There are three major reasons to fear the collapse of the Minsk agreements, especially if there is a continued offensive by either side that goes well beyond the clashes at Marinka on June 3.
A pro-Russian separatist aims his rifle as he guards a position near Marinka in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Monday, June 8, 2015. German Chancellor Angela Merkel says the Group of Seven democracies have agreed that sanctions against Russia must remain in place until a cease-fire deal for eastern Ukraine is fully respected. Photo: AP
For a different take read: "New escalation of violence in Donbas: the end of Minsk agreements?"
Last week the Donbas saw a marked increase in military activity. The clashes at Marinka were entirely out of tune with the generally measured flow of the conflict, which had been characterized by a relatively low level of shelling and limited use of heavy artillery since the most recent talks in Minsk between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.
However, the fighting cannot be said to have been brought to a complete halt during this period, and reports about the regrouping of militants and machinery along the boundary line abounded. So the attack on the morning of June 3 was hardly unexpected.
Determining the specific cause of the renewed belligerence, or an isolated burst of military activity during the conflict specifically aimed at destabilizing the situation in Ukraine, may not be a priority, but the events leading up to and accompanying the attack need to be considered for any understanding of the situation.
First up is the latest meeting in Minsk of the working groups as well as the Contact Group set up to regulate the situation in southeastern Ukraine. Every such meeting seems to go hand in hand with a spike in military activity, as if the militants are deliberately trying to put pressure on Kiev during the negotiations. The method is simple and crude, but has been relatively effective so far.
But the snag is that the “storming of Marinka” differed from previous similar situations by one important parameter: the Ukrainian command returned fire, including with the use of heavy artillery, something it had previously eschewed to avoid charges of violating the Minsk agreements. It should be noted that Ukraine has openly admitted that it used artillery.
The Ukrainian command, under severe internal pressure from veterans and civilians alike for showing too much passivity and an inadequate response to the militant attacks, decided in the end to circumvent some points of the Minsk agreements to avert defeat and not to squander its positions and personnel.
Such tactics make it clear to the Donbas leaders that the response to any rise in hostilities will be symmetric, even if it means the collapse of the Minsk agreements in the event of a continued offensive by one of the sides.
The problem is that the plan to destabilize Ukraine might not presume compliance with peace initiatives of any kind. However, Ukraine’s armed response will help retain its positions and strengthen public trust, which is extremely important for the Ukrainian authorities in the present situation against a backdrop of economic woes.
That leads to the second point to be mentioned in the context of the Marinka clashes — the economic climate. Clearly, given the war of attrition, economic sanctions and social hardships, the question of stabilizing the economic situation is of acute importance for both Ukraine and Russia.
In the meantime, talks are ongoing within the framework of the Russia-Ukraine-EU tripartite group on supplies of Russian gas to Ukraine. June 3 was also the date that Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak marked for the signing of a new package of gas agreements, under which Ukraine will assume responsibility for purchasing Russian gas and pumping it into underground storage facilities.
Interestingly, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said recently that Ukraine was reducing imports of Russian gas to minimize energy dependence on the Kremlin.
If Ukraine does indeed take on additional commitments for the purchase of natural gas from Russia, the Ukrainian public will perceive it as backtracking by the government, which is highly undesirable in the interests of social stability. The gas question should not be seen as the only potential cause of the assault on Marinka, but one should not lose sight of it when considering the events taking place in and around Ukraine.
The third major factor that might have provoked the Donbas militants is the Ukrainian parliament’s support for a bill to amend the law “On the admission and terms and conditions of residence of foreign armed forces on the territory of Ukraine.”
The bill seeks to add a number of provisions allowing the armed forces of other countries to remain on Ukrainian soil, on which basis Ukraine, at its request, can be granted aid in the form of international peacekeeping and security missions under the aegis of the UN and/or EU. In addition, it envisages a ban on the presence of armed forces of countries that commit armed aggression against Ukraine.
The Verkhovna Rada [Ukraine’s parliament – Editor’s note] considered the bill only after the storming of Marinka, yet that does not detract from its significance, since it is obvious that the Russian Federation was privy to the Rada’s agenda. It is not ruled out that a military strike was ordered to put pressure on Kiev.
The Ukrainian Parliament would support the bill, even though in the case of its failure to throw back the rebels. In this case, such a tough military move looks like not as a cool-headed calculus, but rather as an emotional stance, which could indicate that Russia’s non-military leverages of pressure on Ukraine through different agents are weakening.
If so, the threat to the peace agreements and initiatives is rising, as are the likelihood of a new spiral of informational warfare and the remoteness of a peaceful resolution.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.