A muted White House isn't just emboldening the Kremlin -- it's inciting the politics of war throughout Ukraine.
- By Isaac WebbIsaac Webb is a freelance writer and editor based in Kiev, Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @isaacdwebb
KIEV, Ukraine — Less than two weeks after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, full-blown war returned to eastern Ukraine.
Beginning Jan. 29, rockets rained down on residential and military positions along the front line, killing civilians and soldiers alike. One 60-year-old woman was killed in separatist shelling as she walked from her home to a nearby market; a 24-year-old medic was killed when a shell exploded next to the ambulance she was driving. The fighting decimated local water and electricity infrastructure, spawning a renewed humanitarian crisis in the region that could affect hundreds of thousands of people as temperatures dip below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
It stands to reason that the return to fighting in eastern Ukraine bears some relationship to the political event that preceded it by nine days — the inauguration of Trump as U.S. president. But the influence of Trump’s election on the calculus of war and peace in Donbass cuts both ways. It’s not just Russian aggression that the Trump presidency has stirred up, analysts say. Kiev, too, has become less inclined to compromise as it has grown more uncertain about Washington’s policy toward the conflict.
Until this past week, large-scale fighting had for the most part died down in Donbass since the signing of the Minsk II cease-fire agreement in February 2015. Front-line areas still saw exchanges between government forces and Russian-backed separatists, but nothing that resembled a significant battle.
That changed on Jan. 29, when fighting broke out in the town of Avdiivka. Nearly two dozen civilians and soldiers have died, and many more have been injured in what the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) describes as the heaviest shelling it has recorded since the war began in 2014. Now, one week on, Ukrainian forces have solidified their defenses and moved forward the sort of heavy weaponry, including battle tanks, that was supposed to be removed from the front lines as part of the Minsk II Agreement.
Kiev has pointed the finger at Russia as the culprit for the recent outbreak of fighting, and there is some evidence to support its case. Three days before the fighting erupted, Olexander Motuzyanyk, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, warned of a Russian military buildup along the Ukrainian border in Russia’s Rostov region; the next day, Russia alerted the OSCE’s Permanent Council about the increased risk of an escalation of the conflict in Donbass. Still, unlike in previous large-scale confrontations, there’s no evidence that regular Russian troops are involved in the current fighting.
But Kiev’s advances have also contributed to the rekindling of the war. Since last abandoning its policy of disengagement last fall, Ukraine has been making increasingly frequent incursions into the “gray zone” — the no man’s land between government and separatist forces along the front line that the two sides have fought over since the signing of the first failed peace agreement in September 2014. Separatists have more recently started making their own incursions into the no man’s land. The result is that the gray zone in eastern Ukraine has become a tinderbox: In many places along the front line, only a few hundred yards divide government troops from Russian-backed separatists.
Both sides have drawn criticism from the OSCE and other groups that fear this shrinking divide could lead to renewed violence. Speaking several days before the current escalation began, Alexander Hug, the deputy chief monitor of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, said he was concerned about the buildup of heavy weaponry and military positions in the gray zone, warning that local cease-fire agreements could prompt both sides, including Ukraine, to create “new realities” on the ground in order to negotiate from a stronger position in the future.
At the same time, the Ukrainian president’s office has used the escalation to remind Trump of the costs of rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin: “The shelling is massive. Who would dare talk about lifting the sanctions in such circumstances?” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in a video address posted online on Jan. 31. Putin, meanwhile, accused Ukraine of provoking the escalation to do just that, saying that because Kiev aligned itself behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it is now forced to “to mend ties with the current U.S. administration.” Ukraine, Putin continued, “needs money right now and you can best get money from the EU … the U.S., and financial institutions if you portray yourself as a victim of aggression.”
The U.S. State Department’s recent muted response to the outbreak of fighting, which did not mention Russia’s involvement, has only fueled further uncertainty for all parties involved. Similarly, the phrasing of a White House statement after a phone call between Trump and Poroshenko on Feb. 4 made some question the Trump administration’s understanding of the war in Donbass. The readout referred to “Ukraine’s long-running conflict with Russia,” not mentioning Russia’s role in initiating and aggravating the war. What’s more, though U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley condemned Russian aggression in Ukraine and insisted on the maintenance of American sanctions related to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, she did not mention those tied to the Kremlin’s actions in Donbass.
Although the Ukrainian government is indeed looking for ways to make inroads with the Trump administration, it’s begun to tentatively explore avenues toward peace in Donbass. Poroshenko made a trip to Berlin on Jan. 30 — which was cut short due to the surge in fighting — in part so that he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel could discuss “how to make Minsk work,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of the Institute of World Policy, a think tank in Kiev. Before Trump’s election, Kiev’s terms had been clear: Ukraine would not make political concessions in areas like local elections for the separatist regions until Russia and the separatists had removed heavy weapons from the front and given Kiev back control of the eastern border with Russia. But, Getmanchuk said, with the election of Trump and support wavering in Washington, Kiev is prepared to consider a less-than-ideal agreement if Russia clearly shows it will compromise — though Ukraine has been evasive about what that would look like.
Making Minsk work has always been easier said than done. Despite Trump’s election — and with it, the potential of reduced support from Washington — the Ukrainian public and political elite remain reluctant to make any kind of deal in eastern Ukraine. Though polls show the military conflict in Donbass remains the most important issue for Ukrainians, only 9.2 percent of the population views the Minsk Agreements positively, and there’s little public appetite for any talk of compromise.
On Dec. 29, influential Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Pinchuk set off a firestorm in Kiev by arguing in the op-ed section of the Wall Street Journal that Ukraine needed to make “painful compromises for peace” with Russian-backed separatists, including not letting Crimea “get in the way” of a peace deal, holding elections in the occupied territories, and abandoning Ukraine’s aspirations to become a member of the European Union. The article provoked a backlash from Ukrainian elected officials and pundits who called Pinchuk “pro-Putin” and quickly turned the businessman and his associates into political pariahs. The Ukrainian government shot its own salvo at the oligarch less than a week later: The deputy head of the Presidential Administration published a letter in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that Pinchuk’s proposal played “into Russia’s appetites,” inviting “even more aggression and greater human suffering.” Pinchuk was ultimately forced to back down, writing an article in Russian for Ukrainska Pravda, a popular news site, explaining that his initial op-ed had been misinterpreted and edited for an American audience.
But multiple sources close to the presidential administration say there’s more to the story. The release of Pinchuk’s op-ed seems to have been orchestrated with the help of political consultants working for Poroshenko both to gauge Ukrainians’ willingness to compromise and, with Pinchuk and the Ukrainian president seeking a strong relationship with the incoming American administration, to say what they thought Trump wanted to hear. However, both seem to have misjudged popular opinion: The prevailing lesson of the Pinchuk affair seems to be that compromise remains a provocative proposition in Ukraine.
Even those who advocate for a less drastic compromise have come under fire in Ukraine’s charged political climate. Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot who was held in prison for two years in Russia on politically motivated charges and championed as a Ukrainian hero during her detention, was denounced as a traitor by hard-liners in January for suggesting that the “only peaceful solution” to the conflict in the east would involve Ukraine putting Crimea “on the back burner” in order to regain the separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine.
And for some in Kiev, hawkishness has made for good politics. One person advocating the advance of Ukrainian forces into the gray zone is Oleksandr Turchynov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (and acting president following the Maidan Revolution). This “creeping offensive,” as the policy has come to be known among military analysts and in the Ukrainian media, seems to be directed at garnering political support from the section of the public that is critical of the Minsk deal and would like to see a firmer stance taken in eastern Ukraine. Turchynov also advocated a complete blockade of Donbass in December to stop the flow of illegal goods into the separatist republics, which became a justification for the Ukrainian advance near the village of Novoluhanske in December 2016, one of the most significant incursions in recent months. Turchynov’s stance probably has more to do with his political ambitions than with the uncertainty brought about by Trump: Rumors are swirling that he may have his eyes on the presidency in the future.
The popularity of positions expressed by people like Turchynov has pushed even those initially inclined toward peace to take more hawkish stances. Poroshenko was elected president in May 2014 on a platform of peace, and the coalition he built after coming into power, known as the “party of peace,” engaged in a national debate with then-Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s more hawkish camp about how to resolve the conflict in the east. But in September 2015, Poroshenko began to change his rhetoric as a peaceful resolution became less popular, ultimately taking up the mantle of war as Yatsenyuk’s governing coalition fell apart in late 2015, leading to his resignation in April 2016. “By the winter of 2015-16, there was no longer a group that would speak in support of a peaceful resolution,” said Mikhail Minakov, president of the Foundation for Good Politics and a professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.
The lack of opposition to Poroshenko’s war rhetoric means that many subscribe to the idea that peace can be won only through war. But if the previous Minsk Agreements are any guide, it won’t be Ukraine imposing a settlement on Russia and the separatists: Ukraine was forced to accept the Minsk I and II Agreements on Russia’s terms following massive losses at the hands of Russian units in bloody battles at Ilovaisk and Debaltseve, respectively. Unless a more conciliatory approach takes hold in Kiev, this seems likely to be the paradigm for any peace deal, whenever it is signed.
All of this presents a troubling picture of what the war in eastern Ukraine may become without Washington — and the Ukraine coalition it has led — involved in the peace process. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who handled the Ukraine portfolio for the White House and communicated regularly with Poroshenko, played a moderating role in subduing Kiev’s more hawkish impulses and keeping them committed to the Minsk deal. For the moment, most eyes in Washington and elsewhere alarmed at the recent uptick in violence are trained on what they view as an emboldened Kremlin. But the fighting in eastern Ukraine is complex and as much driven by domestic as international factors. “Right now,” Minakov said, “there is no party of peace in Ukraine.”
Photo Credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images