Ukraine Violence Escalates

Kiev Ukraine soldiers

Photo courtesy of Kiev Ukraine.Info

Ukraine Violence Escalates
| published February 3, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff


Despite a tentative truce and cease-fire between pro-Russian militants and the Ukrainian military, an agreement originally brokered back in the fall but which has been quickly falling apart over the last two weeks, fighting for control of some areas of Eastern Ukraine has escalated. At least 60 civilians have been killed in the just the last 10 days, and many citizens are packing bags to leave the besieged areas.

Over the weekend, as Americans enjoyed planning for the Super Bowl—or watching the big game on Sunday night—the fighting in the Ukraine took a turn for the worse, in some areas intensifying to levels of violence not seem since mid-2014.

Pro-Russian rebels have stepped-up their attacks on numerous towns and cities, pushing west toward Ukrainian troops loyal to Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops attempt to hold their defensive positions, or where possible advance toward the heavily-armed militants. According to reports from the capital, at least 15 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed, and an estimated 30 rebel separatists have died (exact figures on rebel losses are not provided).

In late January, pro-Russian militants opened up a major offensive, including a heavy bombardment of the city of Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine. That offensive was so intense that at least 35 civilians have died. Rebels fired rockets indiscriminately onto the city and its suburbs, damaging businesses, schools, markets, apartments and houses. Reports from the city said that the ordnance being used is Russian-made, and is being fired using Russian military equipment positioned near the border. The pro-Russian separatists, many military analysts believe, are being supplied by Moscow with much of the heavy weaponry now being used against Ukrainian troops and against civilian targets.

The renewed violence has forced the sudden exodus in many towns and cities of civilians seeking refuge from the fighting. International observers and human rights groups say that there has been a surge of people heading west by car or truck, by bus or by train, away from the violence. Many families have packed only a few suitcases or large bags, and say they will not return to their homes or apartments until the fighting has stopped.

The Ukraine’s civil war, now more than a year old, has progressed in ebbs and flows, with the rebels sometimes gaining ground, then, yielding ground to the troops loyal to Kiev. The Ukrainian forces had by late last summer and early fall pushed rebels out of some key areas in Eastern Ukraine, and in late September a ceasefire—however tentative even at that time—was brokered between the two sides.

But the new violence, which once again includes the subplot of what appears to be massive support by Russia (including, some military and intelligence analysts believe, Russian personnel and commanders) has prompted the White House to announce that it will step beyond its previous limits and offer all-out military assistance to the Ukraine. For U.S. President Barack Obama, the pressure to send direct military assistance comes at a time of maximum engagement for the U.S. military in other areas of the world—including continued air operations again ISIS in Iraq and Syria, some 2100 U.S. soldiers on the ground in southern Iraq, and the start of U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan, where thousands of Americans are still fighting.

The United States, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and dozens of other countries have imposed harsh economic sanctions on Russia to dissuade it from further intervention in the Ukraine, but so far the sanctions—which have had a detrimental effect on the troubled Russian economy—have not spurred President Vladimir Putin into publicly calling for a ceasefire. Russia, which has officially said it has provided no military assistance to the militants, blames the Ukraine for the recent surges in the fighting.

The militants have launched major, well-coordinated offenses against several cities in Eastern Ukraine, including Soledar, Mariupol, Debaltseve and Donetsk. Ukrainian troops, which have launched their own counter-offenses in several areas, have taken a beating in recent weeks.

In the meantime, more talks are taking place, though the most recent negotiations produced few tangible results. Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, appointed by Kiev to lead the talks for Ukraine, met with rebel representatives for three hours last week, but those talks stalled over a series of stubborn problems, including the militants’ complaint that Kuchma was not, in their view, a proper representative for Kiev. Rebel leaders Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky refused to participate in the talks, further stalling progress between the two sides. One objective of the latest round of discussions had been the removal by both sides of heavy weapons—missiles, rockets, tanks, artillery—and a tentative plan to leave only enough troops to provide lightly-armed security details. But on even this point the two sides could reach no agreement.

Another goal of the latest talks: allowing for the distribution of humanitarian supplies—food, water, medicine, winter clothing—without the constant threat of shelling or shooting. On this point too neither side could reach agreement.

The Ukrainians have complained for months that the rebels are using heavy equipment provided indirectly or directly by Moscow, including state-of-the-art rocket launchers and heavy artillery, some of which was used to bombard the port city of Mariupol in January. The rebels have launched major offensive designed to push Ukrainian forces out of key strategic areas, including airports and transportation hubs. The militants recently attempted to regain control of the airport at Donetsk, and the deadly rocket attack on Mariupol was also part of a long range rebel strategic plan to gain logistical superiority over key areas.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Pro-Russian Militants Bombard Mariupol; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 25, 2015.

The Economic Impact of Ukraine’s War; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 25, 2014.