The sharp escalation in artillery battles in the Donbas (eastern Ukraine) war zone one day after the January 28 telephone conversation between United States President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin was certainly not a coincidence. No leaks about the content of the 45-minute-long exchange have appeared in the Russian media, and the official summary amounts to mere platitudes. But the anticipation had been extraordinarily intense (see EDM, January 30). Commentaries about a possible lifting of sanctions came so thick that for the first time in years, it was not Putin’s name that was mentioned most often in the Russian media but the name of a foreign leader (Interfax, February 1; see EDM, January 2). Public opinion surveys have duly registered the quick decline in Russians’ negative attitudes toward the US, from the peak of 81 percent in early 2015, down to 49 percent now. Of these unfavorably inclined Russians, only 9 percent expressed a strongly negative attitude, compared with 39 percent two years ago (Levada.ru, February 2). Ukraine is presently seen in Russia in a darker light than the US, with 15 percent expressing a strongly negative attitude; and this perception quite possibly informs the behavior of the combatants enduring a harsh winter in the Donbas trenches.
The two-year-old ceasefire in eastern Ukraine has never been stable, and tensions were building for weeks before exploding in the massive cannonade during the closing days of January (Novaya Gazeta, January 31). It is possible, but improbable, that an order to open fire from the big guns came directly from Moscow—or for that matter from Kyiv. It is certain, however, that junior officers and minor warlords on the ground have plentiful incentives to take military matters into their own hands (Republic.ru, February 2). For Ukraine, it is important to ensure that this tragic war is not forgotten in the West; and for the motley Russia-backed rebels, it is essential to establish they are a key party to this major European conflict (Polit.ru, February 2). The degree of control over the tactical situations along the “ceasefire” line by the top brass in Moscow is uncertain, but Russia surely could have stopped the shelling of civilian targets in Avdiivka—and did not (Novaya Gazeta, February 2). This industrial satellite of Donetsk is of no great strategic importance, but it is perfectly positioned to test the changes in the big political picture of this deadlocked war (RBC, February 1).
The Kremlin put the blame for the Avdiivka battle squarely on Ukraine, emphasizing that this war was not a topic of conversation between Putin and Trump (Newsru.com, February 1). That omission kept the Russian war-maker-in-chief in the dark about the position of the new US “decider.” Putin wanted to be sure that Trump really did not care about the Ukrainian calamity (RBC, February 3). But what he ultimately heard from Washington days later was not quite the message he had hoped for: Nikki Haley, the newly-appointed US ambassador to the United Nations, spelled out in her first statement at the UN Security Council a “strong and clear condemnation of Russian aggressive actions” (Moscow Echo, February 3). The artillery duels are still raging, but the intensity has since remarkably subsided.
What made the timing of that surge in fighting rather unfortunate for Putin was that the Iranian leadership decided the moment was right for a ballistic missile test. The response from Trump’s skeleton administration was swift and demonstratively tough: the US Department of the Treasury announced new sanctions targeting 13 persons and 12 companies, including from China (Kommersant, February 3). In the agitated domestic US political arena, this step is unusually uncontroversial, and Defense Secretary James Mattis followed it up by calling Iran the world’s main sponsor of terrorism (RBC, February 4). This resolute stance puts the carefully cultivated Russian-Iranian proto-partnership under pressure (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 3). The Kremlin had announced preparations for a visit to Moscow of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. But now, such a good-neighborly meeting becomes quite awkward and unhelpful for Russia’s much-desired improvement of relations with the United States (RIA Novosti, January 31). The war in Syria is the only “marketplace” where Putin has assets for bargaining with Trump. Yet, without Iran, the Russian plan for pacifying Syria by empowering President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime cannot work.
Another disturbed political arena where the Ukrainian crisis resonated most strongly is Europe, and Putin’s intrigues on this continent combine the export of corruption with cyberattacks (RBC, February 3). He paid a visit to Hungary last week (February 2) seeking to reward those European leaders who remain on speaking terms with him (Kommersant, February 3). He is also keen to hear how these leaders respond to Trump’s casually skeptical attitude toward the European Union (Novaya Gazeta, February 2). The sound of big guns reminds the fidgety Europeans about the need to unite in the face of a direct threat, so Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko has been able to reenergize his cause. The escalation of fighting in Donbas forced him to cut short the visit to Germany but reinforced his proposition to hold a referendum on Ukraine’s application for joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Gazeta.ru, February 2). Germany is certainly the main force behind formulating the EU’s policy response to each new crisis, and Putin is keen to add to the visible discord between his resourceful opponent, Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Trump (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 3).
A violent spasm in the unwinnable war could have accentuated Europe’s fatigue with the Ukrainian mess and illuminated US indifference to it—but it actually did not. Putin can shrug off this episode and wait for another opportunity, but his best chance to influence the mapping of the course in Washington may actually be now, while many choices are still in flux. The seasoned politician Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka may feel that time is not exactly on Putin’s side. During Lukashenka’s seven-hour-long press conference last Friday (February 3), one particular point that stood out was the firm rejection of a proposal for establishing a Russian airbase in Belarus (Newsru.com, February 3). Today’s Russia is not rich or generous enough to buy friends, and neither is it intimidating enough to induce submission. As long as Ukraine is able to withstand the aggression and fight back, other European states can feel relatively safe. But every sign of a crack in transatlantic solidarity is an invitation for Russia to try another test.