April 14, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1572

Russian Commentators Debate Seriousness Of The Crisis With Ukraine In Donbass, And Who Bears Responsibility For Its Outbreak

April 14, 2021 | By A. Ungar and A. Strandberg*
Russia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1572

Russia has been concentrating forces in the Voronezh area 150 miles from the Ukrainian border. Reports surfaced in Russia of a shortage of rail transport for agricultural vehicles, because the military had booked the rail carriers for its purposes.[1] The West feared that the troop concentrations, ostensibly for snap inspections represented a reprise of the strategy employed in the seizure and annexation of Crimea in 2014 when military exercises served as a pretext for concentration forces.  A series of Western statements expressing backing for Ukraine followed in an attempt to head off such a scenario. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky received calls of support from US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel weighed in in a video call with Vladimir Putin; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, called his Russian counterpart General Gerasimov.[2]. Pentagon Spokesperson John Kirby called upon Russia to respect Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty. refrain from provoking or increasing tensions and " tell the world what they're doing, and with what forces, and what capabilities, and what their intentions are."[3]

Pro-government commentators tried to shift the blame to Ukraine for the tensions claiming that Kiev was threatening the pro-Russian breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk and Russia would have to defend them against an invasion. Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov commented on the first television channel: Moscow does not exclude the possibility that Kiev will attempt to solve its internal problems by force and in that event the situation would pose a danger for Russia...would it be dangerous for us? Of course, it would be dangerous. Do we have to take measures to safeguard our security? We must. This is what we have done."[4]

Such aggressiveness these commentators argued would not have surfaced had the government of President Vlodomyr Zelensky not received encouragement from the US and NATO. However, the Ukrainians were advised to ponder the lessons of 2008, when Georgia confident of American and NATO backing, moved against its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia only to receive a bloody nose from Russia and worsening its position in the breakaway regions.

Another school of thought believed that both sides were posturing either to improve their position prior to negotiations or because of the need for improving the leaders; popularity in domestic opinion. They warned however that this could be overdone and lead to dangerous consequences.

Finally, there were those who believed the threat of war was genuine. Some Russians actually welcomed a war believing that it would help put Kiev in its place and expose the Western backing as hollow or possibly even result in Ukraine's extinction as an independent state. On the liberal side one commentator believed that Europe had already sold out the Donbass to Russia and Russia only had to fear a US response.

MEMRI's survey of Russian reactions to the tensions with Ukraine follows below:

Russian military exercise near border with Ukraine (Source:

Russian Troop Movements Were Defensive And Designed To Deter An Aggressive Ukraine Egged On By The West

The dominant position was that Russian actions were defensive and designed to prevent a Ukrainian attack on Donetsk and Luhansk. A prime example of this approach was provided by's senior columnist Mikhail Rostovsky in an April 9 column titled "Putin's Ultimatum Prevented a War in Donbass. Actually, the ultimatum was delivered by Dmitry Kozak, deputy head of the presidential administration, who warned: " Today everything depends on the scale of the fire. If, as our president [Putin] says, [another] Srebrenica is constructed there, we will probably have to defend ourselves."[5] Rostovsky claimed that the Russian threat to intervene had forced Ukraine to climb down. He claimed that Russia had successfully implemented Theodore Roosevelt's dictum "Speak softy and carry a big stick. If previously the Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Ruslan Khomchak could boast: "Are we ready to go on the offensive today? We are ready!", he suddenly changed his tune to "The liberation of the temporarily occupied territories by force will inevitably lead to the death of a large number of civilians and casualties among the military, which is unacceptable for Ukraine." Ukraine's President Volodomyr Zelensky's rhetoric had also changed.  Zelensky's renunciation of his "dove of peace" image came to a halt. "Instead of saber rattling, Zelensky suddenly began talking on social media about the need to restore a truce in Donbass."

Rostovsky blamed Ukraine's truculence on the West: " There is an additional complicating factor in the situation in the shape of the West's inflammatory position. I repeat as a mantra: we do not know what Americans and Europeans say to the leaders of Ukraine in confidential conversations. But the essence of Western public rhetoric fits into one short phrase: "Russia is to blame for everything." this acts like an acid on the "political brake system's" structure in Kiev, slowly but surely corroding everything around.[6]

Political scientist Alexey Martynov, director of the International Institute of the Newest States blamed Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary-General for encouraging Ukraine and Georgia  by "further developing the idea of ​​a wonderful NATO future". Kiev was advised to consider Georgia's fate:

"Just reminding how it all ended for Georgia in 2008, when, inspired by the plan of action for alliance membership alliance and with an army retrained by NATO instructors and rearmed according to NATO standards, the then President of Georgia Saakashvili decided to attack South Ossetia and clean out Russian peacekeepers together with 35 thousand Russian citizens, who were then the population of a small unrecognized republic. As a result of this military adventure and upon the end of a Russian Armed Forces operation to force Georgia into peace, the latter lost South Ossetia and Abkhazia forever. And Georgia has not yet become a NATO member."[7]

The deputy speaker of the Federation Council, Senator Konstantin Kosachev blamed Ukraine's Zelensky for stoking the crisis because of his desire to salvage his credibility. Apparently, Zelensky's two-year tossing about on how to fulfill his election promise to resolve the conflict in the southeast has concluded. The choice has been made. The choice is in favor of a scenario involving force cloaked by demagogy about the impracticability of the Minsk agreements, the inability to negotiate with the DPR [Donetsk People's Republic] and the LPR [Lugansk People's Republic], as well as Russia's aggressiveness."[8]

Kosachev also complained of the hypocritical Western role in the crisis:

“A sharp escalation of the military confrontation on the part of Kiev is evident ... It is clear that Russia has to react. But all retaliatory measures are being taken within the Russian borders (including Crimea, of course). However, the United States and NATO became hysterical, 'Help us, the Russians are advancing!' They said nothing about the Ukrainian [military] maneuvers, which clearly contradict both the Minsk and OSCE agreements. Without a doubt, it was carefully planned,”.

Kosachev also noted a sharp increase of US military aid to Ukraine. In talks between US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Ukrainian counterpart Andriy Taran, Austin recalled that starting with 2014 the United States provided more than 2 billion USD to Ukraine as security assistance and this was on top of the lavish regular assistance supplied by Washington to Kiev.

"If at least a cent from this enormous sum of political and military assistance to Ukraine was spent on educating of Ukrainian politicians of the principles of multiculturalism, on teaching them a deep understanding of the respect for human rights, including the humanitarian rights of ethnic minorities, as well as of freedom of opinion, speech and press, Ukraine would have dealt with the risks of territorial collapse long ago. However, the money was spent on different things, in politics – on change of authorities in Ukraine, and in the military sphere - on the forcible suppression of any alternative ideas regarding the country’s course of development.... “The Americans are advancing. They do not need a stable, territorially integral Ukraine. They need a Ukraine that hates Russia. As always, they are trying to 'divide and rule'" said Kosachev. [9]

Konstantin Kosachev (Source:

Kommersant's Sergei Strokan reporting from the unrecognized republics lamented that Ukrainian violations including the use of prohibited weapons such as heavy mortars, were being ignored by the West in its pro-Ukrainian partisanship." The statements made in the capitals of Western countries differ in tone, but their general motto suggests that the facts of escalation by the Ukrainian forces remain unnoticed by the West, and the sympathies of the United States and its partners are on the side of Kiev."[10]

Political strategist Yevgeny Minchenko believed that domestic political calculations and hope of Western intervention contributed to Ukraine's behavior: "I think that for Zelensky, the escalation of the conflict in Donbass can be a way to rectify his wobbly rating and mobilize the ruling class around his personage." Minchenko added by renewing the conflict Kiev will try to draw additional EU and US attention to its problems. These hopes were not groundless. Further sanctions and diplomatic pressure were inevitable as Washington, Berlin and Paris have already demonstrated that any controversial situations will be interpreted in favor of Ukraine."[11]

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party accused Zelensky of escalating the conflict to provoke NATO intervention – a big mistake. This miscalculation would result in Ukraine's disappearance. "They [the Ukrainian leadership] want to provoke a sharp reaction from the United States. Suddenly the US will announce an ultimatum or NATO will announce an ultimatum. NATO can issue an ultimatum, because the border with Poland and Germany is near here, but NATO will not fight. This, Zelensky does not understand. Zelensky is the last president of Ukraine. There will be no other presidents because there will be no Ukraine."[12]

Ivan Preobrazhensky: War Is A Distinct Possibility, Because Russia Knows That The EU Will Not Go Beyond Expressions Of Concern

Rosbalt's senior columnist Ivan Preobrazhensky believes that war is in the cards down to specific forecasts about convoy routes and the landing zones for Russian amphibious assaults. He ascribes the probability of war to European timidity and a refusal to jeopardize economic ties with Russia:

"Strictly speaking it was the year 2014's experience [the seizure of Crimea], as well as the negotiations in the “Normandy format” that demonstrated the European Union's unwillingness to undertake any radical actions in order to prevent problems. The European Union is unlikely to move from expressing “grave concerns” to more serious actions until the start of hostilities. The EU member-states may have stances, that differ too much, their degree of economic cooperation with Russia also varies, and hence their attitude to possible sanctions as well.

"By the way, regarding the possible [EU] retaliatory measures, there is presently no reason to assume that even in the case hostilities in Donbass resume (and even if Brussels designate the Kremlin as the culpable party), that the Europeans will agree on any meaningful economic sanctions.

"As a matter of fact, the potential for pressure on Russia has almost reached its capacity. Only the harshest measures for example disconnecting Russia from the SWIFT international banking system or sanctions on Russian export goods to the European Union remain.

"The European Union will never go for it even on the embargo on “common” goods from Russia, not to mention ban on the supplies of Russian gas or oil. Russia is way too closely tied economically with European markets and there no other country - supplier of raw materials, that can replace it. Moscow and Kiev understand this fact perfectly."[13]

A Second View: Both Sides Are To Blame, But War Serves Nobody's Interest

Another opinion that found expression apportioned blame to both Russia and Ukraine, although not necessarily in equal amount and argued that war was not in the cards. Nevertheless, the sabre rattling if left unchecked could get out of hand.

Kommersant columnist Dmitry Drize in a piece titled "It is clearly not a Carribean Crisis [Cuban Missile Crisis]", discounted the view that the US had given Zelensky a blank check and called upon both sides to come to their senses: "As for bringing Zelensky to his senses, here  is the point. The President of Ukraine will not be allowed to play the military card, as [his predecessor Petro] Poroshenko was not allowed in 2018 after his famous trip to the Kerch Strait. We can say with 80% confidence that what is needed is not a war, but reforms. US President Joe Biden made this clear in a telephone conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart. By the way, the same applies to Russia. Now is the time not for fighting, but building. So, let's rely on common sense. Although from the perspective of major politics, coercion in negotiations, as well as social mobilization, and muscle flexing, is also probably correct to a certain extent. The main thing is not to overplay them.[14]

Alexander Golts: The Crisis Was An Attempt By Putin To Blackmail The West

The independent military analyst Alexander Golts believed that the war scare was fraudulent and designed to intimidate the West, although Ukraine acted stupidly as well.

"I have written more than once that there is nothing easier than predicting the actions of the Russian authorities. It is necessary to ignore any reasonable arguments and arguments and simply consider the worst-case scenario as the most realistic. So, your humble servant almost a month ago suggested that in the absence of any effective instruments of pressure on the Western countries, Moscow would begin to blackmail them with the threat of a resumption of large-scale hostilities in Ukraine. This is exactly what is happening now. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced 'verifications'. that will cover the entire Armed Forces in the next couple of weeks. According to him, a total of 4048 exercises on various scales will be held during April, including 812 bilateral ones, at 101 training grounds. Such exercises and tests are the perfect excuse to concentrate troops that are destined for an invasion. It is pertinent to recall that the prologue to the war in Ukraine in 2014 was the surprise check of troops announced by Vladimir Putin.

"Not only Ukrainian leaders, but also the leading NATO countries' leaders, record with alarm the movement of Russian troops towards the neighboring state's border. True, if the Ukrainian generals confidently speak about the deployment of 24 battalion tactical groups, which means about 20 thousand troops, then The New York Times, citing sources in the American government, indicates only 4 thousand (which is clearly not enough for an offensive operation). Dmitry Peskov, this true sommelier of the dew of God, declares that Russian troops are free to move wherever they want on their territory. And this, let us note, is a very original interpretation of our country's obligations under the Vienna Document.

"Tele-propagandists, meanwhile, are fighting in a well-staged hysteria, hysterically demanding to protect the Donetsk-Luhansk brothers from the Ukrofascists by any means, including the use of nuclear weapons. There are enough hysterics in the Ukrainian media as well. At the same time, official Kiev is behaving, to put it mildly, inconsistently. Ukrainian officials in the midst of the crisis, when the country, in their opinion, is threatened with intervention, suddenly declare that they will no longer go to Minsk for negotiations, since Belarus is, it seems, too dependent on Russia. As if this can somehow influence the negotiations, which, I note, have been going online for six months due to the epidemic. The meaning of President Volodymyr Zelensky's statement that 'NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbass is also a mystery. The NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) will be a real signal for the Russian Federation.' There is no doubt that joining the North Atlantic Alliance would improve the security of Ukraine in a qualitative way. One problem is that Ukraine's chances of joining are zero. A country with territorial disputes cannot become a NATO member.

"Yes, the United States and Western European states speak quite sincerely of support for Kiev and promise not to leave it alone with Russia. In the event of a resumption of large-scale hostilities, they will undoubtedly send weapons to Ukraine and help with money. However, they will not fight on Ukrainian soil. Meanwhile, it should be admitted that the balance of military forces is clearly not in favor of Kiev. Ukrainian troops have a steady superiority over the separatist 'militia'. Experts believe that this is 90 thousand Ukrainian soldiers against 30 thousand DPR / LPR fighters. However, the situation is reversed, if we take into account the inevitable arrival on the battlefield of 'miners' with "harvesters" from a neighboring state, along with howitzers and tanks obtained in the nearest 'military-trade store'. Therefore, many analysts are convinced that Russia has taken an inevitable course of invasion.

"I do not think so. Everyone admits that the offensive will not begin until the steppe dries up in the Donbass, otherwise the military equipment will drown in an impassable quagmire. The question is, why would the Kremlin unscramble its intentions a few weeks prior to the operation's start? Why, undisguisedly, drive transports with troops? After all, ensuring secrecy is one of the prerequisites for a successful military operation. In 2014, the very next day after the announcement of a troop inspection, special forces seized the Supreme Council building of Crimea and selected reliable deputies who approved the correct questions for the [annexation] referendum. Now, Moscow seems to be announcing its intentions in advance.

"Therefore, I will return to my assumption: Moscow has decided to bargain with the West, threatening to initiate a new war. The moment war happens, it will lose its value as a blackmail tool. But does this mean that hostilities will not take place? By starting such a game, it is impossible to guarantee that everything will go strictly as planned. Troop concentrations in an explosive region is dangerous in itself. When all players are preparing for war, the world is definitely under threat."[15]

Alexander Golts (Source:

Alexander Guschin a senior researcher at the  Institute for Post-Soviet and Interregional Studies sees no direct interest in large-scale hostilities on either side. For Russia, the escalation of hostilities in the Donbass carries the risk of new sanctions and a deterioration in the prospects for the main gas project, Nord Stream 2; for Ukraine, this is also a big risk, since the army, although it has strengthened, is unlikely to be able to withstand a large-scale conflict.[16] 

Alexander Guschin (Source:

Izvestia's military analyst Anton Lavrov dismissed the possibility of a Ukrainian offensive against the breakaway regions. The Ukrainian army was still a substandard army flying obsolete Soviet planes. It enjoyed a substantial numerical advantage over the DPR and LPR militias but it was not up to the task of taking urban areas:

"The dense urban environment of the [breakaway] republics and their capitals will provide an advantage for the defending party.

"Experience shows that it allows stubborn and well-motivated defenders to successfully repel an enemy that is manifold superior in terms of manpower and fire capability..

"The examples of Syria and Iraq proved to what outcome the attempts of technically and tactically outdated armies to storm big cities would lead to.

"The battles for Aleppo, for the suburbs of Damascus, Mosul and Raqqa turned into months-long bloody “meat grinders”. It would be problematic to take these cities without high-tech assistance from Russia and the United States.

"Despite all the reforms the ZSU is still not a modern army. On its own the ZSU is unable to quickly take Donetsk or Lugansk. Any offensive operation, even against an outnumbered enemy, will result in protracted urban battles, which can be won only at the cost of great sacrifices and massive destruction. Neither the world community nor Russia will remain indifferent to such a humanitarian catastrophe. Kiev will be forced to start negations again via political or other means,

"After 2015 Ukraine was unable to deal with the issue of “certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions” through military means not because peace agreements or national pacifism, but due to a clear understanding of the impossibility to achieve military victory at an acceptable price.

The military and political leadership of the country had no reasons to radically change this understanding overnight. Therefore, one should not expect that, despite all the demonstrative maneuvers, Kiev will in fact start the offensive this spring. Kiev’s maneuvers remain just an element of a great political game on the eve of major Normandy Four negotiations."[17]

Alexei Venediktov: 'Russian World' Concept Tends To Crop Up Before Elections

Alexei Venediktov, the editor of the liberal Echo of Moscow radio station has criticism for both sides but blames Russia more: " It is clear to me that the Russian Federation is majorly responsible for this. Russia has been sucked into this crisis because Putin's image and that of the ruling United Russia Party are wed to the "Russian World[18]" concept :­"the idea that Russians all over the globe should be protected."

"Obviously since the issue of Donetsk and Luhansk and the so-called DPR and LPR [Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic] began precisely due to this concept, the idea of protecting the rights of Russians against the so-called “Ukro – fascists” [an amalgam “Ukrainian” and “fascist”] cannot be abandoned neither by the president nor by his entourage. Therefore, this story naturally resurfaced on the eve of the elections.[19]

Bring On The War And Use Nukes For Deterrence Or Methods Perfected In Syria

There were commentators, who welcomed a war with Ukraine. Political scientist Yevgeny Satanovsky complained of Russian docility: "Ukrainian servicemen are killing people who believe in Russia, and we will recite texts in Europe as compensation.... "How does Kiev differ from other Europeans in terms of the scum level and vile aggressiveness of its policy? Who is there in this Council of Europe? Didn't they accidentally smash Yugoslavia to smithereens?" Satanovsky claimed that Ukraine had to be coerced. "There is no peace and there will be no peace in Donbass until we force Ukraine to peace." This could be done not by verbal battles, but by methods "perfected in Syria and recently demonstrated in Karabakh." Barring such a preemptive war the Ukrainian enemy would "accumulate strength...train sufficiently... and attack Russia directly."[20]

Yevgeny Satanovsky (Source:

Then, there was the bizarre suggestion by the military analyst Mikhail Khodrenok interviewed by Vladimir Solovyov on the "Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov. Solovyov predicted a direct clash between NATO and Russian forces that would put "400 thousand Russians in Donbass under threat of extermination." Khodarenok said that Russia should avoid such a scenario. Solovyov commented that Putin's electorate would not understand if Russia surrendered Donbass. Khodarenok suggested a way out: " A demonstration nuclear explosion is quite possible in the deserted waters of the world's oceans, but not so deserted as to be invisible."[21]

* Amiel Ungar is an analyst and the editor of the Russian Media Project at MEMRI; Anatoly Strandberg is a MEMRI research fellow.


[1], April 5, 2021.

[2], April 8, 2021.

[3], April 6 and April 9, 2021.

[4], April 11, 2021.

[5], April 8, 2021.

[6], April 9, 2011.

[7], April 7, 2021.

[8], April 7, 2021.

[9], April 2, 2021,

[10], April 5, 2021.

[11], April 7, 2021.

[12], April 8, 2021.

[13], April 5, 2021

[14], April 7, 2021.

[15], April 8, 2021.

[16], April 7, 2021.

[17], April 6, 2021.

[18] For a discussion of the "Russian World" concept as a tool for legitimizing intervention in areas formerly part of the Soviet Union see: MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 145, The 'Near Abroad' – A Key Explanatory Concept In Russian Foreign Policy, January 7, 2021.

[19], April 10, 2021.

[20], April 4, 2021.

[21], April 6, 2021.

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