The foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France met this week in Berlin in the so-called “Normandy format” to seek ways to scale down the recent upsurge in military violence in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas (which encompasses the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces). The participants issued a joint declaration, calling for an immediate ceasefire and joint support of a mutual withdrawal of heavy weapons by the warring parties as previously agreed last September in Minsk. The so-called Minsk agreements have never been fully implemented, because of differing interpretations and seemingly divergent long-term strategic intentions. Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, told journalists after the Berlin meeting: “It depends on the warring parties that this new agreement does not turn into a worthless piece of paper” (Interfax, January 22).
As the ministers talked in Berlin, the rebels in Donbas, allegedly supported by regular Russian military personnel, continued to press their latest attack (begun on January 15) on the beleaguered Donetsk international airport—the scene of continuous pitched battles since last May. The Ukrainian military actively resisted and, according to Ukrainian volunteers embedded with the troops, mounted a counter-attack, on January 17, to push the rebels several kilometers away from the airport. The Ukrainian troops pushed deeper into Donetsk, but their offensive soon disintegrated, apparently because of bad coordination and a lack of effective fire support. The Ukrainian military, reportedly, suffered heavy casualties. On January 21, the last remaining defenders abandoned the so called “new terminal” of the airport that had been for months a Ukrainian stronghold and symbol of resistance, leaving behind wounded comrades that were taken prisoner by the rebels (Podrobnosti, January 22).
The commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces since last July, chief of the Ukrainian General Staff, Colonel-General Victor Muzhenko (53), took over direct command of units fighting in and around the Donetsk airport. He has now been publicly accused of being responsible for the failure of the ill-fated counter-offensive on January 17, and the overall humiliating debacle. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has been blamed for not firing Muzhenko after previous Ukrainian military debacles (Ipress.ua, January 21). The Ukrainian General Staff has confirmed the “new terminal” was abandoned, but insisted “troops are regrouping,” maintaining positions on the outskirts of the airport, and “still fighting” (UNIAN, January 22). The Ukrainian General Staff verified that a battalion commander from the 95th airmobile brigade, Lieutenant-Colonel Oleg Kuzminykh, was taken prisoner by the rebels in the “new terminal” (Interfax, January 22). The rebels paraded some 18 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POW), taken in the airport fighting, through the streets of Donetsk, including Kuzminykh. The POWs were publicly humiliated and physically assaulted (RIA Novosti, January 22).
The official Russian government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported that Poroshenko was forced to cut short his visit this week to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, and speed back to Kyiv because of the Donetsk airport debacle. The newspaper gloated of the failures of the Ukrainian military and of the generals appointed by Poroshenko: The Ukrainian president is under attack by radicals in Kyiv, while his nation is facing economic disaster as well as social and political collapse, the paper argued (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, January 22).
The ruins of the Donetsk airport have little military or strategic significance and will most likely remain an uninhabited no-man’s land in the foreseeable future; but the airport was a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. One can expect heated hearings in the Supreme Rada (parliament) about the debacle, and bitter incriminations may politically rock Kyiv. General Muzhenko could be ousted, Poroshenko—undermined, and the ruling political coalition—shaken. Russian officials have publicly expressed their extreme dislike of the present coalition government in Kyiv, and military pressure by Russian-backed forces may be a means to ensure regime change. Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin branded Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and his supporters from the People’s Front fraction in the Rada the “party of war,” which has deliberately provoked the present escalation of fighting in Donbas and is “following orders from its foreign [Washington] sponsors and curators” (RIA Novosti, January 19).
In last October’s Ukrainian general elections, the People’s Front came first in the popular vote and later formed a coalition government with Poroshenko’s party and other pro-Western fractions in the Rada. As prime minister, Yatsenyuk has at least as much executive power as Poroshenko, while other People’s Front leaders occupy significant national security positions: former Rada speaker and interim president Oleksandr Turchynov (50) is the secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, while Arsen Avakov (40) is the interior minister. On January 21, a convoy of vehicles carrying Turchynov to the front near the Donetsk airport was hit by rebel fire and Turchynov’s armored car lost a wheel. Turchynov wanted to reach the airport to see the situation for himself, but was, apparently, forced to turn back. No one in the convoy was reported injured (Regnum, January 22).
At a press conference in Moscow before going to Berlin, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted on an immediate withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line in Donbas and direct negotiations between Kyiv and the pro-Moscow rebel leaders. According to Lavrov, only direct negotiations may insure a lasting ceasefire that could move the situation closer toward an overall political solution of the crisis and allow for constitutional changes in Ukraine that would give the pro-Russia rebels political influence in Donbas and Kyiv. Lavrov insisted Moscow does not control the rebels directly. In the absence of an overall political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis, he claimed, a significant part of the Minsk agreements cannot be realized: the establishment of effective supervision of the Russian-Ukrainian border in Donbas by officials from Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) (Mid.ru, January 21).
Moscow will continue to back the rebels with troops and weapons, as more Russian forces are on standby on the border, according to Ukrainian authorities and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (Interfax, January 21). Moscow’s overall intent seems to be unchanged: to use the fighting in Donbas to humiliate, undermine and change the present regime in Kyiv (see EDM, January 15). For Russia, Yatsenyuk and his supporters, seen as too pro-Western, must be castigated as the “party of war,” while Poroshenko must be isolated and possibly turned to become a pro-Russian figure. Despite the tentative agreement to resume the ceasefire, reached in Berlin, military pressure in Donbas will most likely continue as Moscow and its local supporters press on to further weaken the government in Kyiv.