A senior Kremlin official has warned that any major escalation by Ukraine in its conflict with separatists based along the border with Russia would result in Ukraine ceasing to exist as the world knows it.
Dmitry Kozak, who serves as Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s deputy chief of staff, said Thursday during a virtual talk among experts that in the event of a major offensive by Ukrainian forces, Russia would be compelled to defend its citizens currently living in the eastern Ukrainian border regions that declared autonomy from the central government in Kyiv seven years ago.
Kozak, who himself was born in Ukraine when it was joined with Russia as part of the Soviet Union, warned this would result in the neighboring nation’s collapse.
“I support the assessments that also exist inside Ukraine that the beginning of hostilities is the beginning of the end of Ukraine,” Kozak said, according to the state-run RIA Novosti news outlet.
He described such a move on Kyiv’s part as “a self-inflicted wound, a shot not in the leg but in the face.”
The remarks came the same day that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to the frontlines amid a spike in clashes between his troops and rebels he accuses Moscow of backing directly. The Ukrainian leader said earlier this week following talks with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that Kyiv joining the Western military alliance would be the only way to end the conflict.
Kozak dismissed this possibility.
“Where is NATO, where is the conflict in Ukraine, where is the logic?” Kozak asked. “This is also the beginning of the collapse of Ukraine.”
As heightened tensions and intensified clashes surround the seventh anniversary of the Donbas region conflict that has been largely frozen in recent years, Kozak was not the only top Russian figure to reference Ukraine possibly ceasing to exist.
Citing Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Channel One’s Big Game program last week that “those who would try to start a new war in Donbas will destroy Ukraine.” Other top Moscow officials have issued similar language over the years.
The Russian president discussed the war during a phone call Wednesday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been critical of Russia’s role. A readout from the German said the conversation touched upon, “among other things, the increased Russian military presence in the vicinity of eastern Ukraine.”
“The Chancellor demanded that this build-up be unwound in order to de-escalate the situation,” Merkel’s office said.
The Kremlin gave a different account of the conversation.
“Vladimir Putin drew attention to the provocative actions of Kiev, which is now deliberately aggravating the situation along the line of contact,” the Kremlin said. It added that the two leaders “noted the need for the Kiev authorities to implement earlier agreements without fail, in particular those aimed at the launch of direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk and at legally formalising the special status of Donbass.”
The mostly Russian-speaking Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk in Donbas declared independence as two separate people’s republics in May 2014 amid nationwide unrest in the wake of an uprising that overthrew the central government in Kyiv. Local populations supportive of Russia resisted the new Ukrainian administration in these regions, as well as in the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed following a referendum months earlier in March.
Donetsk and Lugansk’s independence has not been recognized internationally, while Crimea’s vote was met with mixed reactions among United Nations member states and international organizations. A number of top Western powers viewed the move as illegal, and the U.S. has offered Ukraine military assistance in its efforts to reclaim Donetsk and Lugansk.
The issue of U.S. aid to Ukraine was at the center of a 2019 political scandal in which former President Donald Trump was accused by Democrats of tying support to Kyiv to a quid quo pro deal that would entail Zelensky investigating alleged corruption involving the son of Trump’s rival Joe Biden, who would go on to win the presidency the following year. The affair would see Trump impeached by the House of Representatives but acquitted by the Senate.
Since taking office in January, Biden has voiced deeply critical opinions of Putin. He held a phone call with Zelensky earlier this week in which he “affirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea.”
Though the conflict has been at somewhat of a stalemate in recent years, casualties have continued to mount on the front lines, increasing the estimated number killed to over 13,000. Fighting has spiked in recent weeks, especially after Zelensky signed a March 24 decree that appeared to emphasize the reclamation of Crimea, which Russia has already reintegrated into its own mainland.
In addition to being the subject of Russian investment in business, infrastructure and even tourism, Crimea and its largest city of Sevastopol is also home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The elite naval force frequently holds drills in the contested waters. On Thursday, the Russian frigate Admiral Essen held artillery fire exercises at coastal targets located at Crimea’s Opuk interspecific training ground.
Elsewhere, reports of Russian reinforcements arriving near Ukraine’s eastern front with Donetsk and Lugansk have elicited concerns of a potential showdown erupting between the two sides.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby addressed the issue during a press briefing Wednesday, in which he urged Moscow to clarify whether or not the movements were part of routine exercises.
“We call on Russia to make their intentions more clear as to what they’re doing with this array of forces along the border,” Kirby said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to supply Ukraine. The Pentagon announced last month it would offer some $125 million of military aid over the course of the 2021 fiscal year. The U.S., NATO and partnered countries have also conducted and planned future training both in Ukraine and in the Black Sea region as part of measures they have tied to what they view as heightened Russian aggression.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova railed against these developments during a press conference on Wednesday.
“All this does not contribute to security in the region, the settlement of the conflict in Donbass and causes serious concern to the Russian side,” Zakharova said. “We call on Ukraine and the NATO countries to end the hysterical Russophobic propaganda campaign, to stop military preparations and the escalation of tensions in Donbass and to refrain from actions that could lead to destabilization of the situation in eastern Ukraine.”