Recently publicized evidence of massive Russian military presence at the border between the Russian Federation and the self-proclaimed “People’s Republics” in the Donbas region of Ukraine has once again drawn the attention of the international public and policy-makers around this ongoing conflict.
Several high-ranking figures denounced the situation as dangerous, while a number of phone calls and meetings have taken place to promote dialogue and prevent further confrontation.While some analysts say Russia will not take military action,others go as far as to hypothesize scenarios in which Russia takes over the whole of Donbas or even the whole of the left-bank Ukraine, expanding its territorial conquest all the way up to the Dnieper River in a bid to restore a part of the Russian Empire. Is another annexation of Ukrainian territory by Russia imminent? While nobody has a crystal ball, Russia seems unlikely to attack Ukraine at the moment. Yet, it is unwise to take chances and the growing tensions should be diffused as soon as possible.
The Donbas conflict escapes well-established notions and categories. There is a lot of ambiguity around the key features of this conflict – the parties to the conflict, the territories at stake, and the causes – and thus around its solutions. It is precisely due to this ambiguity that any scenario seems as plausible as any other. Moreover, such “intended ambiguity” is of direct benefit to Russia, which uses it to keep the unpredictability and the plausible threat of escalation high in order to keep both Ukraine and other international actors on their toes. This is also the reason why Russia is not interested in annexing the region the way it did with Crimea. Conflict-ridden Donbas is an instrument of control over Kyiv; annexed Donbas with its infrastructure ruined by years of war is a major headache and a liability.
This does not mean the status quo is stable. A number of things have changed during 2021. The arrival of the Biden administration signaled a possible change of the US’ stance towards the conflict. Indeed, there have been new diplomatic efforts in the bilateral relations between the US and Ukraine as well as between the US and Russia. It is still too early to assess how much change or continuity this will bring with respect to Donbas specifically. At the moment of writing, there have been no new major initiatives or policy proposals. Angela Merkel, one of the key figures in the Normandy format talks as well as in the Donbas peace process more generally, is on her way out. Indeed, the Normandy format has run into problems, and its future remains unclear. In addition, sanctions on and delays in the approval of the North Stream 2 gas pipeline add a new level of tensions between Russia and Germany (as well as Poland and Ukraine who stand to lose should the pipeline become operational).
The Kremlin is not the only space to watch either. Kyiv’s Zelensky may be entering a “wag the dog” phase of his presidency. Having chosen conflict resolution as the top priority for his electoral campaign and having achieved little (which, of course, is not entirely his fault), he has been looking more and more like Petro Poroshenko during the last two years of his presidency – increasingly belligerent and keen on the patriotic rhetoric. While his first year as President was characterized by intensive efforts to negotiate with Russia and brought home a major prisoner-of-war swap and a set of cease-fire measures, 2021 has been marked by an active and outspoken policy of denouncing Russian policy towards Ukraine and Donbas, including by imposing sanctions on individuals and companies with links to Russia, and by seeking further cooperation with NATO. A truly dramatic socio-economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic in Ukraine only makes such posturing more attractive in the midst of falling approval rates - in October 2021, Zelensky’s approval dropped to 24.7% (compared to almost 70% in his first year) and his “anti-rating” is the highest among Ukrainian politicians, including his predecessor Poroshenko. When Ukraine conducted a trial strike with a newly purchased Turkish Bayraktar drone against a military target in Donbas in late October, the Kremlin reacted with angry comments about the “red lines” and direct threats to Russia’s security. The temperature in the region has been rising since.
Even though Russia may not be interested in annexing the Donbas, will the brinkmanship from both sides tip over into renewed military clashes? The situation is evolving fast and there are many elements to consider. What is certain, however, is that the higher the temperature in the region, the more things can go wrong, and quite unpredictably so.
 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/10/us/politics/russia-blinken-ukraine.html ; https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-ukraine-troop-buildup/31566609.html; https://www.rferl.org/a/blinken-le-drian-ukraine-russia/31561732.html
 See for example, Steven Pifer (https://www.brookings.edu/book/the-eagle-and-the-trident/)
 https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/work-be-done-following-biden-zelensky-summit?utm_medium=email&utm_source=update&utm_campaign=ki&emci=b58fd6b6-aa1b-ec11-981f-501ac57ba3ed&emdi=b30fee61-ad1b-ec11-981f-501ac57ba3ed&ceid=26214; https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-us-partnership-russia-security-defense-e...
 https://razumkov.org.ua/napriamky/sotsiologichni-doslidzhennia/elektoralni-oriientatsii-gromadian-ukrainy-ta-ikh-stavlennia-do-rezonansnykh-podii-ostannogo-chasu; https://www.kiis.com.ua/?lang=eng&cat=reports&id=1063&page=1