Although the conflict disappeared more and more from the Western media, the fight hadn’t really stopped since the ceasefire decided in Minsk in February 2015, as illustrated by the OSCE which reports it has been violated thousands of times. However, 10 days ago, the low-level fighting unexpectedly escalated on the Eastern border of Ukraine bringing the hope to reach peace to an all-time low.
The town of Avdiivka, just 10 kilometers away from the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, came under fierce assault from Russian-made Grad rockets and high-caliber artillery. Its inhabitants were left all week without water, heating or electricity, bordering on a humanitarian crisis. The OSCE records that nearly two dozen civilians and soldiers have died, which represents a record high since the war began in 2014. On the other side of the battlefield, the Ukrainian forces have strengthened their defenses and also moved forward heavy weaponry specifically forbidden in Minsk II. As a result, both sides mutually hold each other responsible for triggering the conflict. One thing is clear: one specific event, many miles away from the battlefield, seems to have created the spark. The White House’s change of tenancy opened a new era of uncertainty for both Ukraine and Russia as both sides seek to test the new American position.
An unclear US stance
The start of the bombing coincided with the January 28th telephone call between Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. With the departure of Barack Obama and his administration, who have stood up against Moscow since the beginning of the conflict in 2014, Kjiv has lost a solid support in the West. In turn, this has led to fears that the attack was part of Moscow’s plan to influence the new American president and push him towards offering concessions. Although, on Thursday, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, demands «clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions”, Trump’s pro-Russian stance during his campaign and Washington’s muted response to the violence in Avdiivka, which did not even mention Russia, appears to confirm those concerns. However, according to Moscow, Ukraine seeks to appear as a victim in order to attract international organisations´ and States’ aids and encourage the new American administration not to lift sanctions against Russia. This position underlines the financial side of the conflict. As underlined by the Economist, Russia tries to push Ukraine toward an agreement in its favor by playing on Ukraine’s economic difficulties. While the US presidency threatened to quit the Atlantic cooperation who will ensure the protection promised to the country by the Budapest Memorandum and encourage the many effort of Ukraine for modernisation and reforms according to the EU rule of law ?
With the political vacuum brought by the Trump presidency, Europe must step in
In Avdiivka over the weekend, officials were moving to restore power and other basic utilities, however dozens of residents were still unable to return to their destroyed homes. As the Financial Times reports, soldiers and residents are tired of “Big Power Politics” and have despaired seeing an end to this conflict. Maybe with the political vacuum brought by the Trump presidency, Europe will step in as the Minsk process urgently needs reinvigorating. After all, the EU is a larger trading partner than the US is for Russia, and could, if it was speaking through a common voice, convince that a settlement is in Russia’s national economic interest. However, it seems unlikely. The EU’s lack of diplomatic powers lies in its profound division in foreign policy making. Poland is the only member of the Visegrad group supporting Ukraine unambiguously. The French President, François Hollande, one of the agreement’s original sponsors, is on his way out. Donald Tusk’s letter to the 27 EU heads of state before the Malta summit, titled “United we stand, divided we fall”, is the European Council’s attempt for a united foreign policy. Although it expects to draw EU foreign policy’s guidelines by denouncing “Russia’s aggressive policy towards Ukraine and its neighbors”, it is hard to conclude it is the premise of EU’s increased support to Ukraine, especially when we see the lack of consensus regarding the EU sanctions on Russia. Finally, only German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains to carry the substantial task of re-starting the peace negotiation. A daunting task for her to manage on her own. As singular efforts are not enough, it is time to call for a wider net of support, echoing the words of Donald Tusk: ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’