Monday 18 December, 2017 Update: Russian Ceasefire Monitors Leaving Ukraine

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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.

 

 

 

Saturday 9 December, 2017 Update: Political Turmoil Returns to Ukraine

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Almost four years after the Maidan revolution swept Viktor Yushchenko and his regime from power, Ukraine is in the midst of another bout of political turmoil.  Protesters have taken to the streets chanting “Bandits Out!” and protester tents have returned to Maidan Square. This time around, the scope of the protests is smaller than four years ago, but the target of the growing dissent is essentially the same: Government graft.

The current political drama’s impetus is Mikhail Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia. He entered Ukrainian politics after Maidan to help combat corruption. He served as governor of the Odessa region before a falling out between him and his longtime friend, Ukraine’s current president Petro Poroshenko. Saakashvili resigned from his post in 2016 and publicly accused Poroshenko of corruption and blocking reforms. Poroshenko responded in July by stripping him of his Ukrainian citizenship, opening the door for his potential deportation back to Georgia where Saakashvili is wanted on fraud charges. With the help of supporters, Saakashvili made his way back into the country late Sunday. Earlier this week, he held a rally in Kiev where he called for Poroshenko to be impeached. Two days later, he was arrested by security service agents, but a large crowd of his supporters blocked the van carrying him and freed him from government custody. Late on Friday, Saakashvili was arrested again and taken into custody, prompting crowds of his supporters to gather outside of the detention center where he is being held.

The  draconian manner in which Poroshenko is handling this challenge to his position reveals the grim reality that the primary demand of Maidan has yet to be realized. Corruption is still prevalent, and the Oligarchic system remains in place. This situation would be bad enough even under peacetime conditions, however, the fact that Ukraine is mired in a nearly four-year long war against Russian-supported separatists exacerbates matters. The West has done little to assist in the corruption fight since Maidan, focusing its efforts on military and diplomatic assistance instead. Now, even those efforts have diminished. Europe is suffering from ‘Ukraine burn-out’ and the United States has still not adopted a thorough Ukraine policy. It was hoped that the Trump administration would make it a priority, but that has yet happen.

The turmoil in Ukraine could provide Russia with a window of opportunity as well. It is likely that right now in the Kremlin Vladimir Putin and his advisers are looking at the situation and working on a way to turn it to Russia’s advantage. The war in Ukraine has dragged on in stalemate for quite some time. Putin has been patiently awaiting the time when favorable circumstances could permanently change that.

That moment could very well be now.