From January 21 through February 14, Russian and proxy forces killed 13 Ukrainian soldiers and wounded at least another 19 along the frontline in Ukraine’s Donbas. Most of these casualties were inflicted by snipers, some of whom were apparently deployed from Russia’s interior for a stint of combat training in Donbas (Radio Free Europe, February 3; Ukrinform, February 12, 17).
Sniper fire killed two Ukrainian soldiers on February 11, the day when President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took the G-7 countries’ Kyiv ambassadors on a visit to the frontline (UKrinform, February 11). The enemy command had, apparently, been aware of the scheduled visit and decided to make this demonstrative gesture, albeit not in the visited sector.
The Ukrainian forces do not seem to have retaliated to these attacks. The high command and frontline troops are under orders from the Presidential Office to refrain from responding to provocations, lest the other side escalates and inflicts more casualties. This deliberate restraint is wrapped in official announcements that Ukrainian troops “responded adequately” after each attack when they took casualties.
Russia has chosen to conduct its protracted war in Ukraine’s east in the form of low-intensity positional warfare, punctuated by spikes of relatively higher intensity. Russia calibrates these spikes to keep them below the level of a dramatic escalation; that would not bring Russia any closer to relief from Western economic sanctions and would, moreover, provoke a Ukrainian patriotic backlash. Moscow, therefore, does not go beyond static positional warfare during these phases of intensified operations; it refrains from using heavy weaponry as part of positional warfare; it does not attempt to gain additional territory; and it limits these phases to a few days at a time, during which it inflicts casualties on Ukrainian troops.
These tactics are calculated to exploit President Zelenskyy’s nervousness in the face of casualties and his political investment in showing that the armistice works effectively. The Kremlin aims to pressure Kyiv into concessions on the terms of conflict resolution in the Normandy and Minsk processes. Russia’s intermittent shoot-to-kill phases tend to be correlated with critical phases in the negotiations within the Minsk Contact Group.
The Minsk Contact Group held its fortnightly session by videoconference on February 16–17. Kyiv defended its positions successfully on substance but less so on the procedure. Moscow unleashed the Dontesk and Luhansk delegations to address Kyiv’s delegation directly, so as to create the appearance of direct negotiations between Ukraine and Donetsk-Luhansk.