On the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru this weekend, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin had what will probably be the final in-person discussion between the two before Obama leaves office on January 20, 2017. The talk was only four minutes long and predictably Aleppo was a major talking point. The Syrian government unleashed a massive air and artillery bombardment of rebel-held sections of the city last week in preparation for ground attacks by regime forces, which began on Friday. Civilian casualties from the bombings have been high with 240 confirmed deaths as of this morning. Yesterday, a family of six was killed by a barrel bomb reportedly laced with chlorine gas. Hospitals in the rebel-controlled section of Aleppo were also targeted. Over the past few days five have been struck and damaged severely. Airstrikes on Friday also knocked the last functioning hospital in the eastern part of the city out of commission. There are now no operational medical centers in eastern Aleppo.
On the meeting, a White House official released the following statement: “On Syria, the president noted the need for Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov to continue pursuing initiatives, together with the broader international community, to diminish the violence and alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.”
The offensive against Aleppo has been strictly a Syrian-only operation. Russian forces have not taken part in the strikes or effort on the ground. Moscow has stated that it is concentrating its military efforts in a neighboring province.
The situation in Ukraine was another topic touched on. Obama urged Putin to keep the Minsk agreements from collapsing and reminded him of the West’s commitment to maintaining the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine. Following a brief flare up of tensions and fighting in August, the situation in Ukraine has been relatively calm ever since. While Russia is moving quickly to bring about a favorable conclusion to the situation in Syria there are no indications that a similar move is expected with regards to Ukraine. Putin appears satisfied to let the situation remain in limbo until it will be possible to broach the subject with the Trump administration in 2017.
Clashes between Ukrainian and Russian-supported separatist forces have been occurring with increasing frequency in eastern Ukraine. Two soldiers have been killed in action and over a dozen seriously injured according to sources in the Ukrainian government. According to the Ukrainian military, separatist forces have launched over 61 attacks on Ukrainian positions over the past 24 hours. In some cases, separatist forces used heavy artillery and high caliber mortars in violation of the terms hammered out in the Minsk Agreement. Most of the attacks came in the Mariupol sector, a strategically significant area for both sides in the conflict. Smaller numbers of attacks were made in the Luhansk and Donetsk sectors, however, it seems probable that a primary objective of a separatist offensive in the coming days will be the capture of Mariupol.
The Ukrainian military is warning of a possible Russian provocation being prepared along the separation line in eastern Ukraine. A military spokesman has stated that separatists are preparing to destroy one of their forward positons while Russian television crews are conveniently nearby to film it. The goal will be to show ‘proof’ that the Ukraine is using heavy artillery in violation of the Minsk Agreement. Judging from the amount of details provided by the spokesperson, it seems likely that Ukrainian officials received reliable intelligence on the matter.
Such a provocation, whether real or staged, would provide Russia with a casus belli to unleash the separatists on a renewed offensive. This planned provocation, coupled with the uptick in fighting suggest that the separatists have nearly completed their preparations and an offensive is coming in the near future.
Enjoy the weekend. More updates will come as events unfold.
On Monday, the European Union extended its sanctions against Russia for the next six months. The 28 member nations reached a consensus in spite of some question about how long the sanctions need to continue. Russia is a major trading partner of the EU, but since its annexation of Crimea and involvement in Ukraine’s separatist war, the EU has had punitive sanctions in place. These sanctions, along with similar measures put in place by the United States, have caused an economic slowdown in Russia. The extension will keep sanctions in place until July when they will be reviewed. A removal of the sanctions will be linked to the implementation of the Minsk agreements. With the agreements not likely to be put into effect anytime soon, the EU has used this as the justification for extending sanctions now.
A number of EU nations are becoming weary of the sanctions. Italy, which has long standing trade ties with Russia has been particularly outspoken on the issue. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has complained that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is forcing other EU nations to go along with the sanctions while Germany is engaging Russia in projects that are contrary to the terms of the sanctions. Renzi is specifically referring to a German-Russian plan to construct a natural gas pipeline between the two nations through the Baltic Sea. The project comes after a similar pipeline project that would have included Italy’s Eni energy company was cancelled last year.
As the EU hobbles toward 2016 it looks back on what has been a tumultuous and divisive year. The Paris terrorist attacks, Greece’s near exit from the EU, and the continuing refugee crisis have placed tremendous amounts of pressure on the member nations. From all indications, the coming year is not going to offer a reprieve for Europe. If anything, it is going to be worse.