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Though the fog of war sometimes lies heavy on fighting in eastern Ukraine, the latest clashes are something of an exception, with a reasonably clear picture of what happened trickling through (the Wikipedia entry on the battle follows the Ukrainian line, and is wrong and should be disregarded).
A Ukrainian attempt to advance towards Donetsk encountered fierce resistance and was driven back with heavy losses, with fears at one point that Ukrainian troops in the town of Avdeevka would find themselves encircled by the militia in what in eastern Ukrainian military parlance is called a “cauldron” as has happened repeatedly in the past. Though on Russian urging the militia appears for the moment to be holding back from doing this – with latest reports suggesting the fighting may be finally dying down – it seems the Ukrainians were caught in the open and suffered heavy losses from shelling, though the exact number of their casualties as always is hard to judge.
As regularly happens in the fighting in Ukraine, Ukrainian casualties were made worse by the Ukrainian leadership’s refusal to allow their troops to pull back. On the contrary they seem to have urged their troops to go on attacking even as more and more of them were being killed, and even as the whole Ukrainian position in Avdeevka became threatened.
Anyone who has followed the fighting in Ukraine since it began in earnest in July 2014 will be familiar with this pattern. Ukraine’s repeated defeats – in the so-called ‘Southern Cauldron’ and in Ilovaisk in 2014, and in Donetsk airport and in Debaltsevo in 2015 – were not the result of numerical inferiority, lack of equipment, or lack of courage or discipline on the part of Ukraine’s troops. They were the result of the chronic amateurism and incompetence of Ukraine’s high command – first and foremost of President Poroshenko himself – with such professional military leaders as Ukraine has mistrusted and apparently sidelined, so that decisions to attack are made which repeatedly draw the Ukrainian troops into traps.
It seems that for all the brave talk of a revival of Ukraine’s army nothing fundamental has changed, with Ukraine’s leadership unable to learn from its past mistakes.
The fighting, which President Poroshenko seems to have started with the intention of shoring up his support in Ukraine and the West, may in fact have undermined his support in both places. Poroshenko’s approval rating in Ukraine was apparently hovering at a (probably overstated) level of around 13% before the attack. As talk of the heavy casualties suffered to no effect as a result of this latest attack feeds through to Ukrainian society – which it will – it is likely such popularity has he has left will fall further. The fact that he is now calling for a referendum on NATO membership and that his special forces have carried out another murder attack on a militia leader in Lugansk are clear signs that he is trying to divert attention away from his latest military debacle.
Perhaps of even greater concern to Poroshenko is that in the US there are clear signs that the Trump administration is looking for alternatives to him as it tries to find a way to break the impasse. Not only has Trump delayed his first conversation with Poroshenko as President until today – a full week after the call between Trump and Putin – but on the eve of the call Trump met in Washington with Poroshenko’s long-time enemy and political rival the former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Such meetings between the US President and an opposition leader are unusual to say the least, and the fact that Trump chose to meet Tymoshenko on the eve of his talking to Poroshenko frankly looks like a snub, and one which can only cause Poroshenko deep alarm.
In saying this I should say that the fact this meeting took place is far more important than anything about sanctions Trump is supposed to have said during the meeting. I say this because the US journal Politico is reporting that Trump is supposed to have assured Tymoshenko during the meeting that the sanctions on Russia would not be lifted whilst Russia’s “aggression” against Ukraine continues. In reality Trump is unlikely to have deviated from the official line in a first meeting with someone like Tymoshenko, and he is unlikely to feel strongly bound by anything he said to her on such a subject.
Frankly the meeting between Trump and Tymoshenko gives an impression of Trump and his aides sizing up Tymoshenko to see if she is fit to take over from Poroshenko in whom they appear to have little confidence. The fact that Poroshenko and his oligarch backers went out of their way during the recent US election to back Hillary Clinton – to the point of undermining the position of Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort – will of course have done Poroshenko no favours with Trump and his team at all.
Whether Tymoshenko really is the solution to breaking the impasse in Ukraine’s crisis is another matter. As a businesswoman and political leader, and as Ukraine’s Prime Minister, Tymoshenko proved to be fiercely competitive and confrontational, as well as incompetent and corrupt, though in the case of the latter no more so than every other Ukrainian politician. Her popularity has risen in recent months as Poroshenko’s has fallen, and is now roughly the same as his, which is to say that she is not actually very popular within Ukrainian society at all.
Tymoshenko is nonetheless widely seen as intelligent, and as Ukraine’s Prime Minister she did manage to forge a reasonable working relationship with Putin and the Russians, even if she seems to have done so principally in order to strengthen her position in Ukraine’s internal conflicts. There are even rumours that Putin personally preferred Tymoshenko for Ukraine’s President over Viktor Yanukovych, whom Putin is said to have mistrusted.
Whether or not Trump’s interest in Tymoshenko is misplaced the mere fact he is speaking to her does however suggest – as I have said – that he is looking for options, and that he may be thinking of dumping Poroshenko, who after all he has personal reasons not to like.
If so it may also show that Trump senses that without some sort of resolution to the Ukrainian crisis – if only a temporary one which puts the conflict on ice – his hopes of a sustained improvement in US-Russian relations may prove stillborn.
One way or the other, what with the debacle in Avdeevka and Tymoshenko’s meeting with Trump, Poroshenko has a great deal to think about as he prepares for his own talk with Trump later today.