Is a Rebel Offensive Imminent?

War looms once again over eastern Ukraine as speculation floods the internet of a possible offensive by Russian backed separatists. There have been reports of a stream of new amour and weapons crossing the Russia-Ukraine border. Russia continues to issue denials, as it has done since the beginning of the conflict. Is a separatist offensive imminent? It’s hard to say. Most experts seem to think so, as they mull over Putin’s possible game plan. Does he want a land bridge to Crimea? Is he keeping the Ukraine destabilized enough to scuttle reforms? Looking to consolidate control over rebel territory? Assert control over a fragmented and unruly rebel force? It’s hard to say. What is clear is that the claims that an offensive is imminent resound in a unified voice.

This is why I found an article in Yahoo News arguing that an offensive is unlikely so refreshing. According to experts interviewed by Yahoo, “The amount of military hardware being moved into the war-torn region is insufficient for a major operation.”

Instead, the article claims, Moscow’s design is to deter Ukraine from launching a bid to reclaim rebel controlled territories.

“There is a positional war of attrition going on. Any large-scale offensives are highly unlikely,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst based in Moscow [and no Kremlin stooge].

“For a major operation, you need thousands of tanks. There are a lot less than that — and mainly just artillery.”

Another expert, Konstantin Kalachev, head of Moscow-based Political Expert think tank, doesn’t think a return to open conflict will benefit the Kremlin. “What is happening now is not the build-up to an offensive,” he told Yahoo.”Russia needs a military presence (in Donetsk and Lugansk) in order to start marshalling these people (the separatists) and to force the field commanders to work together.” Basically, after the elections in Donetsk and Lugansk, Russia wants to consolidate its control over the region. Also Kalachev added, the buildup of forces is to prevent an attempt by the Ukrainians to take back rebel controlled coal mines. The saber rattling, he says, is to “stop Ukraine [from] thinking about trying to reclaim the territories where the coalmines are.”

After gas, Ukraine generates 35 percent of its energy and 45 percent of its electricity from coal. Rebels currently control 88 of Ukraine’s 93 mines. Because of the war, 68 of those mines have ceased spitting out coal. Ukraine only has 1.7 million tons of coal in its reserves and it needs coal to get through the winter. Kiev would like to buy coal from the rebels because it’s cheaper than importing. But the rebels aren’t willing to sell without “equal dialogue.” Going to South Africa for hasn’t fared so well. So Ukraine is turning, ironically, to Russia. South Africa has refused to maintain further deliveries of coal to us. A new contract can be signed in at least a month and a half. We have no other choice but to turn to Russian suppliers and purchase their coal. The situation with coal supply is threatening. Energy security is at risk, said Yury Prodan Ukrainian Energy and Coal Industry Minister. So preventing Kiev from recapturing Donbas coal mines is certainly a reason for Russia to shore up the rebel’s forces.

Another reason for the military build up is that the rebels have convinced Moscow that Kiev is ready for an attack.

Felgenhauer suggested that the rebels see the current ceasefire deal as a “betrayal” and were trying to provoke an escalation in fighting.

“They’re trying to show to the Kremlin that Kiev is getting ready to attack,” he said. “Their appeals seem to have worked somehow and Russia has sent in some weaponry, mainly artillery.”

But Felgenhauer didn’t discount an offensive in the near future, just not now. He contends that the deployed hardware is “completely inadequate for an offensive and the time of year is not suitable.” “In theory, he added, there is a possibility of major actions after New Year, in January or February. But I doubt it will happen in the winter — more likely spring.”

All of this is, of course, speculation upon speculation. An offensive could start tomorrow or the next day or the next. Or not. It’s hard to know whether Putin is playing the short or the long game. What is clear the recent build up of forces threatens to makes the semi-cold war in the east hot again.