Over the weekend, Russian-led separatist forces took control of most of the ruined airport in Donetsk, forcing a final retreat by Ukrainian forces. Hours later, separatists launched a deadly rocket attack on the port city of Mariupol, killing 27 civilians. The fatalities only add to a ten-month conflict that has left 5,000 civilians and many more Ukrainian security forces, separatists, and Russian combatants dead.
The most recent round of bloodshed—which started in late January in the Donetsk region and was coordinated with terrorist attacks, first on a Kharkiv courthouse on January 19 that injured several people and, the next day, on a train line in Zaporizhzhya as a cargo train was crossing—follows efforts by Russia over the winter to establish a more coherent separatist military force out of a multitude of warring groups. The centerpiece of this strategy was stationing up to 10,000 forces in the Dontesk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, both of which declared independence from Ukraine in a May 2014 referendum.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal for these troops is simple. He wants to rebuild “New Russia,” the Tsarist empire's term for the eight Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine (Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Zaporizhhya) and southern Ukraine (Kherson, Mykolyiv, and Odessa), to assert influence over Kiev’s domestic and foreign policies. In some regions, such as Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson, Mykolayiv, and Zaporizhzhya, New Russia never really took off. Indeed, Dnipropetrovsk has been a key rear guard for the Ukrainian military and National Guard. After street battles in the strategically important Kharkiv and Odessa regions, pro-Ukrainian forces defeated New Russia plans in the spring. In the last few months though, pro-Russian groups that were pushed underground have resorted to terrorism.
Now, with the new offensive in the Dontesk and Luhansk People’s Republics, Moscow is looking to decisively win the battle in the Donbas (the name for these two regions) by propagating terrorism and political instability across Ukraine. The terrorists’ training takes place at Novaya Rus (New they say, they were taught how to build bombs, wage guerrilla urban warfare, and conduct reconnaissance and intelligence operations behind enemy lines. The Russian military intelligence service (GRU) and Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) lead the training.
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