Clearly neither side is in any mood to back down and so we should expect a major springtime offensive in the Donbas sooner rather than later.

Ukrainian soldiers guard their tent camp near Uspenka village to the Ukrainian-Russian border in the Donbas region, Ukraine. Photo: AP

The situation in the Donbas region of Ukraine continues to unravel. Fighting has continued in and around the Donetsk airport while the economy has basically collapsed. On a near-daily basis the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OCSE)’s Special Monitoring Mission reports incidents of artillery shelling and machine gun fire.

Most disturbingly, this shelling often happens in the vicinity of residential neighborhoods. Shelling still rocks some of the neighborhoods I had occasion to visit in late March. In the Oktyabrskaya and Petrovskyi districts, frightened civilians - mainly elderly women and children - were living in bombed out apartment blocks.

Kiev’s economic and military blockade of the city is only hardening the resolve of the ordinary citizens of the Donbas region. One refugee who had fled her home because of the fighting told me, "There is no 'back' for Ukraine." Others expressed outrage and incredulity at the tactics of the government of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

One non-combatant, a pretty young woman in her mid-twenties asked me: “Do I look like a terrorist?” Standing outside a welfare agency where scores of people waited for Russian-supplied handouts, she asked: “Are these people terrorists?” The answer is self-evident. And yet, if we are to believe the mainstream American media narrative the war that continues to wreak havoc on the southeastern corner of Ukraine is solely the work of one man: the president of Russia.

This prevailing wisdom was summed up neatly by Ukraine’s Ambassador to the U.S. at an event at the Carnegie Endowment last month. One of the participants in the panel discussion referred to the “civil war in Ukraine.” This prompted the Ukrainian Ambassador to rise in a frisson of self righteous anger to declare: “There is no civil war in Ukraine, there is no civil war in Ukraine, there is war which was brought by Russia.” 

The assertion that there is “no civil war in Ukraine” is a politically expedient formulation for the government in Kiev because it absolves them of their share of the responsibility for the unfolding catastrophe. No, I’m sorry to say that there very much is a civil war taking place in the Donbas. Yet troublingly, the Ambassador’s view is taken as gospel here in Washington. And while it is simply inconceivable that the rebels in Donbas are not indeed “Russian-backed,” spend any time at all in their company and one thing above all else becomes clear: These people will fight to the very last man, Russian “supplied” or not.

The idea that this is Russia’s war is a commonplace notion in the West; and yet, for all the accusations, neither NATO nor the Pentagon nor the State Department nor Westminster has produced very much evidence on that score. At a recent Senate hearing one prominent Russia-hand, Stephen Blank, cited a report in Jane’s Defense that claimed Russia has between 12,000-20,000 Russian troops operating inside Ukraine. If the government had aerial surveillance photographic evidence for this, does anyone not think it would have made its way to CNN forthwith?

And so, while U.S. President Barack Obama has  - so far anyway - resisted repeated calls to arm the Poroshenko government in Kiev, one wonders how much longer he can hold out: After all, he has been the object, for months now, of a relentless lobbying effort by members of his own administration to pursue a policy for which he clearly has deep reservations.

The lobbying will only grow more intense when (not if) the Minsk II agreement collapses. Some of the rebels indicated they expect a renewed offensive by Kiev to begin as early as this week. What is almost entirely inarguable is that Kiev has zero interest in the success of Minsk II.

Proof of this came last week when the government in Kiev - in contravention of the accords - stated that it would not negotiate with the rebel governments and would only begin to pursue a political agreement once the rebel leaders had unilaterally surrendered; this is what the journalist Robert Parry has called a “surrender-first negotiate-later stipulation.” This stipulation will only have the effect of killing Minsk II in its crib.

And so, what then? Clearly neither side is in any mood to back down and so we should expect a major springtime offensive in the Donbas sooner rather than later. What American policymakers desperately need to understand is the true nature of the conflict so as to formulate a responsible policy that will work towards an end to the fighting, rather than an intensification of it.

The nature of the conflict is this: the rebel fighters (and yes, their Russian backers, however many or few they may be) have the support of the population of the Donbas. There are, despite what we are hearing from the media and from the likes of NATO Supreme Allied Commander Philip Breedlove, indigenous forces that sincerely believe that they are fighting an army of - in their words - “fascists” and “Nazis” who want to exterminate them and their way of life.

Western governments must understand that this indigenous force - which no doubt has some support (with the potential for much, much more) from a powerful patron - will continue to oppose with force of arms Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO) until such time as Kiev assents to negotiations.

What responsible policymakers should be doing is to pressure Kiev to negotiate in earnest with the representatives for the breakaway republics. Meanwhile, a diplomatic effort headed by France and Germany should press the Russian government to encourage the rebels to negotiate in good faith when the time comes. The idea that, but for Russian support, Kiev would be able to handily defeat the separatist fighters is as fanciful as it is misleading. It is time American and European policymakers face up to this fact and proceed accordingly.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.