The cold spring in Ukraine brings warning of an imminent renewal of combat in the civil war.
Former NATO commander U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark returned last month from a fact-finding journey to Kiev to convey to the Atlantic Council, a foreign affairs think tank in Washington, that authorities there expect a Russian-led separatist offensive to launch sometime before the Russian celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Nazis’ surrender in World War II, on Victory Day, May 9.
A Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) officer recently told a Kiev television audience to expect Russian terrorist activity on or about Orthodox Easter, which was April 12.
Moscow is reportedly most concerned with the prospect of a new round of fighting beginning sometime during or after the May 9 festivities across Russia.
Meanwhile, the Germans in particular and Europeans in general have lost patience with the American efforts to sustain and rearm the poorly managed government of President Petro Poroshenko, and the fractious, threatening Rada. In the event of renewed fighting on the Donbass front, Berlin may well sign off on the Kremlin pressing its battlefield advantage to end the combat.
Included in this increasingly complicated battlefield, however, are 300 U.S. paratroopers who just arrived to train the forces fighting pro-Russian separatists.
There can now be no doubt that the unstable Ukraine crisis is pointing to the increasing likelihood of confrontation and worse between NATO and Russian forces.
Minsk II under assault
The Feb. 11 Minsk II agreement that initiated a ceasefire and established a path to reconciliation is under assault from all sides.
In Kiev, Poroshenko has rejected the idea of “federalization” for Ukraine that was a major component of the Minsk II resolution. Poroshenko even said the idea of federalization was “like an infection, a biological weapon.”
Separatist leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic quickly dismissed Poroshenko’s remarks and complained that they have been cut out of negotiations about constitutional reforms.
Poroshenko is also going out of his way to irritate the two critical powers of Minsk II, Berlin and Moscow, as the Victory Day celebration approaches.
“Hitler together with Stalin initiated the bloody fighting of World War II,” Poroshenko said at a memorial service for victims of totalitarianism, the Bykivnia Graves memorial near Kiev, “and then tried to divide and split Europe.”
American politicians routinely speak provocatively against Russia. On his recent visit to Kiev, Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said “This conflict is not merely a Russian assault on Ukraine’s freedom and democracy, but an assault on fundamental principles of international law that threatens peace and security in Europe and the international order.”
‘I believe the Russians are mobilizing right now for a war that they think is going to happen in five or six years.’
More threatening to Minsk II are the NATO preparations for a conflict not only in Ukraine but also along the Russian frontier from the Black Sea basin to the Baltic. In the Black Sea, The American destroyer USS Jason Dunham exercised with Romanian corvette ROS Sebastian. At the same time, the head of the national security council in Kiev has the backing of Poroshenko to seek NATO membership speedily as the answer to Russia.
In Eastern Europe, NATO put on a display of land power called “Dragoon Ride,” a theatrical convoy of armored vehicles through six NATO member states.
More provocatively, elements of the US Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade have deployed to Yavoriv, Ukraine, on the Polish border, to train hundreds of Ukrainian National Guardsmen.
This is a significant development in the conflict, because it was the Ukrainian National Guard units that did the hardest fighting against the Russian-led separatists along the Donbass front lines. The Ukranian national guard units are also said to contain neo-fascist elements, such as the Azov Battalion, who are politically problematic for Kiev’s image in Europe. These units are now part of the regular Ukrainian Army. In fact, it is said that the national guard is the whole of the army, since the regulars melted away after the Debaltseve catastrophe last February.
The most alarming challenge to Minsk II is the battlefront, where monitors from the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe routinely report violations around the Donetsk Airport and on the approaches toward the port city of Mariupol. The reports include details consistent with the use of heavy weapons that were supposedly banished from the front lines. Both sides look to be testing response times while probing for weak points. There are also repeated mentions of anti-aircraft fire against surveillance drones.
Increasing risk of war
Moscow sounds resigned to the collapse of Minsk II and another round of combat. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian media, “It is obvious to me that Washington does not want to see the success of the Minsk agreements and overcoming of the crisis in Russian-European relations, although John Kerry constantly reassures me of the contrary.”
The Kremlin is most wary of the drumbeat of American military voices speaking against Russia. NATO Commander Gen. Philip M. Breedlove has said that Russia is fighting a “hybrid war” of combat mixed with propaganda at an unprecedented level. American commander in Europe Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges has said that war with Russia is coming: “I believe the Russians are mobilizing right now for a war that they think is going to happen in five or six years.”
Five non-NATO northern European states — Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland — have declared with alarm that conflict with Russia is possible. Russia’s Foreign Ministry responded that Finland and Sweden moving toward NATO is of “special concern.” Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb pushed back that Russia is “sabre-rattling.”
Moscow counters by pointing to a French military intelligence assessment that Russia has no plans to invade Ukraine, and that the Russian units reported deployed on the border during the fighting were a ploy to pressure Poroshenko to make concessions.
The next five weeks are of particular concern to Moscow because of the many opportunities for Kiev to employ provocations to trigger an escalation by the newly re-armed and re-trained national guard units.
Maximum risk is before and during the May 9 Great Victory Day Parade in Moscow, with China President Xi Jinping, Czech Republic President Tomislav Nikolic and two dozen other world leaders in attendance. Recall that the Georgia civil war crisis started as Vladimir Putin reached Beijing for the 2008 Olympics and that the Ukraine civil war crisis started as Putin prepared to welcome the world for the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi.
Were these coincidences or a pattern? Russia is acutely aware that, as it prepares to celebrate its victory over the Nazis on May 9, it is especially vulnerable to provocation and humiliation.