KYIV, Ukraine—On Tuesday, the guns fell silent along the front lines in eastern Ukraine. In a rare respite from violence for the nearly 4-year-old conflict, not a single cease-fire violation occurred during a 24-hour period.
At face value, Tuesday’s lull in fighting could be seen as good news. Perhaps even a bellwether for long-term peace when considered against the backdrop of some other events over the past few weeks.
For one, on Dec. 27, Ukrainian and combined Russian-separatist forces successfully swapped hundreds of prisoners, and talks are underway for another exchange later this year.
Also, earlier in January, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed the return of Ukrainian warships seized after Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.
However, among Ukrainian officials and soldiers, as well as outside security experts, there’s little confidence that Moscow seriously intends to de-escalate its ongoing proxy war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
“Russia does not seek a peaceful solution,” Andrey Kobzar, 40, a Ukrainian army combat veteran of the war in the Donbas, told The Daily Signal. “It is profitable to maintain constant tension and military action in Ukraine.”
Not Buying It
To date, 17 Ukrainian ships and vessels remain in Russian hands in Crimea, including 11 warships.
“We are ready to return Ukrainian military ships that are still in Crimea, we are ready to hand over aviation equipment and armored vehicles,” Putin said on Jan. 11 at a meeting with journalists in Moscow.
“However,” Putin added, “[the military equipment] is such a wreck. But it’s none of our business. This is the condition it actually was in. And naturally, nobody has ever serviced it all these years.”
Putin’s remarks ruffled feathers in Ukraine, where they were widely treated as an insult.
“Such steps are typical for Moscow, they always try to demonstrate themselves as peacemakers, but, in fact, they are not ready to talk about Crimea seriously,“ Ukrainian international relations expert Anton Kuchukhidze told The Daily Signal.
Oleksiy Melnyk, a former Soviet fighter pilot who is now co-director of foreign relations and international security programmes at the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center think tank, dismissed Putin’s remarks as a diplomatic jab intended to elicit a blundering response from Kyiv.
“The real intent has nothing to do with a peace initiative,” Melnyk told The Daily Signal. “Another tactical maneuver aimed to humiliate Ukraine—obvious if you do not read, but watch him making the offer—or to distract attention to some very technical details if Ukraine accepted.”
Highlighting Kyiv’s displeasure with Putin’s offer, Iryna Gerashchenko, first deputy head of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, wrote Jan. 11 on Facebook, “We’ll not sell out Crimea for ships, we will neither surrender nor swap it.”
“Indeed, these are our ships stolen by Putin,” Gerashchenko wrote. “They are brought to an awful condition by the invaders, just like the entire Crimea. Everything touched by the ‘Russian world’ comes to a waste. We will return Crimea and all Ukrainian property there, including ships. And Donbas, too.”
Putin is up for re-election in March, and Ukrainian Member of Parliament Ivan Vinnyk, secretary of the Verkhovna Rada’s Committee on National Security and Defense, characterized Putin’s warship return offer as an attempt to “humiliate Ukraine,” made “mainly for domestic consumers in the Russian Federation.”
For his part, Kobzar, the Ukrainian war veteran, said Putin’s offer was “nothing more than an awkward attempt to legalize the annexation of Crimea.”
“For the return of ships and equipment, it is required to enter into negotiations at the state level,” Kobzar said. “Having entered into such negotiations, Ukraine automatically recognizes that Crimea no longer belongs to it. Conclusion—this proposal is s—.”
Tuesday’s lull in fighting comes amid an overall increase in the war’s violence last year.
International cease-fire monitors reported a 25 percent uptick in cease-fire violations in 2017 from the previous year. And in the first few weeks of 2018, the overall pace of fighting has not let up.
“Last week, yet again, we saw more violence along the contact line,” Alexander Hug, deputy chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, told reporters in Kyiv on Tuesday via Skype.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, is the multinational group charged with monitoring the cease-fire in Ukraine.
On the night of Jan. 18, at a single position near the front-line town of Svitlodarsk, OSCE monitors noted more than 400 incoming and outgoing explosions, Hug added.
Tuesday’s unusual combat letup coincided with a visit to Kyiv by Kurt Volker, U.S. special envoy to the Ukraine conflict, to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and top Ukrainian defense officials.
Some said the parallel timing of Volker’s visit with the silenced war zone was not coincidental.
“No ceasefire violations in Donbas on [Jan. 23] while K.Volker is in Ukraine. Every step in Donbas is controlled by [Russia], who wants to fool everyone,” Mariana Betsa, press secretary of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, wrote on Twitter.
The calm did not outlast Volker’s visit.
On Wednesday, the day after Volker’s meetings in Kyiv, combined Russian-separatist forces attacked Ukrainian positions three times, Ukrainian defense officials said. One Ukrainian soldier was wounded in action.
And on Thursday, combined Russian-separatist forces attacked three times, wounding two more Ukrainian soldiers, defense officials in Kyiv said.
Volker is set to meet with Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov—Russia’s point man for the conflict in Ukraine—in Dubai on Friday.
End of the Beginning?
Since April 2014, Russia has waged a proxy war in the Donbas, sending weapons, cash, and its own troops to sustain the conflict against Ukrainian forces.
Going into its fifth calendar year, the conflict has killed more than 10,300 Ukrainians and displaced about 1.7 million people.
Currently, in eastern Ukraine’s war zone, roughly 60,000 Ukrainian troops remain entrenched along a 250-mile-long, static front line opposite a combined force of about 35,500 pro-Russian separatists, foreign mercenaries, and Russian regulars.
“Neither war in its full sense nor peace is likely anytime soon,” Stephen Blank, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, wrote this week in a piece for the Atlantic Council.
The current cease-fire, dubbed Minsk II, was effectively dead on arrival. Days after its signing in February 2015, combined Russian-separatist forces launched one of the largest offensives of the war, routing Ukrainian forces out of the strategic railhead town of Debaltseve.
Since February 2015, the conflict has more or less devolved into a static, trench warfare conflict. Yet, artillery and tank shots, mortar fire, and small arms gun battles still occur daily.
And, on average, one Ukrainian soldier still dies in action every three days.
U.S. and Ukrainian officials say Moscow has command-and-control authority over the day-to-day combat operations of its proxy separatist territories in eastern Ukraine.
The Kremlin maintains it’s not involved in the war.
“Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently restated three lies: there are no Russian troops in Donbas, the conflict in eastern Ukraine is a civil war, not a Russian invasion, and the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014 had nothing to do with Russian forces,” Blank wrote, adding, “All of these are bold-face lies.”
On Thursday, Russia sent what it said was a humanitarian convoy into the war zone—the 73rd such convoy since August 2014.
According to Russian state media, the procession of white semi-trucks transported more than 400 tons of humanitarian supplies for the embattled region, including baby food.
Ukraine and its Western allies have long said the convoys are a cover for Russian resupply deliveries of war materiel to sustain combat operations.
Thursday’s convoy crossed the border from Russia into the contested territories in eastern Ukraine at a location outside of Ukrainian government control. Ukrainian border control officials were consequently unable to inspect the trucks for illicit military cargo.
Talking in Circles
U.S. and Ukrainian officials frequently point to two intractable obstacles standing in the way of a political solution to the war—Russia’s refusal to acknowledge its role in the war, and Ukraine’s loss of control over its border with Russia within the contested territories.
So long as Russian weapons and troops can flow freely into the Donbas, and so long as Moscow maintains the line that the conflict is a grassroots separatist uprising in which it has no hand, then peace talks are at an impasse, those officials say.
Along that line of thinking, U.S. officials say it’s not worth talking to separatist leaders at all.
“Responsibility for the situation in eastern Ukraine rests squarely and solely with the Russian Federation. This is not, as some may argue, an internal or civilian conflict,” Harry Kamian, chargé d’affaires, a.i. of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, told the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna on Thursday.
“This is a conflict that was initiated and perpetuated by one participating state: the Russian Federation,” Kamian said.
There is also the ongoing question of whether U.N. peacekeepers should deploy to secure the contested areas.
Russia wants any peacekeeping force to be limited to zones immediately surrounding the front lines. Ukrainian and U.S. officials, on the other hand, say any peacekeeping force should have free reign throughout the entire embattled region to ensure Russian weapons and troops aren’t funneling in.
Ukrainian military officials downplay the possibility of a military solution to the conflict, underscoring the need to hash out some sort of political solution with Moscow.
For one, a Ukrainian military offensive to retake the contested areas would be a bloody fight for Ukrainian troops and a humanitarian disaster for the region’s civilian population.
Chief of the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces Gen. Viktor Muzhenko told the Ukrainian news site Ukrainska Pravda that a 10-day operation to retake Russia’s proxy separatist territories in the Donbas would inflict 10,000 to 12,000 casualties on Ukrainian military forces, including 3,000 killed in action.
Muzhenko estimated the resultant civilian casualties would be about four times the rate of the military’s.
For their part, Ukrainians are not likely to support retaking the Donbas by force, polling suggests.
Only 18 percent of the population supports ending the war by force, while 52 percent are willing to accept a negotiated compromise for the sake of peace, according to a July 2017 poll by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a Ukrainian think tank.
Accordingly, on Jan. 18, Ukraine’s parliament—the Verkhovna Rada—passed a bill outlining the terms of a possible reintegration of the Russian-controlled territories back into Ukraine.
The new law explicitly calls out Russia as the “aggressor state” and labels its troops in the Donbas as “Russian occupational authorities.”
The law grants Ukrainian military commanders broad power to carry out operations, as well as authority for Ukraine’s president to deploy troops without parliamentary consent.
Looking forward to a post-war settlement, the new law says that all Ukrainians who have fought alongside Russian troops in the contested region will be treated as criminals by the Ukrainian justice system. Further, the only documents that Ukrainian authorities will officially recognize from the two self-declared, Russian-backed separatist republics will be birth and death certificates.
“We will continue to pave the way for the reintegration of the occupied Ukrainian territory, using political and diplomatic means,” Poroshenko tweeted about the law, adding: “This is a signal both for Donbas and Crimea: you are an integral part of Ukraine.”
For its part, the U.S. has recently ratcheted up its military support for Ukraine.
In December, U.S. President Donald Trump authorized arming Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank missiles.
In Ukraine, there is widespread belief that the Javelins, while not a game-changing advantage for Ukraine in an all-out war, will deter more Russian aggression in the context of the current conflict.
“The U.S. Javelin issue can be used as political and diplomatic means, but not military,” Kuchukhidze, the Ukrainian international relations expert, said.
“There is only a diplomatic way for conflict resolution in the Donbas,” Kuchukhidze added. “Ukraine and its international partners can achieve stability only by peaceful means. We have no successful examples of the restoration of the territorial integrity of any independent country in the modern post-Soviet space by war.”
“Any delivery of lethal and nonlethal weapons and equipment makes Ukraine stronger,” Kobzar, the Ukrainian army veteran, said.
“Only after having received strong resistance will Russia refuse further plans of aggression against another state,” Kobzar continued. “The more our bees will sting a bear, the sooner it stops stealing our honey and destroying our hive.”
Ukrainian and Russian troops are still engaged in a low-intensity conflict against each other, and soldiers on both sides are still dying.
The war in eastern Ukraine remains a tinderbox that could ignite into a much bigger conflict.
With nearly 100,000 combined troops squared off in trenches and in forts scattered along approximately 250 miles of front lines, there is always the potential for an unanticipated escalation that neither side wants nor planned for—but once set in motion is nearly impossible to stop.
Sometimes wars happen that no one wants.
“Everywhere we observe indications that the sides are preparing to continue the conflict or even escalate it,” the OSCE’s Hug said.
“New trenches, more weapons, freshly-laid land mines—all indicate that the sides are preparing to ramp up this conflict rather than end it,” Hug added.