Debates: Experts discuss the renewed military escalation in Eastern Ukraine, trying to determine the possible motivations for both sides.

OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine during a patrol in the town of Shchastia, Eastern Ukraine. Photo: OSCE / Evgeniy Maloletka

The media has already characterized the battle near the city of Avdiivka in Eastern Ukraine as “the worst escalation in violence in two years.” The flare-up of violence shook the small city despite an attempt to renew a ceasefire last month.

Some Western media blamed Russia for the renewed violence, as further proof that the Kremlin cannot become a trusted partner for the U.S. during the Trump administration. And new U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley recently condemned the “aggressive actions of Russia.” However, a number of experts suggest that Kiev might be behind the violence, as a provocation to keep Western sanctions on Russia in place.

In an effort to clarify the situation, Russia Direct interviewed several well-known experts, who share their views on the current situation in the war-torn Donbas.  

Aurel Braun, professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto, and a center associate for the Davis Center at Harvard University

As the Trump administration took office and pushed to confirm its cabinet appointments, the sharp escalation of fighting in Eastern Ukraine, especially around the city of Avdiivka, was particularly inopportune. Small skirmishes that were more part of a latent conflict suddenly became virulent and international ceasefire monitors assigned responsibility for the new attacks (that resulted in the deaths of several Ukrainian soldiers) to combined Russian-separatist forces. If this is correct, it is a very dangerous development.

There are two possibilities in terms of who made the decision to escalate, neither of which is reassuring. First, it may be that the Kremlin decided to test the tolerance level of the Trump administration, one that has taken a much more positive attitude towards Moscow than its predecessor. Certainly, much of the Western media from The Economist to The New York Times speculated that this was indeed a probe and a test by the Kremlin.

Second, it is conceivable that the separatist forces acted independently of Russian control and if this unlikely scenario is correct, it would represent a highly problematic breakdown in the command structure and Moscow's ability to readily freeze or unfreeze the conflict.

Though the U.S. State Department's response has been relatively muted, declaring that it was "deeply concerned" (but without naming Russia), it is far too early and way too imprudent for Moscow to celebrate. Despite the American technical review of sanctions, there is no indication that these will be lifted by the Trump administration or that the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, would advocate for any significant diminution. Such escalation of fighting can only complicate Russian-American relations.

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Further, the killing of numerous Ukrainian soldiers has caused tremendous anger in Ukraine. It is rallying support for the current government and certainly is boosting its advocacy efforts for continuing and strengthening sanctions.

Lastly, it seems unwise for Moscow to support any actions that can seem to humiliate or diminish President Trump. He has shown repeatedly that he reacts sharply to any such steps, real or imagined, and can turn quickly on those who he felt slighted him. Both American and Russia will benefit from improved relations but any hard change in President Trump's attitude will be particularly deleterious for Moscow.

Sergey Markedonov, associate professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities

Today, many media sources are speculating who is behind the escalation in Eastern Ukraine, but such an approach is counterproductive because it doesn’t resolve the problem, which is complicated in its nature. It requires a comprehensive approach toward the Minsk-2 Agreements, which are supposed to resolve the conflict, but failed to do so.

In fact, military escalation results from the fact that the Minsk Agreements don’t work. With most of the responsibilities addressed to Ukraine, Kiev seems to be reluctant to observe them. However, it doesn’t mean that Russia is not responsible for the conflict at all. Moreover, violence didn’t stop after the Minsk Agreements came into force and shootings have been commonplace since then.

Nevertheless, the sides will keep sticking to the Minsk Agreements, at least because there are no effective alternatives or mechanisms that could deal with the standoff. Even if there is some de-escalation in Donbas, it won’t resolve the systemic problem.  

Regarding Russia-West relations, when Trump assumed the presidency, the U.S. shifted its focus to domestic problems and is dragging its feet about resolving the problem. Likewise, Europe is more reticent and passive in this regard.

The EU countries seem to be ready to admit the possibility that Ukraine is behind the recent escalations in Donbas, because Kiev might want to attract attention to the conflict. At the same time, the West finds itself in a sort of dilemma, where it cannot place pressure on Kiev, because this would mean the victory of the Kremlin. And the West is not ready to admit it.  

James Carden, contributing editor to The Nation and former advisor to the U.S.-Russia Presidential Commission at the U.S. State Department

Who is behind it [the escalation in Avdiivka]? Even according to the U.S.-government funded Radio Free Europe, it is Kiev that is responsible for what is being described as a "creeping offensive" in the Donbas.

Who is most interested in it? We need to think about whose interests are served by the continual frustration - and in this case, outright subversion -  of the Minsk peace process.

Why has Kiev refused to hold a parliamentary vote on decentralization, which, according to the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), was meant “to be the precursor to a series of steps toward peace"? The answer is straightforward: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko cannot implement Minsk without risking a fight with - and possible coup orchestrated by – the country's far right, which the U.S. and EU (perhaps inadvertently, though perhaps not) has empowered over the past three years.

Does it mean that we should expect the conflict to see a new momentum? Since the goal of the new offensive seems to be the subversion of the peace process with an eye towards provoking the separatists in order to pressure the West to maintain sanctions on Russia, my best guess is "yes."

What are the implications for Russia-West relations, given the fact that the Trump administration is going to normalize the relations with Russia? It all depends on both how far Kiev is prepared to go in its provocations and on how willfully credulous the West is prepared to be in response. If recent history is any guide, there is very little (if anything) that post-Maidan Ukraine can do that will earn the censure of the West.

Alexey Fenenko, an associate professor at the Faculty of World Politics of Lomonosov Moscow State University

There might be two reasons behind the current military confrontation in Donbas. The first is on the surface: It might be Ukraine’s aspirations to test whether the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is ready to support Kiev against Russia. That is why the Ukrainian authorities might have orchestrated a “manageable” crisis in Avdiivka — just to understand what statements and moves came from the White House.

At the same time, the Kremlin’s reluctance to respond reciprocally to the December sanctions from the U.S. was a signal to Kiev that Russia seeks to reconcile with the Trump administration and would be reticent in its response to the provocations in Avdiivka. This is what might be behind Kiev’s calculations. However, the results are uncertain for Ukraine: the Trump administration supported the idea of a ceasefire, but at the same time, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley made it clear the sanctions imposed on Russia for Crimea’s reintegration would remain in force unless Moscow returns the peninsula back to Ukraine. So, there might be two interpretations.

The second reason has to do what’s happening behind the scenes: It adds up to the inability of the Minsk-2 agreements to resolve the standoff. In fact, since the agreement came into force, not one day has gone peacefully in Donbas. The implementation of Minsk-2 is impossible for both Ukraine and the separatist republics. For Ukraine, the observation of the agreements will mean federalization within the country, which could provoke the same process in other regions. Such a scenario might lead to the overthrow of Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko.

For the rebels, the partial federalization would force them to reconcile with Kiev and return to Ukraine without getting any guarantees for their security. The rebels see such a scenario as a failure. So far, neither Kiev, nor Donbas see themselves as losers. At the same time, they are not satisfied with the current status quo. Ukraine and its leadership pin their hopes on revanche for its failure in the winter 2015. Meanwhile, the Donbas rebel republics are too small and vulnerable to become robust, if unrecognized, states. Most importantly, the conflicting sides didn’t clarify who was the winner and who was the loser. Thus, the resumption of military activity is a matter of time.

Paul Robinson, a professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences of University of Ottawa:

The ancient Greeks regarded war as a God - Ares. This reflected an understanding that war was an elemental force which controlled the lives of men, rather than vice versa. In the rationalistic world of modern times, we have rather lost sight of this. This week, commentators have been seeking to determine what logic may have driven Ukraine, Russia, or the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic to escalate the war in Donbas.

Some analysts have suggested that Ukraine initiated recent battles in order to encourage its Western allies to support it against "Russian aggression". Others have suggested that Moscow is emboldened by the election of Donald Trump and is testing the waters to see what it can get away with. Either way, recent events are seen as the product of deliberate strategy. This is probably the wrong way of looking at things.

A more likely explanation of events is that an attempt to seize a small piece of territory for local tactical advantage went wrong and provoked a fierce reaction. The two sides then found themselves engaged in battle, and in order to win the battle began escalating the level of violence. Matters spiralled out of hand, not by design, but for reason of local tactical necessity. Extracting oneself from such situations is possible, but requires will.

Unfortunately, the will is lacking. Neither the Ukrainian government nor the rebels ever liked the Minsk agreements, which both of them signed under duress. External pressures and the relative military balance serve to prevent matters escalating too far out of control. But at the same time, both sides lack strong internal political constraints to prevent events such as we have seen this week. It is likely, therefore, that the war will continue for some time to come, and that similar flare-ups will occur again.