Whatever the cause for the recent flare-up in Eastern Ukraine, the signs indicate that the U.S. position will be instrumental in any future resolution of the conflict, one way or the other.

The rebels of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) on the territory of the market in the town of Trudovski in Petrovsky district, Donetsk Region destroyed by shelling. Photo: RIA Novosti

In his first two weeks as U.S. president, Donald Trump has followed up on most of his more controversial pre-election promises: the wall with Mexico, restrictions on Muslim immigration, toughening up on Iran, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

One move that was conspicuously absent from this feather-rustling list was the proposed rapprochement with Russia. This might mean that Trump was faced with serious opposition from establishment Republicans and Democrats alike.

Apart from a relatively inconspicuous phone call between the presidents of the U.S. and Russia last Saturday, there has not been a breakthrough in bilateral relations, neither in the lifting of sanctions nor in increased cooperation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East.

Whether this represents a tactical pause by Trump’s team, waiting for the dust to settle in Washington, or that Russia is not as high on the list of the new administration's foreign policy priorities as it would like, remains to be seen. All of this can change in the coming weeks, however, with the troubling situation in Ukraine again calling for the U.S. to take a stand, one way or the other.

What happened?

One thing is certain: the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine has again exploded in the past weeks. Heavy fighting in the areas of government-held Avdiivka and rebel-held Yasynuvata have led to large military and civilian casualties, a humanitarian catastrophe, and mutual violations of the Minsk-2 agreement.

The escalation has carried on into the diplomatic arena all the way up to the UN Security Council. The fact that a violation of the ceasefire has occurred is accepted unanimously. Less clear is who is responsible or what the implications will be for the future peace process.

Who is to blame?

Reports about which side is responsible for the hostilities have been mixed. Radio Free Europe reports on a Ukrainian “creeping offensive” in the Donbas area since mid-December, sparking “bloody clashes with their enemy, which has reportedly made advances of its own – or tried to – in recent weeks.”

Meanwhile, other reports argue that “the separatists fired first on Ukrainian positions and then went on the offensive, but lost ground again later.” At the same time, the mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observed "weapons in violation of withdrawal lines on the move on both sides of the contact line,” in addition to “civilian casualties and […] damage caused by shelling.”

Naturally, no one will know with certainty about who was responsible for the flare-up. More indicative is how the different actors responded to the event, and what lay behind their responses.

Another episode in the information war

The first responses to the escalation were predictable. Russia accused Ukraine of trying to find a “military solution to the conflict” rather than abiding by the peace agreement. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko countered, stating that “Russia and its proxies are fully responsible for the deterioration in Avdiivka.”

Apart from the mutual recriminations, a more interesting twist to the story was provided by both countries suggesting that the other aggravated the conflict as a result of events in Washington D.C. or Berlin.

Russia officially accused Ukraine of goading the conflict with the aim of forcing waning international support, as a backdrop to Poroshenko’s Jan. 30 official visit to Berlin. The Ukrainian president cut his visit short in dramatic fashion, citing the emergency situation in Avdiivka.

Read the debates: "Who is behind the recent military flare-up in Ukraine?"

“Strangely enough, every escalation of the situation in Donbas comes at a time when the Ukrainian leadership is away on a foreign trip,” reads the official statement of Russia's Foreign Ministry. “Clearly, this is an attempt to keep the crisis, provoked by Kiev, on the international agenda.”

Putin's foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov followed up by saying that “Kiev is trying to use the fighting it provoked itself as a pretext to refuse to observe the Minsk agreement and blame Russia.” The Berlin connection was hastily picked up and widely transmitted in coverage by the Russian media.

The opposite narrative came from Kiev. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin called the Russian claims “absurd and completely untrue.”

“It is Russia and not Ukraine that is responsible for the most recent illegal and inhumane escalation of aggression in Donbas,” he said.

Ukrainian officials linked the escalation with Trump’s Jan. 30 phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the day of Poroshenko’s visit to Berlin, as well as to rumors of a possible lifting of sanctions imposed on Russia by Washington.

“Rumors about the possibility of lifting sanctions increase [the] Kremlin’s appetite. The sanctions must be prolonged and reinforced,” said Konstiantyn Yelisieiev, deputy head of the Ukrainian Presidential Administration.

In the midst of the fierce fighting on Jan. 31, Poroshenko asked: “Who would dare talk about lifting the sanctions in such circumstances?”

What is the US response?

The mystery surrounding Trump’s future policy towards Eastern Europe seems to be forcing the hand of both sides in the Ukrainian conflict. Recent statements from members of the U.S. administration have been controversial, further fueling the uncertainty in the region. After the recent flare-up, the new U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley delivered a “clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions” in Ukraine, adding that “Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.”

However, earlier, on Jan. 26, Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said that lifting sanctions against Russia was “under consideration” by the administration, amidst rumors that a draft executive order on the issue was circulating in the White House. Trump added to the uncertainty during a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May on Jan. 27.

“As far as the sanctions, [it’s] very early to be talking about that, but we look to have a great relationship with all countries, ideally,” he said.

In an interview released on Feb. 7, Trump expressed doubts about Russia’s responsibility for the escalation in Ukraine and rejected the claim that the escalation — which came within 24 hours after his conversation with Putin — was an insult.

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“No, I didn't [take it as an insult] because we don't really know exactly what that is. They're pro-forces. We don't know if they're uncontrollable? Are they uncontrollable? That happens also.”

Whatever the cause for the recent flare-up in eastern Ukraine, the signs indicate that the U.S. position will be instrumental in any future resolution of the conflict, one way or the other.

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