09/02/2017 04:56 SAST | Updated 09/02/2017 04:56 SAST

Latest Escalation In The Ukrainian Conflict Tests US Policy

The Trump administration's contradictory positions on the conflict in eastern Ukraine may aggravate an already volatile situation.

Pedestrians cross the street behind a billboard showing a pictures of  US president-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Danilovgrad, Montenegro, November 16. 2016.
Stevo Vasiljevic / Reuters
Pedestrians cross the street behind a billboard showing a pictures of US president-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Danilovgrad, Montenegro, November 16. 2016.

In late January, the almost three-year old war between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists flared up once again. The fighting primarily centred on the eastern towns of Avdiivka and Yasynuvata, killing more than 30 people and wounding many others. Ukrainian authorities and the separatists predictably blamed one another for the escalation. Irrespective of who is responsible, an escalation after a relative lull in fighting has become an established pattern in this conflict.

The February 2015 Minsk peace agreement, which managed to stop full-scale war, remains contentious, as both sides disagree on the order of implementing its provisions. The Ukrainian government mainly wants a complete ceasefire, full control of Ukraine's border with Russia, and the withdrawal of foreign militias from the east. For the separatists and Russia, local elections and greater autonomy for the rebel-held areas are the most urgent tasks. Amidst these tensions, the new US administration's confusing approach to the conflict threatens peace prospects even more.

According to the Ukrainian military, in the early hours of 29 January, the separatists launched artillery strikes on the government-controlled city of Avdiivka. This escalation occurred a day after the first official telephone conversation between President Trump and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

Both the White House's and the Kremlin's accounts of the conversation highlighted a mutual desire to improve US-Russia relations. However, only the Kremlin's version mentioned that there was a discussion of "the Ukrainian crisis" and the need for "cooperation" on this issue. It is possible that Putin felt encouraged by the prospect of waning US interest in the conflict, and that it was not a coincidence that the Russia-backed separatists launched a new military offensive the following day.

The separatists claim that Ukrainian forces initiated the fighting on 29 January, when government forces attempted to breach separatist defences outside the rebel-held city of Yasynuvata. Some reports indicate that since mid-December, Ukrainian soldiers have been edging closer to separatist lines, igniting several clashes.

In all likelihood, Trump is more interested in improving ties with Russia, than being a close ally of Ukraine like Obama was.

The escalation is also politically advantageous for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Given Trump's apparent bromance with Putin and increased rumblings about "Ukraine fatigue" within the European Union, Poroshenko is anxious about the potential lifting of international sanctions on Russia. The recent fighting allows him to campaign against sanctions removal, as he stressed last week, "Who would dare talk about lifting the sanctions in such circumstances?"

The latest violence undoubtedly presents an opportunity to both Ukraine and Russia to test the Trump administration's policy towards the war, which has been confusing and contradictory to date.

Trump, who has expressed his admiration for Putin on multiple occasions, seems to have adopted a neutral position on the conflict. Unlike Obama, he is yet to condemn Russia's actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. He alluded to removing the sanctions in return for an unrelated nuclear weapons reduction deal. During his 4 February telephone conversation with Poroshenko, he vowed to work with all parties to "restore peace" without taking any sides.

In a recent interview on Fox News, he promised to "find out" more about the conflict, and expressed some doubts on whether Russia is supporting the separatists. Not surprisingly, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, recently said that Trump's position on the conflict is "a qualitative change" compared to that of Obama.

In contrast to Trump's apparent neutral posture, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, stuck to the Obama administration script, strongly criticising "Russia's aggressive actions" in eastern Ukraine. She also warned that the US sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns Crimea to Ukraine. The US mission to the OSCE was equally blunt, saying, "Russia and the separatists initiated the violence in Avdiivka." Other officials in the Trump administration, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis, have also been critical of Russia in recent weeks.

It is not yet clear whether this public disconnect between Trump and other US officials represents an intractable ideological clash, or a time lag in adjusting to the US's new Commander in Chief. In all likelihood, Trump is more interested in improving ties with Russia, than being a close ally of Ukraine like Obama was. His unpredictability notwithstanding, he will likely keep the sanctions in place in the short to medium term, but not punish the separatists and Russia for major ceasefire violations. Ukraine does not appear to be a foreign policy priority for him.

Nevertheless, if this administration continues to tread an uncertain path, it could have a destabilising impact on the conflict. In the post-Obama era, Putin would welcome any relaxation of US policy, and likely feel emboldened to apply more pressure on the Poroshenko administration through his proxies in eastern Ukraine. It is no secret that he wants to influence Ukraine's domestic politics to thwart its Euro-Atlantic ambitions. On the other hand, half-hearted backing from the new US administration would be a nightmare for Poroshenko, who – out of desperation – could aggravate the war in order to retain and even increase the level of Western support. Thus, the rickety state of US foreign policy, especially in the context of a failing Minsk agreement, could contribute to further deterioration of the security environment in eastern Ukraine.