On Saturday, Ukraine peace talks held in Minsk collapsed as officials representing the Ukrainian government, Russia, and the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic once again failed to reach an agreement halting the violence wracking Eastern Ukraine. The most recent sessions were haunted by acrimonious rhetoric and accusations of culpability in attacks which violated terms of previous ceasefire efforts:
Up until Saturday, the sides held only one inconclusive meeting since agreeing a ceasefire last September as part of a 12-point blueprint for peace. Much-violated from the start, that truce collapsed completely with a new rebel advance last week.
Both sides have accused each other of deadly artillery and mortar strikes on civilian targets in the past two weeks, including on a cultural centre in the main regional city of Donetsk on Friday which killed at least five people waiting for humanitarian hand-outs. (Al Jazeera, January 31)
The conflict, which has a death toll exceeding 5,100 since hostilities began in earnest last April, now moves into a phase of more uncertainty amidst an alleged attack by Russian-supported rebels earlier on Saturday claimed the lives of at least 12 civilians in the railroad town of Debaltseve. Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak stated that at least 15 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and an additional 30 wounded in fighting during the previous 24 hours, an intensification of a conflict that now has no real end in sight with the collapse of the Minsk talks. Poltorak further stated that at least 20 civilians had been killed though clashes throughout the previous day left an inaccurate picture of the battlefield with updates coming to the government in Kiev regularly. Bloomberg Business reported a dramatic upward trend in casualties on both sides, with each side claiming high numbers of enemy killed:
The Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, in a statement on Facebook, said 129 rebels have died and 331 have been wounded in fighting since Jan. 30.
The separatist-run DAN news service said that Ukraine’s military lost 97 soldiers on Saturday alone and that 1,439 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in the last 15 days. The news service cited the self-declared Donetsk Republic’s defense ministry. (Kateryna Choursina and Aliaksandr Kudrytski, Bloomberg Business, January 31)
New EU Sanctions
Prior to the cessation of negotiations in Minsk, foreign ministers of the European Union (EU) member states voted to levy new sanctions on Russia in the wake of escalating fighting in Donbass. The new center of the largesse of the fighting between the Kiev government and the Russian-backed rebels continues to be the coastal city of Mariupol (located approximately 315 kilometers east/northeast of Crimea) and the strategic railroad village of Debaltseve (approximately 185 kilometers north/northeast of Mariupol), both located in Donetsk Oblast. Intense fighting over the past several weeks in Mariupol has overshadowed the negotiations and, in context of the EU foreign ministers’ vote Friday represents an entrenched battle that is representative of the overall conflict itself since last spring:
EU foreign ministers agreed the new measures against Russia during emergency talks called after dozens died in fighting in the east Ukrainian port of Mariupol. EU High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini cloaked her statement on the announcing of sanctions with regret in light of the recent surge in civilian casualties in Ukraine:
“I cannot say I am happy that we have taken this decision because the situation on the ground is nothing to be happy about,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told a press conference in Brussels. (Z News, January 30)
At this point in the war, it’s fairly obvious that despite repeated attempts at ceasefires and cessations in violence in Donbass that Russian logistical, materiel, and personnel support for the anti-government rebels will not be a line broken by hosted peace talks or negotiations. The conflict in Ukraine continues to entangle both sides with no easy unraveling in sight. For its part, Russia has decided to continue with aggressive rhetoric. On Friday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russia will “…strengthen its forces in strategic areas…“:
Shoigi made the remarks at a meeting with the Defense Ministry board on January 30.
He said that “the task set by the president — to prevent military superiority over Russia — will be fulfilled unconditionally.”
Shoigu said that Russia plans to “strengthen our troops and forces in strategic areas” in response to the “military-political situation” near its borders.
Russia must focus “on developing the quality of the strategic nuclear forces, on increasing military staff and the capabilities of the army and navy, and also on developing new types of armed forces, namely aerospace,” he said. (Reuters via Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 30)
The United States Invests In Ukraine, Financially and Militarily
Recent news that the U.S. Army is planning to reinforce U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe was highlighted by statements this past week on the proposed movement of equipment and weaponry in advance of potential U.S. military force deployments:
“We are doing surveys here in the next few weeks up in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria to see if there is a place where perhaps some of that equipment could be stored there,” USAREUR chief Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges said during an interview with Stars and Stripes. “Maybe it’s a company, maybe it’s a whole battalion, we don’t know yet until we do the survey.”
In 2015, the Army expects to rotate a full-sized, U.S.-based heavy brigade of some 3,000 troops and additional tanks and other armored vehicles through Europe in connection with the service’s Regionally Aligned Force initiative. Last year, the program kicked off on a smaller scale, bringing combat tanks back into Europe after a brief absence following the elimination of two Germany-based heavy brigades in 2013. Now, the regional concept is picking up steam, with plans for 220 armored vehicles in Europe. (John Vandiver and Michael Darnell, Stars and Stripes, January 25)
On January 22 the head of the United States Army Europe, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, announced a sudden shift in U.S. policy and a surge of support for Ukrainian forces battling it out in Donbass:
American soldiers will deploy to Ukraine this spring to begin training four companies of the Ukrainian National Guard, the head of US Army Europe Lt. Gen Ben Hodges said during his first visit to Kiev on Wednesday.
The number of troops heading to the Yavoriv Training Area near the city of L’viv — which is about 40 miles from the Polish border — is still being determined, however.
The American training effort comes as part of a US State Department initiative “to assist Ukraine in strengthening its law enforcement capabilities, conduct internal defense, and maintain rule of law” Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Vanessa Hillman told Defense News.
After meeting with commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Lt. Gen. Anatoliy Pushnyakov and acting commander of the National Guard Lt. Gen. Oleksandr Kryvyenko during his visit, Hodges said he was “impressed by the readiness of both military and civil leadership to change and reform.”
The training was requested by the Ukrainian government “as they work to reform their police forces and establish their newly formed National Guard,” Hillman added. Funding for the initiative is coming from the congressionally-authorized Global Security Contingency Fund (GSCF), which was requested by the Obama administration in the fiscal 2015 budget to help train and equip the armed forces of allies around the globe.
The training mission has been the subject of plenty of discussion among US policy makers for months, and the United States has already earmarked $19 million to help build the Ukrainian National Guard. (Paul McLeary, Defense News, January 22)
The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, stated that the mission will include the provisioning of military equipment and weaponry (purchased by the U.S.) with military personnel tasked with training and advising the Ukrainian National Guard:
Pyatt told Ukraine’s Weekly Mirror: “We have purchased armored vehicles, night vision devices, radar systems, and encrypted radio communications equipment. Now we consider the most important assistance to be training and retraining Ukrainian military formations. We will start the appropriate programme in March.” (Ukraine Today, February 1)
Earlier in the week, Ukraine Today had reported on $2 billion in loan guarantees by the U.S. to Ukraine, with additional funding of up to $3 billion if the reforms required in the stipulations of the aid are met by the Ukrainian government in Kiev. Humanitarian aid is a part of the package but so is money designed to address a failing Ukrainian economy and prevent bankruptcy. Additionally, among those reforms are, interestingly enough, efforts to “…improve the energy sector…”:
The US has confirmed USD 2 billion in loan guarantees to help war-torn Ukraine and says it is also ready to provide up to USD 3 billion in financial aid if the Ukrainian government implements reforms to combat corruption and improve the energy sector.
The agreement was signed in Kyiv by the Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Yaresko and US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.
Jack Lew, US Treasury Secretary: “Today I was pleased to sign with Minister Yaresko declaration of intent to move forward with the loan guarantee for one billion dollars. This guarantee is intended to help Ukraine immediate near-term social spending needs and insulate vulnerable Ukrainians from the impact of necessary economic adjustments.” (Ukraine Today, January 28)
Geopolitics and Spreading the Battlefield
Ukraine’s eastern region plays a pivotal role geopolitically, not the least of which is in an energy sector. Those reforms, targeted towards strengthening Ukraine’s energy sector, are likely a move to eventually alleviate the grip of Russia on gas supplies to Europe. For over a decade, Russia has used its role as Europe’s main supplier of natural gas to achieve geostrategic policy goals, alternately shutting off and turning on gas supplies to gain compliance with Russian strategic interests in Europe.
Intriguingly, on Saturday news sources reported that the Ukrainian National Guard had been tasked with reinforcing the border separating Ukraine from the breakaway Moldovan state of Transnistria (also known as the Pridnestrovian Republic or PDR). Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, has been hosting Russian military forces since 1992. Current Russian military forces inside Transnistria are assessed to be roughly 1200 (at last estimate, though other sources place the number as high as 1500), comprised of contingents of its 14th Army.
Russian troops in Transnistria occupy several bases and highway checkpoints, allowing Russian President Vladamir Putin depth in ensuring that any attempt by the European Union to integrate Moldova will be met by Russian military opposition in the PDR. Moldova, which officially signed an Association Agreement with the EU (along with Ukraine and Georgia) on June 27th of last year, officially requested the removal of Russian troops and weaponry last August. I have written on the geostrategic value of Transnistria for both SOFREP and Foreign Intrigue, most recently on November 30th. You can find that article here.
Finally, on Saturday the Georgian government in Tbilisi officially stated that the estimated 100 Georgian citizens fighting with the Ukrainian military against Russian-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine will not be charged with any crime:
Citizens of Georgia who take part in military operations in Ukraine on the party of the official Kiev authorities, punishment for participation in armed groups abroad won’t concern, the deputy minister of internal affairs Levan Izoriya told journalists.
The parliament of Georgia considers amendments to the Criminal code, assuming input of criminal liability for participation in illegal armed groups abroad now: “These amendments don’t concern at all those citizens of Georgia who take part in military operations in Ukraine within jurisdiction of the legitimate Ukrainian authorities. The punishment will concern only those citizens who take part in illegal armed groups”.
Now it is known that as volunteers on the party of the authorities of Ukraine about 100 citizens of Georgia are at war. (APA, January 31)
Ukraine Today elaborated on the news, reporting that Georgian citizens who fight on behalf of the Russia-backed rebel contingents could, in fact, be subject to charges upon their return to Georgia:
Approximately 100 fighters of Georgian citizenship are fighting in east Ukraine on a voluntary basis and according to the Georgian authorities they are now officially allowed to participate. However, Georgians fighting for illegal armed groups abroad can be punished, meaning any Georgians fighting on the side of the Moscow-backed militants could be prosecuted should they return to Georgia. Georgia, which is likely to join Nato one day has two Moscow-backed break-away regions of its own.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia are both propped-up by Russian military and economic support. (Ukraine Today, January 31)
Which Way Ahead?
In my next article, I’ll address the ongoing and intensifying conflict in the South Caucasus as Russia continues to violate international norms and undermine Georgian territorial integrity. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the encroachment of Moscow upon Georgia’s borders through bi-lateral agreements with Abkhazia and South Ossetia are becoming inextricably linked. This linkage has far-reaching consequences for the Eurasian security landscape and the future of stability from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. As Kiev continues to look to the West for military and financial assistance as the war in Donbas grinds on, Tbilisi is also sounding an alarm over Russia’s announcement that South Ossetia will sign a border treaty on February 18. While U.S. officials have signaled their intention to continue support of the Tbilisi government in its battle against Russian aggression in the two breakaway territories, overt involvement in Georgia by Western states carries with it tremendous risk for escalation of the war in Ukraine and its spreading to Moldova, Georgia, and beyond.
With the official collapse of the Minsk peace talks there appears to be no real structured negotiations regime for pursuit of a resolution to the intensifying campaign of violence in Donbas. The increased shelling and fighting in Eastern Ukraine, when examined in context with Tbilisi’s admonition of Russia’s continued encroachment upon its breakaway territories, is indicative of a conflict that will spread before it wanes. The security landscape in Eurasia, specifically in the arc of territory from Eastern Europe through the Caucasus, is lending to an assessment that, for Europe, the war in Ukraine is simply prologue. Fears of Russian invasion in the Caucasus could eventually metastasize into a violent conflict as well, making that arc of territory in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus fertile ground for a Great Power conflict to emerge that could resemble what Syria is suffering from after several years of protracted war in the Levant.
The Minsk talks, which were not widely anticipated to provide even a framework for discussions on ending the conflict, nonetheless provided a format and a foundation on which negotiations for an end to hostilities could be pursued. With no expected return to face to face talks, both sides are now digging in. The emergence of U.S. direct assistance, even if just in an advising and training capacity, further invests the U.S. in the conflict and signals to Russian strategists that while they may be playing semantics with the international community on their involvement, those on the other side of the line of demarcation will soon be getting low-cost assistance of their own. As both sides anticipate a protracted war in Ukraine in the wake of the failed talks in Minsk and the first real official announcement of overt military support for Ukraine announced by the U.S., it now appears more likely that the front in Eastern Europe will expand, potentially engulfing more regions where loyalty to the state and ethnic divisiveness could just as quickly ignite more contested territories and destabilize entire regions… or states.