Russia, Ukraine and mortar fire: The war in East Ukraine

Open hostilities between the Ukrainian central government and the breakaway eastern province resumed in last week, with the heaviest shelling offensive since the crisis began earlier this year. Russia’s role in this conflict continues to exacerbate the ongoing struggle by providing financing and supplies to the pro-Russian separatist groups based in the Donetsk region.

The Ukrainian central government continues its artillery offensive against the Donetsk based separatists, with much of the fire concentrated on Donetsk itself. The primary focus of this bombardment has been the industrial areas of Donetsk, itself a manufacturing hub, in order to compromise the ability of the rebel’s to arm themselves as easily and continue hostilities. The BBC reports that the shelling occurring today, on November 12, has been the most intense since the offensive began last week. Presently, the separatists continue to hold on to the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, albeit just barely. Large parts of the original territory held by rebel forces have been taken by the Ukrainian government over the course of the past few months, but battles still rage, especially around the ruins of the Donetsk airport.

Fighting in the town of Lysychansk.

Fighting in the town of Lysychansk.

Further complicating the situation is reports of Russian troop movements within the eastern Ukraine. The BBC has learned that NATO officials have confirmed reports of large scale Russian movements of troops, artillery, and tanks into the embattled region. The movement of these forces into the area is a troubling sign, as increased Russian presence will embolden the rebels and allow them new supply lines, further deepening the conflict. However, the significant presence of Russian forces has yet to translate into direct combat, and they have avoided engagement at the time of this writing. If these soldiers will join the fighting directly is unclear, but is suggestive.

In previous months, Russian troop movements have been concentrated along the Ukrainian border. Despite this, Russian forces have not re-entered Ukrainian territory since they occupied the Crimea earlier this year. Though they have been a looming presence due to their proximity. Further, there have been reports of Russian soldiers fighting with the separatists throughout this year, albeit in plain clothes. If these reports are accurate, then open conflict between these two nations is likely. The situation is a perilous one, with the risk of escalation constant. The Russian government’s attempt to undermine the new Ukrainian government are severe threats to the general peace in Europe, as other nations in the region watch the situation anxiously.

The conflict between Kiev and Donetsk has deepened this month, with renewed Russian support of the breakaway provinces and the controversial elections held there being the chief issues. The separatist dominated areas of Donetsk and Luhansk held presidential and parliamentary elections, despite international condemnation. Russia was one the few to recognize these election results as legitimate, and continues to provide varied support to the separatists.

Many observers have been deeply puzzled by Russia’s actions in the past year, and with good reason. Moscow is asserting its authority in its “near-aboard”, which refers to the Post-Soviet nations of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It fears the loss of its traditional influence over these countries, due to greater engagement by NATO/EU in the west and Chinese investment in Central Asia. Most importantly, Russia views the Ukrainian state as a client. The ousted former Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, currently lives as an exile in Russia. The Russian state gave him substantive fiscal and material resources to counter the Median protests of 2013, despite his eventual ouster. Since then, Moscow has been attempting to re-gain its premier position in the area, while attempting to drive NATO out.

Russia is attempting to create a climate of fearful instability. It is deepening and escalating this crisis so that it may offer peace to the West, on its own terms. Its aggression in the area allows it to offer the prospect of peace, in exchange for giving Russia its sphere of influence back. This is mere speculation, but Moscow has always been explicit about what it consider to be Russia’s backyard. The Ukraine is included in this, and Moscow will attempt to keep all other influences out. Russia, throughout this crisis, has offered numerous accords and chances to negotiate. This is classic carrot and stick diplomacy, intended to tire the Ukraine and its Western allies, and make them open to a Russian-designed settlement.

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