Just a few days ago on RT’s Crosstalk programme Peter Lavelle, myself and the two other guests, Dmitry Babich and Ed Lozansky, discussed the Ukrainian regime’s likely reaction to the new Trump administration.
We all agreed that the likely response of the Ukrainian regime to the steps the Trump administration is taking to try to patch up US relations with Russia would be to escalate military tensions in the Donbass with a view in part to bolstering its political support in the West as this appeared to slide.
Our discussion took place in the early stages of the latest Ukrainian military offensive near the village of Avdeevka in eastern Ukraine. Since we had our discussion the situation has escalated – exactly as we predicted – with the fighting becoming fiercer and more bitter.
There is as always dispute about the state of the fighting and who is winning. The Ukrainians predictably claim to be advancing. More reliable reports suggest they have in fact made little headway, and that their losses are high.
The most important point about the fighting is not that it is happening, or that it is getting worse. Despite the two Minsk agreements – agreed by Ukraine in September 2014 and February 2015 – fighting in the Donbass has never stopped, and bitter flare ups repeatedly happen, as the Ukrainian military repeatedly goes back onto the offensive.
Rather what is striking about the latest fighting is that for the first time Ukraine is coming under criticism from the West.
For the first time since it was created the OSCE monitoring mission is apparently blaming Ukraine for the fighting.
Meanwhile a statement released by the US State Department – whose press office is still headed by Obama’s appointee Mark Toner – not only failed to support Ukraine but also failed to blame Russia for the fighting. Instead it merely expressed “deep concern” and support for the Minsk II agreement (which Ukraine is violating) whilst appearing to contradict Kiev’s casualty claims by speaking of “dozens of Ukrainian military casualties” as opposed to the dozen dead Ukraine has admitted to.
Of far greater concern to the Ukrainian regime must however be the reaction of the German government, which following the change of administration in the US is now the one important ally it has left.
According to a report in Süddeutsche Zeitung, not only is the German government blaming Ukraine for the fighting, but it is apparently worried that the Ukrainian regime will achieve the opposite of its intentions. Specifically it seems the Germans realise the purpose of the offensive is to prevent US President Trump from cancelling the sanctions US President Obama imposed on Russia. However the Germans are worried that Trump will cancel the sanctions anyway, despite the fighting, leaving Ukraine further exposed.
Here is how Süddeutsche Zeitung explains German thinking
According to Berlin, whose information is based, among other things, on reports from the OSCE mission in the Eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian military forces are currently trying to shift the front line in their favour…..
According to some members of the German government, this might be intended to increase tensions so as to block plans by US President Donald Trump to relax the sanctions. According to Berlin’s interpretation, Poroshenko wants to do just about anything to prevent an end to the sanctions against Russia.
The Federal [German] Government is however concerned that Kiev’s calculus could be counterproductive. Trump might ease the sanctions independently of the situation at the contact line. And then Kiev would be faced with double damage: an improvement in Russia’s position with a simultaneous intensification of the conflict in the Eastern Ukraine.
Whether it is possible to dissuade Kiev from its own provocations, no one in Berlin dares to predict.
If the Germans really are thinking in this way then it is understandable why Ukrainian President Poroshenko has just cut short his visit to Germany. Instead of getting the support from the Germans he might have been expecting, hearing this sort of thing would have been – to put it mildly – extremely unwelcome. It’s not surprising that Poroshenko preferred to return home rather than hear it.
How far Poroshenko and the Ukrainian regime are prepared to go in pursuing their latest offensive remains to be seen. The key point however is that even if some sort of ceasefire is patched up, it will not mean peace in Ukraine or the Donbass. Quite simply peace in Ukraine and the Donbass cannot happen so long as the current regime in Kiev remains in power.
In that respect the article in Süddeutsche Zeitung points to the key problem which has stood in the way of peace in Ukraine and the Donbass since the start of the conflict there.
Having trapped herself into a policy of open ended support for the current Ukrainian regime, German Chancellor Angela Merkel (the likely source of the story in Süddeutsche Zeitung) is not really concerned with Ukrainian responsibility for the latest fighting in the Donbass, even though it breaches the Minsk agreement and a succession of ceasefires which she has herself negotiated. The report in Süddeutsche Zeitung contains no hint of moral censure by her of Poroshenko’s or the Ukrainian regime’s actions.
Instead Merkel’s concern is that because of Donald Trump’s policy of rapprochement with Russia the Ukrainian regime, by violating the Minsk agreement and the ceasefires by going on the military offensive, may be overreaching itself, threatening its own existence and by extension Merkel’s position in Germany and Europe.
Needless to say the converse of this is that if contrary to Merkel’s expectations the Ukrainian “calculus” turns out right, and the Ukrainians either achieve a military breakthrough or prevent the lifting of the sanctions, then Merkel will be delighted, in spite of the fact that the Ukrainians have violated the Minsk agreement and the ceasefires she has herself negotiated by going on the offensive.
So long as such cynical attitudes persist in Western capitals the Ukrainian conflict will continue because the Ukrainian regime will feel that it has a critical mass of Western support it can always rely upon however badly it behaves.
I would add that the cynicism behind Merkel’s thinking revealed by Süddeutsche Zeitung – which is so different from the moralising poses she likes to strike – is actually typical of her, and in large part explains the widespread mistrust and dislike of her there now is in Russia, in many European capitals, and quite possibly before long in the US.
It remains to be seen whether the new Trump administration in the US is able or willing to break with it, bringing a hope of peace finally to the Donbass and Ukraine, and securing the basis for a better relationship with Russia, which without a settlement of the conflict in Ukraine is in the end impossible.