounts to a diplomatic slap. The Indian and Chinese lull came a few weeks after the forces of the two countries participated in the massive maneuvers conducted by the Russian army in the Pacific region.

However, maneuvering is one thing, and adopting Moscow’s vision of conflict under the pretext of preserving strategic and national interests is another matter, even if both Beijing and New Delhi reap undeniable benefits from preferential discounts on the oil they buy from Russia.

Another bad omen is represented by the Ukrainian forces’ advancement towards the Donbas regions, which are occupied by Russia and its allies since 2014.

Besides its great economic importance, the Donbas embraces a proportion of people who see Russia as their motherland.

The scenario of the Kharkiv battle is unlikely to be repeated in the Donbas, which will witness a referendum on joining the Russian Federation.

The region will demand to become part of the Russian state— along with Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk. This would make any Ukrainian attack on these regions an attack on the territory of the Russian Federation.

The “special military operation” will then end, to open the way for war and the general mobilization. The Russian leadership believes that this will resolve the shortage of human resources, which was seen in Kharkiv, where the inability to compensate for human losses prompted the Kremlin to resort to the Wagner to recruit mercenaries, prisoners and others.

In contrast to the momentum gained by the Ukrainians in the battles of early September, and the insistence of President Volodymyr Zelensky to continue the fight until the “de-occupation” of all Ukrainian lands, including the Crimea and the Donbas, the proposed referendums seem only a recipe for a major field escalation, as Moscow returned to hint at the possibility of using nuclear weapons.

Talk shows on Russian state television voice explicit nuclear threats against Ukraine and its allies, emphasizing that Russia has two options: “either victory or nuclear war.”

Western warnings about the massive world reactions to Russia resorting to unconventional weapons seem to produce opposite results with Moscow, which sees such messages as an insult to its global standing.

The lines between deception and political maneuvering, and the possibility of deploying weapons of mass destruction on the Ukrainian arena, are not clear yet.

The prevailing ambiguity is similar to the weeks and months that preceded the outbreak of the war, as Russia was massing its forces and at the same time denying its intention to attack Ukraine.