IT’S seven years ago now since I met Anna Dmitriienko on a rain-soaked April day in the eastern Ukrainian city of Stanytsia Luhanska. Seventy-two years old and already frail, she was still limping heavily from excruciatingly painful shrapnel wounds to her legs.

Only a few months earlier, a barrage of Grad missiles fired by pro-Russian separatists had rained down on her neighbourhood – decimating nearby houses, flattening an outhouse, and leaving a huge crater in her backyard.

“I lost consciousness and was bleeding badly,” she explained as she showed me the damage around the cold, damp, rundown shack of a house, where she lived in appalling conditions all alone save for the company of her two cats.

“I spent all my pension paying for electricity and getting my yard cleared, and my neighbour helps with bringing water from the well, but I struggle to chop wood and that’s my only way to provide heat or cook,” she continued, tears welling alongside the desperation etched across her face.

If she’s still alive and living in Stanytsia Luhanska, Anna will be 79 – now having endured going on eight years of war in a city which, along with Donetsk, lies in the country’s eastern Donbas region and at the very heart of the Ukraine crisis.

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Only these past few days pro-Russian separatists launched another intense artillery barrage across the frontline with Ukrainian forces, shelling a nursery school in Stanytsia Luhanska and injuring three people. The school sits less than three miles from what is known as the Line of Contact, which separates the two sides.

The attack blew a hole through the wall of kindergarten number 21 – just as the school day had begun – with a shell landing on the nursery in the city’s Depovska Street.

“The children were eating breakfast when it hit,” Natalia Slesareva told the news agency AFP. “It hit the gym. After breakfast, the children had gym class. So, another 15 minutes, and everything could have been much, much worse.”

The attack was part of an apparent coordinated bombardment by pro-Russian separatists in multiple locations across the 155-mile-long frontline.

It was reminder too of the strategic and geopolitical significance of Luhansk and Donetsk, the two breakaway republics in south-eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region – part of which is dominated by Russian speakers and since 2014 has been controlled by the separatists and so, in effect, by Russia.

In fact, only last week the Russian Duma, or lower house of parliament, once again reminded of how significant Luhansk and Donetsk are by voting to formally request Russian president Vladimir Putin to recognise the two breakaway republics as independent states.

Any such recognition of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics could kill off the Minsk peace process in eastern Ukraine which was created in efforts to halt the armed conflict that broke out there in 2014 and has since cost 15,000 lives. The Minsk accords have been responsible for holding a patchy peace since 2015, but they are vague and contested, and have never been fully implemented.

Under the accords, Ukraine is meant to re-absorb the breakaway regions under a “special status”. Other provisions include the withdrawal of heavy weapons, free elections, prisoner exchanges, and short-lived ceasefires, decentralisation, amnesties, and the return of control of the border to Ukraine.

The National: A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. Russia has concentrated an estimated 100,000 troops with tanks and other heavy weapons near Ukraine in what the West fears could be a prelude to an invasion.

But right now, Moscow insists Kyiv is not living up to its side of the deal when it come to the Donbas – and peace appears to be the last thing on anyone’s mind.

“Kyiv is not observing the Minsk agreements. Our citizens and compatriots who live in Donbas need our help and support,” Vyacheslav Volodin, the State Duma speaker, wrote on social media in justifying last week’s vote.

While the vote by the Duma is nonbinding, meaning that Putin is in no way obligated to sign it into law, the Russian president at a news conference in Moscow last week declined to be drawn out on how he plans to respond.

In now familiar mixed messaging from the Kremlin leader, Putin said Russians were sympathetic to the residents of the Donbas region, but he wanted the regions’ problems to be resolved through the Minsk accords.

But then almost in the next breath and in stark language that Germany’s visiting chancellor Olaf Scholz unequivocally dismissed as “wrong”, Putin said Russia considered the treatment of ethnic Russians in the Donbas region as “genocide” – a ridiculously inaccurate accusation that only served to further fuel tensions.

But what if Putin were to change his mind in the coming days and formally recognise Luhansk and Donetsk as independent entities? What would the implications be in terms of the current crisis and how might Ukraine and the West respond?

According to several security analysts specialising in Russian affairs, including Keir Giles – an associate fellow at Chatham House – recognising the regions is one of several options that Russia “want to have in place in order not to cramp their style when they choose to respond to whatever the US may do over the next few days”.

Should formal recognition of the “republics” be the political route down which Moscow goes, then as an article in last week’s The Economist magazine also observed this “would amount to something just short of annexation, since the ‘republics’ would be full of newly minted Russian citizens”.

The National: An instructor trains members of Ukraine's Territorial Defence Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent

Already Russia has issued more than 700,000 passports to residents of Donbas, many of whom voted in Russia’s last parliamentary elections. For its part, Ukraine, meanwhile, has warned Russia that official recognition would be the end of the already fragile Minsk accords.

“If the decision on recognition is taken, Russia will de facto and de jure withdraw from the Minsk agreements with all the attendant consequences,” was how Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba summed it up.

So far to date, Kyiv has refused to talk directly to the separatist leaders of the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, who recently became members of Russia’s ruling party, United Russia.

In Kyiv, few politicians are under any illusions as to how unpopular the idea of a special status for the Donbas is in Ukraine, with more than 60 % of Ukrainians against it. Given such a prevailing mood among the electorate, any concession to Russia over the Donbas would risk a potential backlash.

Ukrainian politicians need only cast their mind back to the upheaval of the Euromaidan protests of 2013, when Ukrainians rose against the decision of former president Viktor Yanukovych to suspend the signing of the association agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia.

The West too would most likely fall into line in agreement with Kyiv that Russia had forfeited the Minsk accords, were Moscow to recognise the breakaway republics in what would effectively be the redrawing of international borders by force.

While this might be enough for Moscow to enable them to declare a “victory” while rolling back on wider invasion plans, it is not without problems. Not least among these is that the vote passed by the Duma authorises the Russian government to “protect” residents in the Donbas from “external threats”.

The National: A Russian tank T-72B3 fires as troops take part in drills at the Kadamovskiy firing range in the Rostov region in southern Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. Russia has rejected Western complaints about its troop buildup near Ukraine, saying it deploys

More worrying still, separatist leaders could claim sovereignty over swathes of Ukrainian land that they do not control – including Ukrainian-controlled cities like Mariupol, a major port and industrial hub – and if Russia were to accept those claims, peace would be unlikely to follow.

Some Russia watchers – among them Eugene Chausovsky, a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based think tank Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy – believe that were the Kremlin to recognise Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, this could theoretically open the door for a more formal Russian military presence in these territories.

“All it would take is a formal request by the leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic for Russia to intervene to protect Russian citizens,” says Chausovsky, adding again the reminder that many residents of these territories are already Russian passport holders.

While risky at this crucial juncture in an already dangerous situation, there is a growing sense in many quarters that as the days pass and a pivotal moment is reached in this crisis, a Russian intervention into the separatists’ territories is the most likely of the Kremlin’s options. While not underplaying the seriousness of such a course of action, it’s one far easier for the Russian military to take on than all-out invasion of Ukrainian territory.

In this current stand-off, something must give, goes the prevailing thinking. Perilous and unpredictable as such a Russian recognition of the republics would undoubtedly be, it might be enough for the Kremlin to take away from this confrontation.

Unpalatable as it would be also to Kyiv and the West, it might be something they are prepared to live with as the lesser of two evils when the alternative might be a full-scale Russian onslaught on Ukraine.

While it would be wrong to talk of winners and losers from any such scenario, the Kremlin’s massive military operation must appear to have delivered something when seen from Moscow’s perspective.

“What is clear… is that Putin is unlikely to simply walk away from this entire process empty-handed,” says Russia watcher Chausovsky.

“While many have interpreted Russian military build-ups and large-scale exercises as a sign that Putin was planning a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, an alternative hypothesis is that such moves are intended as a part of the broader negotiation process that Moscow is trying to drive with the West,” observed Chausovsky, writing in Foreign Policy magazine a few days ago.

Such speculation, however, will come as little consolation to those civilians caught in the latest crossfire that places the Donbas once again at the very heart of this crisis.

Speaking of the latest upsurge in hostilities the Kremlin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, described the situation in the region as one that could at “at any moment” escalate “into a new eruption of war in the immediate vicinity of our borders”.

This weekend, Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas appeared to be taking Peskov’s word as writ as warning sirens blared in Donetsk after it and Luhansk announced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people to Russia, with women, children and the elderly going first.

Without providing evidence, Denis Pushilin, the separatist leader in Donetsk, accused Ukraine of preparing to attack the two regions soon, an accusation Kyiv said was false. Within hours of the surprise announcement, families assembled to board buses at an evacuation point in Donetsk, where authorities said 700,000 people would leave.

President Putin only added to the alarm after he too issued an order to the Russian government to house and feed people once they arrived in southern Russia.

Meanwhile, on the ground, Ukraine’s military intelligence said they had information that mines have been planted in several social infrastructure facilities in separatist-controlled Donetsk by Russian special forces. There were reports too of several explosions, including one “linked to a pipeline” and a car bomb.

“These measures are aimed at destabilising the situation in the temporarily occupied territories of our state and creating grounds for accusing Ukraine of terrorist acts,” the Defence Intelligence of Ukraine said in a statement.

During the last 48 hours, shelling too has increased across the Donbas. Quoting what they described as a diplomatic source with years of direct experience of the conflict, Al Jazeera news said the bombardment in the Donbas was the most intense since major combat there ended with a 2015 ceasefire.

Last Friday, close to 600 explosions were recorded, 100 more than on Thursday, some involving 152mm and 122mm artillery and large mortars, the source said. At least four rounds had been fired from tanks.

The barrage and evacuation of civilians in the region comes as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for an “overwhelming display of Western solidarity,” as he attended the Munich Security Conference this weekend. For his part, US president Joe Biden meanwhile has said he is “convinced” that Putin has made the decision to invade.

If still alive and living in her home city of Stanytsia Luhanska, then Anna Dmitriienko – whom I met back in 2015 at the start of this conflict – will find herself yet again caught in the crossfire of this crisis, as will countless other civilians. For the moment, the world continues to wait for what comes next, but once again all eyes are on the Donbas.