The fragile ceasefire in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine seems to be unwinding, and both sides accuse each other of being the aggressor. This week (June 3), the worst fighting was in Maryinka, west of Donetsk. The Russia-backed rebels insist they are defending their positions and are under heavy fire and that the outskirts of Donetsk were also hit. The Ukrainian command reported its troops were attacked by up to a thousand rebels supported by dozens of tanks and heavy artillery in Maryinka. Ukrainian heavy guns, which were withdrawn from the front line under supervision from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have been moved back in and are preparing “to stop the enemy advance.” Both sides reported substantial casualties (Interfax, June 3).
The fighting in Maryinka does not seem to be immediately spreading to other parts of the front line. The clashes subsided by nightfall, with each side apparently more or less holding its ground. The authorities in Kyiv and the West blame the separatist forces and Moscow, while the rebel spokesman Eduard Basurin accused Ukrainian forces of a “major provocation preplanned in Kyiv and possibly in the West.” Basurin predicted: “Tomorrow [June 4], more serious provocations may begin north of Lugansk [Luhansk]” (Interfax, June 3).
Basurin’s “prediction” may prove true in the coming weeks. The overall escalation could be relatively slow, with intermittent local ceasefires hastily brokered by the international OSCE observers and the Russian-Ukrainian joint military implementation mission, followed by renewed clashes. This gradual disintegration of the so-called Minsk-Two ceasefire accord, signed in mid-February 2015, could follow the pattern of the slow disintegration last December and early January of the Minsk-One ceasefire accord, which was signed in September 2014. To change the overall balance of power in Kyiv and possibly across all of Europe’s East, Moscow seems inclined to apply military pressure gradually, seeking plausible pretexts to do so, like the purported need to stop Ukrainian shelling of rebel-controlled parts of Donbas. A full-blown summer military campaign in eastern Ukraine may take weeks to develop and may progressively engulf different parts of the front line. Russian troop concentrations and rotation have been also reported in northern Crimea, close to the line of control Moscow considers its new border with Ukraine (Pravda.com.ua, June 2).
Until recently, top Russian officials seemed ready to make deals with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, but apparently, over the last few months, such contacts have been curtailed and Poroshenko has been branded as “untrustworthy” (Kommersant, June 4). The last straw may have been Poroshenko’s appointment of former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili governor of the strategically important Odesa oblast (see EDM, June 2). Saakashvili is known to be a personal enemy of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin; and since the short Russo-Georgian war in August 2008, Russian officials have refused to have any contact with Saakashvili. Rumors abound in Kyiv that the appointment of Saakashvili is a possible step to eventually promote him to prime minister over Arseniy Yatsenyuk (Vzglyad, June 1). With Saakashvili now officially part of Poroshenko’s ruling team, Putin and the Russian authorities may be ready to speak with Kyiv essentially only over the barrel of a gun.
As the situation continues to sour, Moscow has chosen this moment to once again try to publicly shift the blame for the downing of Malaysian passenger jet Flight MH17. The plane crashed on July 17, 2014, killing 298 people (most of them Dutch citizens), apparently shot down over rebel-controlled territory in Donbas. State-owned corporation Almaz-Antey—Russia’s anti-aircraft missile–producing monopoly—presented a report professing Russia’s innocence in the MH17 disaster and pointing an accusatory finger at the Ukrainian military. Using data from Dutch investigators, who partially reconstructed the hull of Flight MH17 using debris collected from the crash site, Almaz-Antey announced the jet was “probably shot down by a Buk-M1 9M38M1 missile.” The Almaz-Antey experts insisted the impact evidence implies the Buk-M1 missile was fired from the vicinity of the Donbas town of Zaroshenskoe and not from Snizhne, where on-the-ground eyewitnesses reported a missile launch and filmed the presence of a rebel- or Russian-controlled Buk-M1 launcher. Last July, the Russian Ministry of Defense published a satellite picture of allegedly Ukrainian Buk-M1 launchers deployed just south of Zaroshenskoe, implying they could have shot Flight MH17 out of the sky. According to Almaz-Antey, 9M38M1 missiles have not been produced in Russia since 1999, while the Ukrainian military still uses them, thus implying Ukrainian forces were the possible culprits. Almaz-Antey complained it is unjustly suffering under European Union sanctions, imposed last year primarily as punishment for the MH17’s shooting. To demonstrate the company’s innocence, Almaz-Antey offered an “experiment”—to destroy another Boeing-777, like Flight MH17, with a Buk-M1 missile to demonstrate to foreign experts their mathematical calculations are correct. Almaz-Antey could surely provide the deadly missile, but it is not clear who would volunteer to provide a Boeing-777 for this bizarre “experiment” (Kommersant, July 3).
The bulk of the Almaz-Antey report was leaked to Novaya Gazeta and published last month as an “anonymous report by unknown Russian defense industry experts” (Novaya Gazeta, May 6). Independent defense experts, contacted by Novaya Gazeta, agreed Flight MH17 was probably shot down by a Buk-M1 surface-to-air system, but the evidence also implied the missile was launched from Snizhne and not from Zaroshenskoe as Almaz-Antey is suggesting. Moreover, on July 17, 2014, Zaroshenskoe was under rebel control and the front line was much south from it (Novaya Gazeta, May 13). However, the Buk-M1 is not a battlefield weapon—it has an effective radius of over 30 kilometers and must be deployed in the second troop echelon. There was no rebel or Russian air force deployed against the Ukrainian forces last July and no need to deploy or use Ukrainian Buk-M1 missiles. The Russian defense ministry satellite photos of Ukrainian Buk-M1 could have been digitally doctored. In a separate announcement, the Russian Investigative Committee (SK) announced it believes Flight MH17 was shot down by a Ukrainian Su-25 attack jet (Interfax, June 3).
Moscow and the West seem to use conflicting vocabularies, which makes meaningful dialogue difficult if not impossible. The best Russian-made propaganda pitches fall flat outside Russia’s borders, and Western arguments are dismissed in Moscow. Everybody seems to be arguing the need to deescalate the Donbas confrontation under Minsk-Two provisions and investigate without prejudice the Flight MH17 catastrophe. But at best, all sides are simply engaged in pushing blame.