It is all too easy to think the Kremlin is escalating the fighting in eastern Ukraine to test a Trump administration widely believed to be pro-Russian. Moscow, this argument goes, is exploiting an opportunity to show that President Trump actually cares very little about the conflict in Donbas and is focusing instead on deals with Moscow on bigger priorities like the fight against Syria or the challenge posed by China and Iran. Regardless of whether such efforts yield a big payoff for Moscow, like the relaxation of U.S.-EU economic sanctions, the new tone from Washington should be sufficient to increase political uncertainly and sow unrest inside Ukraine.
During a recent research trip to Ukraine, I found the country’s political elite are dealing with this uptick in geopolitical uncertainty and insecurity in two ways.
First, there is scrambling by various political factions to build bridges to the new U.S. administration. Yulia Tymoshenko, the controversial former prime minister turned populist opposition leader, has been playing up her brief informal interaction with Trump last week at the National Prayer Breakfast.
Second, Ukraine is using the flare-up in the Donbas to call attention to Russia’s thinly disguised role in the war — a tactic that has worked in the past. A tough statement from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley suggested that this tactic is starting to do the trick with the new team in Washington. However, Trump’s press secretary’s statement, the readout from Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and Trump’s latest note that “we don’t know exactly what is happening there” begs for a more careful assessment. So far, the Trump administration has only been talking about the importance of maintaining Crimea-related sanctions while implying that the more far-ranging sanctions imposed over the war in Donbas could be rolled back if Moscow partners up with Trump in Syria.
At the same time, the sources of the escalation are far from clear-cut. Based on reports from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, both sides engaged in armed provocations in advance of the recent escalation in and around the town of Avdiivka. In late January, American journalists reported from the frontline on a “creeping offensive” by the Ukrainian army in the no-man’s land that divides government forces from Russian-backed separatists. In July 2016, the International Crisis Group had described these tactic as “erode and probe.” Although Moscow reportedly built its command and control over separatist forces, Western geo-locators could not trace regular Russian troops at the time of escalation.
The Ukrainian army is in better shape than the separatists, and there is no parity on the frontline. Ukraine has around 70,000 troops in the conflict zone facing approximately 40,000 combined Russian-backed separatist troops. Their role is to keep the frontline: Moscow thinks time is on its side when it comes to political situation in the EU and the U.S.
Kiev knows that any serious escalation would be met with a Russian counter-offensive, as Russian escalation dominance is ensured by its technical and military superiority. A Ukrainian invasion would also lead to loss of Western support. Hence, for Kiev, a military solution for Donbas is not apparent.
Instead of implementing the deeply unpopular Minsk Agreements (second protocol signed on February 12, 2015 in Minsk), Kiev has used the conflict as leverage to secure external support from the West and promote solidarity and unity at home. Moscow insists on the political clauses of the agreements such as autonomy for and elections in Donbas, while Kiev urges Moscow to withdraw its forces, stop flow of military aid and troops, and allow Ukraine forces to control their side of the border.
The pro-Moscow rebel ranks are still regularly cleansed, most likely by their Russian overseers, sometimes violently. For example, a top Luhansk police commander was killed by a car bomb on February 4th. Moscow might be trying to prepare the ground for a political settlement: Ukrainian press reports suggest that Moscow is telling Kiev’s cease-fire negotiators that it might be willing to dismiss the current line-up of separatist leaders.
Such talk makes the separatists very jumpy and gives them an incentive to intensify the conflict. That is because they want to draw Moscow in and make sure that the Kremlin will not abandon them entirely. Making matters even more complicated, there has been a brewing conflict between Donetsk and Luhansk separatists. In some areas, checkpoints have been erected between the “republics,” not unlike those on the border of Ukrainian-controlled territory.
In the past, Kiev wore two hats, juggling war for the Donbas conflict and reform agendas for Ukraine. In the absence of immediate military or political solutions to the conflict, Kiev’s only apparent choice is to hold the line and fight fiercely for maintaining the status quo. Any other option is considered a threat to national security and to the legitimacy of post-Maidan political order.
Attempts by the new U.S. administration to put this complicated situation on the back-burner, to whitewash Russia`s responsibility for keeping the war going, or to lift the sanctions without a sea-change in Russian behavior would be deeply destabilizing for an already fragile Ukraine and roil ties with various European allies. Yet based on its signals to date, the Trump administration appears to be heading down precisely this path.