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Russia Plots Major Donbas Offensive in Eastern Ukraine as Putin Calls for 134,500 New Conscripts

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned Wednesday Russia is preparing a major offensive in the eastern Donbas region. This comes just two days after Kremlin officials announced plans to “fundamentally” cut back military operations near Kyiv and the city of Chernihiv, though attacks have continued on both cities. We speak with Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and Simon Schlegel, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, who say the future of peace largely hinges on the fate of the Donbas region. Schlegel also speaks about the growing humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, where now a quarter of the population is displaced, and Lieven talks about the domestic backlash President Vladimir Putin faces from ultranationalists opposed to any peace talks.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is warning Russia is preparing a major offensive in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. This comes two days after Russia announced it’s repositioning some troops from near Kyiv, the capital, and Chernihiv, though attacks have continued on both cities. Zelensky spoke Wednesday night about Russia’s offensive and the state of negotiations.

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: [translated] Yes, there is the negotiations process, which is ongoing, but these are still words, no specifics so far. There are also other words about the alleged withdrawal of the Russian troops from Kyiv and Chernihiv, about the alleged reduction of the occupiers’ activity in these directions. We know that this is not a withdrawal but the results of the pushback, the results of the work of our defenders. But we also see that at the same time there is an accumulation of the Russian troops for new airstrikes in Donbas, and we are preparing for this.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, the former Chilean president, accused Russia of committing possible war crimes by targeting civilian areas and using cluster munitions.

MICHELLE BACHELET: Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes. The massive destruction of civilian objects and the high number of civilian casualties strongly indicate that the fundamental principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution has not been sufficiently adhered to. Civilians are enduring immeasurable suffering, and the humanitarian crisis is critical. In many areas across the country, people urgently need medical supplies, food, water, shelter and basic household items. Above all, they need the bombs to cease and the weapons to fall silent.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we’re joined by two guests. Simon Schlegel is the Ukraine senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, usually based in Ukraine but now he’s joining us from Warsaw, Poland. And in England, we’re joined by Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, author of numerous books on Russia and the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine and Russia. His latest piece is headlined “Why the Russians are losing their military gambit in Ukraine.”

Well, why don’t we start there, Anatol? If you can start off by, though, responding to the so-called peace talks that have taken place in Turkey between Ukraine and Russia, and yet the shelling and the bombing continuing, not only in Donbas, where Russia promises to increase the attack, but in places like, well, the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, the peace talks, in many ways, are proceeding very well. The two sides are moving closer together on key issues. President Zelensky has offered a treaty of neutrality — of course, only if accompanied by firm security guarantees. Russia has apparently abandoned its demands for denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine. And Ukraine has said that it’s willing to basically not, of course, recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea, but basically compartmentalize that and leave it for future negotiations, so it will be a bit like the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is unrecognized but its status has been negotiated over now for — oh, I don’t know — 45 years.

But there’s a huge question which remains, and that is the Donbas. Ukraine has said that it is also willing to negotiate over the Donbas, but only if Russia returns to its original starting lines, which the separatist republics occupied before the Russian invasion. Now, of course, since then, Russia has occupied more areas, though by no means all of the Donbas — that’s why they are now going to concentrate their offensive on the Donbas. And, of course, Russia has been besieging and now has largely captured the Donbas city of Mariupol, which, of course, until the war was in Ukrainian hands. And this, I think, is the issue which is now going to dominate and very possibly block a peace agreement.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Anatol, before we talk about Donbas, I’d like to ask about a specific aspect, which you mentioned now, of the peace negotiations and one of Ukraine’s demands, namely, what you said, the security guarantees. I mean, the kind of guarantees that Ukraine appears to be looking for are not, as some have pointed out, so different from what Article 5 of NATO guarantees, namely, that a number of countries would step up to defend Ukraine in the event of any threat to its security. How would that be any different from what Ukraine joining NATO would entail?

ANATOL LIEVEN: It wouldn’t be. And that is why the British deputy prime minister, for example, after weeks of stressing Britain’s unconditional solidarity with Ukraine, has just said that Britain will not give any security guarantees to Ukraine as part of a peace settlement. I mean, what this really shows up is the total hypocrisy of NATO, you know, which has continually stressed that maybe one day, sometime, never, it will admit Ukraine, but of course it’s never actually been willing to make firm commitments to Ukraine or to defend Ukraine. So, it’s probably a very good thing for NATO that this will probably — this will be unacceptable to the Russians, because, otherwise, it would really put NATO on the spot.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And as far as the Donbas is concerned, can you explain — just give some historical background, and why this region is so significant for both parties?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, it’s largely of symbolic significance, to be honest. The Donbas has an ethnic Russian majority — at least it did. I mean, God knows now what the case is, after the refugees. And it’s always been opposed, a majority of the people, to Ukrainian ethnic nationalism. And there have always been a good deal of opponents of centralized rule from Kyiv. So, when Ukraine in 2014 experienced the revolution to take Ukraine towards the West and away from Russian influence, there was an uprising in the Donbas, which of course was backed covertly, or not so covertly, by Russia, and two separatist republics were established with Russian support, but only, you see, on part of the territory of the Donbas, because then the Ukrainian army, of course, stepped in and contained the separatist republics.

Now Russia is trying to capture the whole territory of the Donbas from Ukraine. But, of course, very naturally, the Ukrainians are refusing to accept the expansion of the separatist republics in this way. And, of course, Mariupol, in particular, has become an iconic symbol of Ukrainian resistance and courage. It would be extremely difficult for the Ukrainians to give up Mariupol in peace negotiations, but I fear that that is what Putin is going to demand, because, of course, he has to show that somehow, all appearances to the contrary, that this war has been worthwhile and that he’s actually achieved something.

AMY GOODMAN: Not only Mariupol, but the attack on Mykolaiv, which many fear will lead to the final attack on the major southern port city of Odessa, which would mean, if Russia took control of this whole area, Ukraine would be a landlocked nation, Anatol Lieven.

ANATOL LIEVEN: Possibly, although I am beginning to doubt if the Russian army is actually capable of doing that. You know, Putin’s declaration that he’s calling up another 130,000 conscripts is a real sign of how badly things have gone for them. And Odessa and Mykolayiv, put together, are a lot bigger than Mariupol. So it may be that after taking the whole of the Donbas, the Russians will in fact stop and offer a ceasefire.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Simon Schlegel into this conversation. You’re usually based in Ukraine. You’re now in Poland, where millions of Ukrainian refugees have fled to. According to the U.N., more than 4 million refugees have left Ukraine. But it’s not only that. Some 6 million are displaced within Ukraine. So we’re talking about 10 million Ukrainians. Can you talk about the situation of the refugees and what needs to happen now?

SIMON SCHLEGEL: Yes, the situation is really dramatic. There is about a fourth of the entire Ukrainian population displaced. And as you said, the bigger part of them are in western Ukraine, where they seek shelter first with friends and relatives and now with state-provided shelters. The response there has been a huge, huge wave of solidarity from civil society. There was lots of volunteering, receiving these people, sheltering them, feeding them. Now we see more people arriving with less means and with less contacts in this region, and they’re more dependent on the state. So this first response by volunteers, who’s really been filling the gaps in the state’s provision, is now more important than ever.

But it’s also a phase where, you know, this spontaneous response is probably starting to wane a little bit, and we really now need the state and the international organizations to take an even bigger share in housing and feeding the internally displaced population. Lots of these people have left everything behind. They have only a little documents with them, so it’s really hard for them to prove their status, their qualifications, the school status of their children. And as we see the IDP population swell in western Ukraine, now the state there is really at its limits. Health facilities, educational facilities are stretched to their limits. And the Ukrainian state is really at its — a second, sort of to say, front that is opening for the Ukrainian state, not only fighting off the Russian attack in the east but also strengthening its own institutions internally. One could almost say that this is a second front.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Simon, could you also respond to what we know of how negotiations are proceeding? Your organization, the International Crisis Group, has said, vis-à-vis what demands should be — they’ve said, quote, “Western governments should not aim for a complete, but likely unattainable, victory that includes a return to the pre-2014 status quo and war crimes investigations, let alone Russian President Vladimir Putin’s departure.” Could you say your impressions of how negotiations are proceeding and what a possible peace agreement, even a vaguely tenable one, might look like?

SIMON SCHLEGEL: So, the reason for this statement is that they really also need the Russian side to stay on board and to remain a partner in conversation. And as it has been said, there has been a little progress. So, over the five weeks that we’ve seen, when Russians at the beginning were basically demanding the capitulation of Ukraine, they now already sort of seem to listen to suggestions of military guarantees, that are not likely to be granted but that are now being floated, at least, so that directions like the ones from the British side that we see today can come in. So these negotiations at the moment are more a sounding board, where all parties try out ideas and see what the public reaction and the reaction of the other side, as well as the European and North American partners, is to them.

Even though we’ve seen these positive developments and this change in rhetoric, the real tricky questions are the territorial integrity of Ukraine. And giving up territory, for the Ukrainian government — they’ve repeated that yesterday — Zelensky said that this is not an option. And it’s still clearly a demand from the Russian side. So, I think that’s really where it becomes tricky, and very probably also the reason to ask for the fighting actually to continue that. Both sides will try to occupy more territory to get better stakes on the negotiation table. And only once the military equilibrium is such that no side can gain ground without unacceptable losses to them, only then will such questions like [inaudible] become realistic prospects. They’re not there yet, and it’s going to be another long period of fighting probably ahead.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Simon, how significant is it, Ukraine conceding on the question of NATO and neutrality?

SIMON SCHLEGEL: It’s not very significant, indeed, because Ukraine joining NATO was never realistic or a reason or a [inaudible] to happen soon. And the Russians knew that when they said that this was a reason that they felt insecure. And the Ukrainians knew it, but they kept demanding it, until recently. So, giving up that is just stating the obvious, basically. It’s [inaudible], and it’s even less significant because what they now demand from the Russians is something quite similar. It’s security guarantees by Western nations, just not in the NATO framework. So, what Russia wanted at the beginning of this war is having a neighboring country where they could intervene and change policies, and even change the government if they wanted to, without risking a major conflict, a conflict where they would [inaudible] against NATO forces, And that, they didn’t get, but what the Ukrainians are proposing now is too similar for them to be a real progress. So it’s not very significant.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Anatol Lieven. In another development, the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia has announced plans to hold a referendum on joining Russia. Georgia’s foreign minister said the move is, quote, “unacceptable.” Russia recognized South Ossetia as an independent state after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. Can you talk about the significance, Anatol, of this development?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, the Southern Ossetes have always wanted to join the Northern Ossetes, which is an autonomous republic of Russia, so this, you know, is not a new move on their part. But clearly, given what’s happened in Ukraine, they now want to really completely nail down protection from Russia. By the way, it was the Georgians who attacked South Ossetia in 2008, not the other way around. So, you know, nobody ever bothers to listen to what the people on the ground, the Ossetes and the Abkhaz, are saying. But more significant, I think, is what’s happening next door, where the Azeris — Azerbaijan is taking advantage of Russia’s distraction to try to seize more territory or even overrun the Armenian-held enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. So, there’s a lot going on in the Caucasus, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to ask you about Russia’s invasion leading to the expansion of NATO, even if we’re not talking about Ukraine becoming a part of it. On Wednesday, the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Tod Wolters told Congress NATO might need more permanent bases in Eastern Europe. This is what he said.

GEN. TOD WOLTERS: Certainly this is an opportunity, as a result of this senseless act on behalf of Russia, to reexamine the permanent military architecture that exists, not only in Eastern Europe but in our air policing activity in aviation and in our standing naval maritime groups.

AMY GOODMAN: Anatol Lieven, your response?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, I mean, as a means of reassurance for the East Europeans, you know, this, I suppose, makes sense. But I do think that amidst this rather panicky rush to increase Western — U.S., of course, but also European — military budgets and strengthen our defenses, we should recognize the fact that, you know, if in almost six weeks of war Russia has not been able to capture cities which are only 20 miles from Russia’s border, the chances of Russia successfully invading NATO, or even trying to invade NATO, are absolutely zero. You know, this is a chimera. There are other Russian threats, of course — missiles, naturally. There’s ultimately the nuclear nightmare. There are cyberattacks. But the Russian — let’s be clear: The Russian army is not capable today of launching an offensive against NATO. So, you know, we should maintain a certain, shall we say, nerve in the face of present circumstances. We should also, of course, thoroughly beware of our military-industrial complexes and military commanders using this to extract even higher budgets, when, of course, we are facing such colossal challenges in other areas, amongst them, notably, climate change.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Anatol, as this war enters its sixth week, could you talk about what we know of the response to the war in Russia? I mean, obviously people don’t have access to much information, but to the extent that they do, what is the perception now of the war in Ukraine, and how people perceive Putin and the stance of Russian negotiators in this, in the talks that are ongoing?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, something very interesting has started to happen in the past couple of days, ever since the Russian negotiating team suggested that it was willing to compromise on key issues with Ukraine. Putin’s regime has actually come under attack from ultranationalists, hard-liners, on social media, but even occasionally on television. So, you know, Putin, who built these people up, is now in danger of actually being wounded by them.

Now, for the moment, of course, the grip of the Putin regime on the Russian media has really led to a degree of brainwashing of most of the Russian population. You know, you’ve seen his popularity go up. There is strong support for the war. That, of course, may well change as more and more conscript soldiers are killed in Ukraine, which they clearly are going to be.

But at the same time, among the Russian elites, including the cultural elites but also the economic elites, there is bitter unhappiness with the war, either from a moral point of view or from a personal point of view, because they largely lived in the West for most of the time, or, of course, because they simply have a deeper sense, a more realistic sense, of the appalling damage that this is doing to the Russian economy. So, you’ve seen the beginnings of a massive brain drain from Russia. You’ve seen leading Russian figures either quitting or being expelled. And this will do tremendous damage to Russia.

It also means, of course, that the Putin regime itself is becoming narrower and narrower and even more cut off from independent advice. And it was, of course, to a great extent, the lack of sensible independent advice which led Putin to launch this invasion, which, as has turned out, was not just criminal but also disastrously ill-judged.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you —


AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Nermeen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In an interview earlier this month, Anatol — you’ve followed, of course, the Soviet Union and then Russia for decades. You said in an interview earlier this month that Putin has changed over the years, especially recently. You were especially concerned, you said, when he started talking last year about the great 18th century Russian military general, Suvorov. What did that reveal to you? How exactly has he changed? And how is that change reflected in this decision to invade Ukraine in the way that the Russians have?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, I think, like many aging leaders with a string of successes to their name, you know, he’s become more and more self-confident, more and more impatient of advice that contradicts his prejudices. But, you know — and you see some of the same syndrome that affected the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq War. Intelligence that contradicted their own prejudices was simply excluded or suppressed. Especially since COVID began, he’s also become immensely physically isolated. You know, it’s clear that his inner circle has shrunk to a tiny group of people. And independent voices, yes, I mean, simply no longer play a role. But in addition, I think he has become more and more of a — if you like, although it’s a funny word to use about Putin— a romantic nationalist, you know, obsessed with his historic role in Russian history. And that, of course, is always a very, very dangerous development for an autocrat.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you see this ending at this point — I think we ask you this question every single week, Anatol — as you see these peace deals wrapping up? Also, the highlighting of international treaties, that we haven’t seen anything like before — I mean, the U.S. talking about bringing him before a war crimes tribunal, conceivably the International Criminal Court, yet the U.S. hasn’t signed onto the International Criminal Court; the Human Rights Watch pointing out the landmines that Russia is using, and the horror at that — anti-personnel landmines are used solely to kill people — and yet the U.S. and Russia have not signed onto the treaty against landmines.

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, I mean, this, of course, is the problem for the U.S., and, I’m afraid, in much of the rest of the world. This move by the United States will be seen as totally hypocritical. And if you look not just at what people in the Muslim world, but what so many Indians are saying, you know, America has never observed these rules, and, of course, not merely does not recognize the International Criminal Court, but any country that even acquiesces in a case against Americans will be subject to American automatic sanctions. So, I’m afraid that this case would really risk rebounding against America itself if they push it forward.

As far as the peace talks are concerned, I mean, I’m slightly more optimistic than Simon, because, as I say, I think that on a number of key issues there has been real progress. But I’m afraid he’s also right when he says that in eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas, there will be more heavy fighting, you know, while the Russians try to achieve a line which can allow Putin to claim victory in this, you know, in what, in every real sense, has been a disaster for Russia, and a disaster for which he, of course, is personally responsible.

AMY GOODMAN: Anatol Lieven, I want to thank you for being with us, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. And special thanks to Simon Schlegel, who joined us from Warsaw, Poland, but is usually based in his home country of Ukraine. He is Ukraine senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

When we come back, COVID-19 coverage is ending for the uninsured. We look at who will bear the impact of the cuts, how the pandemic has led to a renewed push for Medicare for All. Stay with us.

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