While the eyes of the world (and this blog) slip away towards to the advance of ISIS in Iraq, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is as impossible as ever. Just days after an offer of a ceasefire by President Poroshenko was taken up by the separatists, a Ukrainian helicopter was shot down by militants, killing nine soldiers. Today artillery and gunfire can still be heard in towns across Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. So what’s been happening? Have there been moves to peace? And is this still Russian aggression?
Over the last few months, the fighting has continued without real gains for either side. After the government seemed to score a victory in seizing Donetsk city airport, the positions in that city have not really changed, and the pro-Russian militias are still in control. The government has managed to regain control of the city of Mariupol, and made it the temporary capital of Donetsk Oblast. But cities like Slavyansk and Horlivka are still holdouts surrounded by the Ukrainian army.
There have also been no changes in the destruction and loss of life the conflict is bringing to Eastern Ukraine. The destruction around the smaller separatist towns is immense. Militias fire at the army from between civilian houses, and the army replies with artillery, causing more loss of life. The Ukrainian army, who haven’t fought in a major conflict since independence, are suffering too. Recently 49 soldiers were killed when a transport plane was brought down by separatist anti-aircraft fire.
The cost to the future of Ukraine is also growing. With every shell that is fired into a Slavyansk house, the more the people of Eastern Ukraine fear their own government. While the Donetsk People’s Republic rules by terror and violence, the Ukrainian government isn’t exactly appealing to the people either. Each day the violence goes on makes it more likely that the region will remain locked in a frozen conflict, similar to what happened in the Balkans in the 90s.
That’s why the recent steps towards peace were so important. Poroshenko had declared a unilateral ceasefire, one which he still publicly says he is committed to. One of the separatists leaders, Alexander Borodai, had said that he would agree to it. Vladimir Putin took the surprise step of asking parliament to remove his right to intervene in Ukraine if he thought it necessary. At first this seemed like progress.
However, the downing of the government helicopter is a blatant breach of the ceasefire, beyond any back and forth shelling. It’s hard to see why they would do this, and it brings into question Moscow’s control over the separatists. While on one hand Putin makes suggestions that peace would be welcome, on the other he might have allowed tanks to pass into Eastern Ukraine into the hands of the militia. The fact that the various militias are operating surface to air missiles with great success also suggests that they have received experts, training and/or weapons from Russia. But there is also the possibility that the separatists are in fact being urged to show restraint by Moscow, and that they are ignoring this. This could make the situation even harder to resolve.
The uncertainty surrounding the separatists and their support from Russia makes it hard to make any predictions. No one really knows what Moscow now wants, and how much control they have over Eastern Ukraine. It’s my opinion that Putin wants to keep the conflict simmering at a low enough level to avoid more sanctions, but high enough to force the Ukrainian government to agree to significant autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk, making them practical Russian protectorates. For the moment though it’s impossible to say. As has been the case throughout this crisis, Moscow’s influence will be key to ending to conflict.