Russia is withdrawing its military officers assigned to the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination of Ceasefire in Donbas which is tasked with overseeing the brittle truce between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian military forces in the eastern regions of Ukraine. Kiev has labeled the move a ‘provocation’ and warns the action will undermine efforts to impose a permanent ceasefire in the region. The Russian foreign ministry claims the pullout is happening because Russian officers are being prevented by Ukraine from carrying out their duties. This action comes on the heels of a fresh round of fighting in eastern Ukraine that resulted in the deaths of three Ukrainian soldiers yesterday. The Ukrainian military has also announced that while it intends to continue operations at the JCCCC, it is withdrawing its monitors from occupied territory in the east amid concerns for their safety.
With the political crisis currently underway in Kiev, the Ukrainian government is growing increasingly distracted by the Saakashvili affair. Yesterday’s escalation in fighting, and Russia’s decision to withdraw its monitors should not come as a surprise. Moscow has a well-documented history of using Ukrainian political turmoil to gain an advantage in the ongoing conflict. The uptick in fighting, and the withdrawal are likely the first preparatory moves for a future Russian gambit. What’s happening now is akin to Moscow positioning their knights properly on a chessboard.
The next move remains to be seen. Perhaps with Ukrainian monitors departing the east an effort to resupply separatist forces will soon get underway in preparation for an offensive in early 2018. With Europe’s attention fixed on political happenings in Berlin at the moment, and President Trump in no rush to make a decision on supplying the Ukrainians with weapons, Vladimir Putin clearly senses an opportunity here. He is correct in all likelihood and is poised to move swiftly and take proper advantage of it.
France and Germany are calling for a ceasefire in the eastern Ukraine as fighting has flared up in the region this month. Following a conference call between French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the leaders of Ukraine and Russia, the two Western leaders released a statement calling for both sides to withdraw their forces from the disputed areas in the east. They also warned of an impending humanitarian catastrophe if conditions do not change soon. The German government claimed on Monday night that the four parties have agreed on a number of “immediate measures” in the conflict. If this translates to concrete action on the ground or not remains to be seen.
Fighting in the Ukraine conflict historically reaches a peak in ceasefire violations around late July and early August. This year appears to be no exception. In addition to the ceasefire violations, Kiev is claiming that additional Russian forces are arriving on its border. Ukrainian Chief of General Staff Viktor Muzhenko stated that Ukrainian forces have observed new activity on the Russian side of the border. Like the annual upsurge in fighting, Russian military activity near the border at this time of the year is nothing new.
The United States, by design, as well as coincidence, is playing a much more active role in this year’s Ukraine summer drama. The House is about to pass a new bill that will place many new sanctions on Russia for everything from its annexation of Crimea in 20014 to its attempts to influence the 2016 US presidential election. At the same time, the new US envoy to the Ukraine Kurt Volker indicated that the White House is pondering sending arms to Kiev to increase the defensive capabilities of Ukrainian forces fighting in the east. As Russia has been openly sending weapons, and troops to assist the separatists fighting in the east, similar US assistance for Kiev is a balanced response. Volker does not believe Moscow would view the move as a provocation. The Obama administration had limited US assistance to non-lethal military aid, which translated mainly to training, and the replenishment of non-lethal supplies like MREs, and medical equipment. The Trump administration seems ready to change that dynamic.
*Authors note: Part 2 of the Case for Military Action Against North Korea will be posted on 1 August. I have not forgotten. 😊*
Russia’s strategy of destabilization followed rapidly by concession in regards to pivotal matters in the Ukrainian Crisis came to life once again over the weekend. On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, activity was ramping up on two fronts as Russian overtures and efforts for a new ceasefire clashed with orders from Moscow which have the appearance of being a potential stepping stone towards the first formal diplomatic recognition of the Donetsk People’s Republic and its sister breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine.
On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his country will begin temporarily recognizing passport and ID documents issued by the self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine. The decision caused near-immediate backlash from Kiev and beyond. Ukrainian President Poroshenko condemned Russia’s action while other members of the Ukrainian government reacted angrily with a consensus growing that this move is contradictory to the spirit of the Minsk Agreements and will undermine any future ceasefires.
On that note, a new ceasefire was agreed upon by the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers with assistance from their French and German counterparts. The latest ceasefire goes into effect on 20 February, 2017, which means that the ceasefire is technically in effect right now. The core of this ceasefire attempt will be the withdrawal of heavy arms from eastern Ukraine. The move was negotiated in the first Minsk Agreement two years ago, but never implemented. Along with the withdrawal of heavy arms, this ceasefire promises the withdrawal of foreign troops, local elections and the reestablishment of Ukrainian control of its eastern border. These are also elements which were negotiated as part of the Minsk agreement. Including them in this ceasefire draft offers the impression that the Russians might possibly be serious about implementing measures that will end the fighting in eastern Ukraine permanently.
Ukraine promises to be a regular headline for the near-future.
Over the weekend and into Monday the level of military activity on the border between the Ukraine and Russian-held Crimea has spiked as Russian forces conducted military exercises in the northern part of the peninsula. Unconfirmed reports surfaced of Russian armor and other types of military hardware being massed near near Armyansk and Dzhankov, adding some validity to earlier reports that checkpoints at the administrative border with Ukraine had been blocked for a period of time on Sunday by Russian authorities in Crimea. The Ukrainians responded by stopping traffic and activity at a number of border crossings for a period of time on Sunday. Today, Ukrainian authorities report the situation at the border as being tense, yet under control.
The Russian activity appears to be part of the Northern Caucasus 2016 military exercises currently underway, however, Ukrainian authorities continue to be concerned. In the Donbas region fighting between government forces and Russian separatists over the weekend claimed the lives of three Ukrainian soldiers. Kiev is also wary of the level of activity across the entire Donbas front. Separatist forces are in the process of receiving new equipment and manpower from Russia, sparking fears of a renewed separatist offensive later this month.
‘Amateurs study tactics,’ an old military adage goes. ‘Professionals study logistics.’ The military situation in the ground in the Ukraine exemplifies this adage almost entirely. The pro-Russian separatist forces have a secure, uninterrupted supply line that stretches from the eastern Ukraine to the Russian side of the border. Not only are they able to replace material loses from Russian stocks at a fast rate, the tacit participation of Russian military forces in the fighting has guaranteed success on the battlefield as well as ensuring the security of the supply line.
On the other side of the line, Ukrainian forces have not been able to even marginally stem the flow of supplies coming west. Nor have they been able to resupply at the same rate as their opponents. Their stocks are finite and resupply from the West has come in dribs and drabs instead of a consistent flow. Even worse for the generals in Kiev is the realization that material aid from the United States and European nations has not included large amounts of military goods. The US and Europe are taking every step possible not to escalate the fighting.
Combat units go through ammunition and spare parts at a very rapid clip when hostilities break out. Armored vehicles, helicopters and aircraft break down or suffer battle damage and have to be repaired or replaced. The Ukrainian military cupboard is growing empty. To say nothing about replacing weapons, aircraft and vehicles that are lost in battle. Kiev’s forces are being bled dry with no hopes of major resupply on the horizon while the separatists enjoy an unfettered supply line with access to every material good they need and more.
US intelligence sources and eyewitness reports from the ground have confirmed the arrival of Russian made vehicles and heavy munitions in eastern Ukraine. On Tuesday, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported that some of its group members personally witnessed a convoy of 43 large green trucks heading towards Donetsk. According to the report, some of the vehicles were hauling 120mm artillery pieces behind them. A similar report was received last week concerning the arrival of tanks and other heavy equipment in the area.
Clearly, something is going on. It appears that the Russians are resupplying the separatists in preparation for the resumption of offensive operations. Ukrainian positions in the eastern part of the country have been enduring artillery fire for the past few days. Preparatory fire most likely. The cease-fire agreement has already been stretched to the breaking point in some respects and broken in others. Fighting is going to resume on a wide scale in the near future. The primary questions right now are: how far do the separatists plan to expand their territorial gains? Will the Russians overtly intervene in the fighting with regular forces this time?
I will explore answers to those questions tomorrow. The coming days are going to be crucial. Expect daily updates at the very least.