The last few weeks have witnessed a sharp rise in fighting in eastern Ukraine. Armed clashes have become common as the Ukrainian army has attempted – so far without much success – to probe the militia’s defences. Artillery duels have become increasingly common. There have been casualties on both sides with the militia claiming that the Ukrainian army lost 80 men in a single week.
The Russians have become increasingly concerned about this spike in activity. Over the last week they twice warned the Europeans – to be precise the Germans and the French – to get their Ukrainian ally into line. Underlining the seriousness with which the Russians are treating the situation, their second warning was given by none other than Putin himself who on 8th July 2016 telephoned Merkel and Hollande to convey it. The wording of the Kremlin’s summary of the conversation is couched in the usual polite language but the meaning is clear enough:
“Vladimir Putin directed his colleagues’ attention to the provocative nature of the Ukrainian armed forces’ activities in the southeast of the country. He urged them to more actively influence their Ukrainian partners to promote strict compliance with the Minsk Agreements, including at the upcoming talks with Petro Poroshenko in Warsaw.”
Behind these Russian warnings were the warnings Putin gave to the Western powers at the G20 summit in 2014 in Brisbane and which he subsequently made public in a television interview with a German journalist: Russia will not stand by and allow Ukraine to reoccupy the territories of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics by force.
We have been here before. On 30th June 2014 the Ukrainian government ignored Russian warnings and German advice and launched a disastrous offensive to recover the Donbass, ending in its total defeat. In January 2015 the Ukrainian government tried again, launching another offensive which again ended in disastrous defeat in Debaltsevo. On those occasions the Europeans stood by and took no action. However in August 2015, when all the indications pointed to the Ukrainians preparing for the third time to launch an offensive, the Europeans finally acted and pulled the Ukrainians back from the brink, causing the offensive to be called off.
It might seem strange that a Ukrainian government and military that repeatedly suffer defeats should nonetheless hanker for more. However in the looking glass world of Ukrainian politics a heroic defeat is always preferable to a political process that might result in concessions which would put the Maidan movement’s treasured objective of a monolingual, mono-ethnic Ukraine permanently divorced from Russia finally beyond reach. The Ukrainian attitude was summed up at a press conference in Kiev on 11th July 2016 by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin – by Ukrainian standards a relative “moderate”:
“It is not the Minsk agreements that have really deadlocked. We have a problem with Russia’s reluctance to any of the security arrangements. Russia is doing so absolutely deliberately so as to create a quasi-Russian protectorate in Donbas as a result, and attempt to integrate this quasi-Russian protectorate back into Ukraine. Russia is thus trying to break [Ukraine] apart.”
In other words what Ukraine objects to is Donbass retaining its distinctive Russian identity and political autonomy even though that is what Ukraine implicitly agreed to in the Minsk II Agreement. Rather than have such a culturally and politically autonomous Russian speaking region back in Ukraine, the Ukrainian leadership prefers to continue the war.
Given such an attitude, the fact Ukraine is coming under increasing pressure from the Europeans to abide by the Minsk II agreement is all but guaranteed to make some sections of the Ukrainian leadership opt for war. From their point of view escalating the war, which would at a stroke remove such pressure as there is on them to make political concessions and which might even firm up their support in the West, is far preferable to abiding by the Minsk II agreement, which the more hardline amongst them anyway openly reject, even if the price of doing so is another defeat. For the more cynical amongst them such a defeat anyway comes with the added bonus that it enables them to blame the economic hardships many Ukrainians are suffering on “Russian aggression”.
On balance it is unlikely there will be a resumption of the war, though given the fanatical calculations of some of the people in power in Kiev it is impossible to be sure. Despite some training provided to the Ukrainian military by the Western powers, it is in no condition to resume the offensive. A point which is consistently overlooked by commentators who talk up the supposed improved effectiveness of the Ukrainian military since the disasters of 2014 and early 2015 is that the militia over the same period has improved far more. If the Ukrainian military could not defeat the militia in the spring and summer of 2014, when the militia was small and disorganised, then it has no realistic prospect of defeating it now. Beyond that there is the fact, which Putin made clear in 2014 in Brisbane, that Russia will not allow the militia to be defeated.
The Europeans of course know all this perfectly well. Rather than face the disaster of another Ukrainian military defeat – which would expose the bankruptcy of their whole Ukrainian policy – they are likely to pull out the stops to prevent another Ukrainian offensive happening, just as they did the last time one was threatened in August 2015.
That however in itself resolves nothing. Even if there is no full-scale Ukrainian offensive the present fighting shows that there is no peace in the Donbass. Nor can there be whilst the present regime in Kiev remains in power.