The first Grad multiple launch rockets were fired from areas under Kremlin-backed militant control hit Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine only a day after US President Donald Trump held his first official phone call with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
While some viewed the timing of this attack as a chilling confirmation of the new United States administration’s willingness to make deals with Moscow at Ukraine’s expense, neither the motives behind the sudden escalation, nor its effect on the current situation are that straightforward.
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There were certainly grounds for concern and the feeling of angst, only strengthened when a Kremlin spokesperson said that the recent escalation in Ukraine proved the need for “dialogue” between the US and Russia.
It is implementation of the Minsk Agreement that is required, not “dialogue”. This, however, includes a ceasefire, withdrawal of all heavy weapons and, eventually, the securing of the Russian-Ukrainian border. But Russia is actively trying get the Minsk-linked sanctions lifted without fulfilling the commitments it made.
The fears of some Ukrainians that the new US administration may be amenable to make deals with Russia that bypass the conditions of the Minsk Agreement are not unfounded.
Even if we ignore the US intelligence report demonstrating that Russia directly interfered in the US elections to get Trump elected, Trump’s own statements have given Ukraine reason to fear for the future of US support to Ukraine and its commitment to the sanctions.
Since Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, Trump has on numerous occasions praised Putin, even calling Russia’s aggression against Ukraine “smart”. During the election campaign, he stated that they “would be looking into” recognising Crimea as a Russian territory and lifting sanctions on Moscow.
He has even dismissed Russia’s involvement in the downing of the Malaysian MH17 airliner over militant-controlled territory in July 2014 despite compelling evidence. It was after that disaster that hard-hitting sanctions were imposed on Russia and these sanctions were tied to Moscow’s compliance with the Minsk Agreement.
Trump’s people have been actively meeting with Russians and fuelling Moscow’s hopes that sanctions will be lifted. There is also an ongoing campaign to push the claim that sanctions “don’t work” and that Ukraine may have to “give up” Crimea in exchange for some kind of a peace deal in Eastern Ukraine.
The sanctions, including those over Crimea, are hurting Russia hard and the Kremlin needs them lifted. But if it hoped to steer “dialogue” on to such deals by escalating the conflict, its plan may have backfired.
Russia is ‘behind the Avdiivka attack’
Avdiivka, a strategically important city under Ukrainian control, came under attack on January 28. A Bellingcat report has confirmed reports and videos indicating that the intensive shelling of the city was carried out from residential parts of militant-controlled Donetsk.
Moscow’s attempt to blame Ukraine for this escalation was largely rejected by the international community, since the scale of the attack, and the use of Grad missiles and other heavy artillery makes it inconceivable that this attack was carried out without Moscow’s approval.
Andrei Piontkovsky, a Russian political analyst, suggested that Russian military personnel may have been in charge of the operation.
Western journalists who visited Avdiivka have also reported evidence of “a psychological warfare operation of a sophistication that suggested Russian involvement”. Ukrainian soldiers, for example, were bombarded with text messages saying: “You’re just meat to your commanders.”
Another reason for assuming Russian military involvement in this attack is that the the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) officials in Vienna were warned of a likely escalation on January 26.
Daniel Baer, the former US ambassador to the OSCE, recently pointed out that even if fighting is on both sides, this is still a situation where “Ukraine is the victim and Russia the aggressor”.
Baer, however, was removed on January 20, and it remains to be seen whether the new US Mission to the OSCE will continue to take a firm stand on this issue. This is, after all, the critical question.
Retaining a grip on Ukraine
Whether or not the order came from the Kremlin directly, Ukraine is in no doubt that Moscow’s primary aim remains the same – to retain its grip on Ukraine through the debilitating and destabilising effect of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
The so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics are entirely artificial creations, propped by Russian money, weapons and fighters. Real implementation of the Minsk Agreement would almost certainly lead to their collapse. The militants themselves have acknowledged having no interest in the Minsk Agreement working.
Russia knows this and does not want to relinquish its control over Ukraine. The Russian-backed militants continue to delay releasing hostages and violate ceasefires.
The White House was very slow in reacting to the new escalation and during his phone conversation with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Trump only mentioned, rather oddly, that the US is willing to help “restore peace along the border”.
Nonetheless Nikki Haley, the new US Ambassador to the UN, has come out with a clear statement indicating that there is no change in policy, either on Crimea or on the Minsk agreements.
This leaves Russia with the option of trying to discredit the Minsk agreements inside Ukraine or to prove that Kiev is at fault. One motive for the carnage and suffering caused in Avdiivka may have been to convince Ukrainians – and perhaps the US – that the Minsk accords are not working and should be abandoned.
If the Trump administration is hoping to come to some kind of arrangement with Putin, it would probably want to avoid doing so by lifting sanctions when agreement conditions have not been met, and when other countries are standing by them.
Ukraine will defend itself
There are certainly voices of disgruntlement inside Ukraine, but there is understanding that the removal of sanctions against Russia will encourage its aggression further.
As political commentator Serhiy Taran warned, if Ukraine turns away from the Minsk Agreement, there will be no western leverage to put pressure on Russia.
Moscow may, however, have made one other miscalculation. In 2014, Ukraine was in no state to defend itself properly after four years of the Viktor Yanukovych regime.
During the latest offensive, the country showed its strength. There was extraordinarily efficient cooperation between the military, government agencies and civilian organisations ensuring that people in the besieged city cut off from electricity and heating had somewhere to go. In other cities, hundreds waited patiently to donate blood.
Ukraine is not broken and will defend itself. The latest offensive has, nonetheless, demonstrated how cynically Moscow will use weapons of death and destruction for its own questionable gains. This is a lesson the new Trump administration would do well to heed before attempting any deals with Putin.
Halya Coynash is a journalist and member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.