December 7, 2015 | In The News | USA Today
Resumed Violence Threatens Cease-Fire in Ukraine
Ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine will be a factor when the European Union decides in January whether to continue economic sanctions against Russia for its role in the conflict.
Fighting between Ukraine’s military and separatist forces in the east has escalated with scant notice this fall as world attention is focused on increased terrorism and a refugee crisis caused by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
Fighting that dropped off in September after Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists agreed to a new cease-fire plan picked up again in November, causing multiple deaths and injuries to Ukrainian troops, according to Ukrainian military spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko.
Vice President Biden, who announced a $190 million aid package for Ukraine during a visit to the capital, Kiev, on Monday, said Russia holds the key to peace. “The United States continues to stand with the people of Ukraine in the face of continued … aggression from Russia and Russian-backed separatists,” Biden said.
The fighting and a failure by Russia-backed separatists to implement measures of the cease-fire agreement reached in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, make it unlikely the two sides will meet a self-imposed year-end deadline to end the conflict, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Philip Breedlove said last week.
NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned of renewed war after a meeting about Ukraine with foreign ministers of the U.S.-led alliance last week. “Russian-backed separatists have not yet withdrawn their troops and equipment. Illegal groups in eastern Ukraine have not been disarmed. And Ukraine has not been able to re-establish control over its border,” Stoltenberg said.
The fighting in Ukraine will be a factor when the European Union decides in January whether to continue economic sanctions against Russia for its role in the conflict, which has resulted in 8,000 deaths since it began in April 2014, according to the United Nations.
The fighting subsided in September after ramping up during the summer. The lull coincided with Russia’s preparations for its air campaign in Syria as it sought overflight rights from Eastern European nations for Russian aircraft transporting personnel and supplies to Syria.
The low point in fighting came during October, when Russia lobbied for international acceptance of its air campaign in Syria.
When fighting picked up in mid-November, it was “too large and coordinated to be random,” said Phillip Karber, president of the Potomac Foundation, a military consultancy that has advised Eastern European countries preparing to join NATO.
Karber, who has traveled more than a dozen times to assess Ukrainian military performance since 2014, attributes the cease-fire violations to shooting that began on the separatist side. The repeated violations of the peacekeeping agreement have contributed to “Ukrainian jitters and declining faith in Western negotiated cease-fires,” he said.
Despite evidence from journalists, NATO and U.S. leaders showing Russian military involvement in the Ukrainian conflict, Moscow denies it has given any military backing to the separatists.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has a monitoring mission in Ukraine staffed by European, Ukrainian and Russian personnel, says it’s impossible to verify who’s at fault.
Since the beginning of November, OSCE monitors registered an increase in fighting, mostly around what’s left of the airport in Donetsk, a separatist stronghold, Alexander Hug, the principal deputy chief monitor of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, told USA TODAY.
Most violations involved exchanges of small-arms fire, and some have escalated to artillery and multiple rocket launchers, Hug said.
“It’s an exchange of fire,” he said. “It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find in which direction (it begins). The fact remains both sides do not respect the cease-fire all the time and everywhere.”
The OSCE and the Ukrainian government have yet to gain full access to 250 miles of the Ukraine-Russia border, he said.
In places where fighting has been ongoing for many months, the OSCE has seen civilians who lack access to running water, reconstruction material for shelter, heat, electricity or medicine, Hug said. Civilians, relief agencies and international monitors have been hampered in areas not controlled by the Ukrainian government, he said.
John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who’s at the Atlantic Council, a think-tank in Washington, said the level of violence in Ukraine is up to Russia, which is preoccupied with Syria.
“Moscow has the ability to get these guys largely under control,” Herbst said. “There’s no question they are concerned with Syria and not with Ukraine at the moment.”