Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was in Munich on Saturday trying to reinforce Western support for his nation as the prospects of a diplomatic resolution to the crisis grow even dimmer. Zelenskiy was critical of the Western response thus far. He appealed for economic sanctions against Russia to start before the shooting does. He also pointed out that daily predictions of a Russian invasion by US and European leaders only serves to damage Ukraine’s economy, rather than deter Russia. In conclusion, Zelenskiy said no deal should be reached between Russia and the West that does not include his country. US and European officials were uneasy with Zelenskiy’s decision to fly to Munich today. It was feared that his departure from Kiev would be viewed as a window of opportunity, enticing Russia to take action.
Allied Resolve, the military exercise taking place in Belarus is coming to an end. Before the exercise even started, Belarussian government assured a nervous world that Russian forces would be leaving their country as soon as Allied Resolve concluded. Today, Belarus announced Russian forces will not be departing the country after Allied Resolve concludes on 20 February. Government officials in Minsk have denied ever limiting the amount of time Russian troops would be allowed to remain on Belarussian soil.
To be fair, it was apparent from the moment Allied Resolve was announced that the exercise was being launched at least partly to provide cover for the movement of tens of thousands of Russian troops into Belarus. As the exercise continued on, more Russian units continued arriving in the country, tying up highways and railways across much of Belarus in the process. Neither Minsk or Moscow were fooling anyone and it is likely both Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko knew it.
Pro-Russian separatists launched a number of artillery strikes against Ukrainian military positions around the Kiev government-controlled town of Svitlodarsk in eastern Ukraine. Artillery picked up along the length of the line of confrontation in the east, it was heaviest around Svitlodarsk for most of the morning and early afternoon. The rate of fire was nearly twice what it has been in the previous two days and included mortar rounds, artillery shells and RPGs.
Whether they realize it or not, Catalonia’s separatist politicians have an image problem. Carles Puigdemont and company are emerging as the rapscallions of the Catalan crisis instead of the Spanish government. This is contrary to how Puigdemont and his associates intended the situation to play out. By this point, Madrid was expected to have seen the light and sat down with Catalan’s government officials to negotiate a phased, eventual separation of Catalonia from Spain. To the surprise of Puigdemont, the Spanish government’s response was strikingly different from what was expected. Madrid has stood up to the challenge, and has every intention of fighting tooth and nail to keep Catalonia from breaking off and becoming an independent state. Since the Catalan independence referendum on 1 October, nationalism has taken root across the country. Even in Catalonia, support for independence is not overwhelmingly high, contrary to what the separatists in the Catalan government want people, and the media to believe. In Barcelona, the heart of Catalonia, many residents are critical of their region’s government, accusing the separatist politicians of touching off this crisis purely to achieve their own ends.
Remarks made today by Catalan Vice President Orio Junqueras seem to support the suspicions about separatist politicians. In light of Madrid’s intent to impose direct rule, Junqueras sees a quick declaration of Catalonia’s independence as the region’s next logical step. Speaking on behalf of his Republican Left party’s members, he said the party is committed to “work toward building a republic, because we understand that there is a democratic mandate to establish such a republic.” Whether or not such a mandate exists depends on whom you speak to. Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled against the 1 October referendum making the results invalid. Junqueras, Puigdemont, and Catalan separatists point to those same results as proof that a mandate exists regardless of the Constiutional Court’s ruling.
Catalonia’s political elite has still not come to terms with the severity of the situation before them. Madrid plans to fire all of them and assume control of the region until new elections can be held. Catalan leadership has yet to put together an effective plan to delay, or block Article 155’s from being implemented. Time is running out and a declaration of independence at this point will do nothing but speed up the Spanish government’s plans to impose direct rule in Catalonia and put an end to the subversion once and for all.
Kiev and Moscow are waiting anxiously for the US response to the rebirth of fighting in eastern Ukraine. For the Ukrainian government, and its people the primary fear is that US support is on the decline now with Donald Trump in the White House. Another concern is the possibility that Putin is now moving to solidify his grip on the eastern part of Ukraine and use it as leverage over the United States on other issues such as the repeal of US and European sanctions currently in place against Russia. Moscow is watching the reaction from Washington closely as well, for its own reasons. In a best case scenario for the Kremlin, the start of fresh fighting in Ukraine demonstrates Russia’s hold on power in the region and that Russia alone holds the keys to regional peace.
Washington’s response to the fighting has so far been muted. The State Department released a statement yesterday calling for an ‘immediate, and sustained ceasefire.’ There has yet been no comment from the White House on the clashes. The Pentagon has been quiet as well with Secretary of Defense embarking on a trip to the Far East today to reassure US allies in the region and address the North Korean nuclear threat.
The flashpoint of the latest round of fighting is the town of Avdiivka, a northern suburb of Donetsk. For three days, government and separatist forces have been locked in a battle for control of the industrial town. The heavy fighting has severely damaged the infrastructure, resulting in the loss of power and water for thousands of residents at a time when temperatures are dropping to -20C in the evening hours. It is unclear which side is responsible for initiating the fighting with the government and separatists blaming one another.
President Trump has spoken numerous times about his desire for better relations with Russia. Vladimir Putin’s definition of better relations likely includes the dropping of sanctions, which has not happened yet. There was a high level of expectation in Moscow that the sanction issue would be settled when Trump and Putin spoke over the weekend. To Putin’s probable disappointment, it has not happened. A day or so later and fighting breaks out again in the Ukraine. Draw whatever conclusions you wish, however, there does appear to be a higher purpose behind the recent events in Ukraine.