UD. 12 November 2017.  

By Iryna Terlecky.

As the situation in Eastern Ukraine deteriorates, eyes turn to Washington.

No end to conflict

The period over Christmas has seen no let up in the relentless war of attrition in Eastern Ukraine, with attacks launched on Ukrainian forces even on Christmas Day. 

Anyone who follows the daily reports from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission will see that the reports appear to be getting longer, even as the casualties are significantly less than at many other times during the last year.

However, many instances are recorded of explosions and exchanges of fire which result in a continuing stream of wounded Ukrainian soldiers – three in the last 24 hours alone. 

Landmines are not being cleared as quickly as the OSCE would expect, and there is some suspicion that the Russian-backed separatists are using this as a pretext for not allowing the OSCE access to certain areas.

In early January, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Pavlo Klimkin, and the new OSCE Chairman, Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs of Austria Sebastian Kurz carried out a working visit to Donetsk.

While the visit was primarily one of familiarisation for Kurz, one of the topics of discussion was the potential deployment of armed OSCE police mission in certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, to strengthen the capacity of the Special OSCE monitoring mission in Ukraine to implement effective monitoring and verification of the implementation of the Minsk agreements.

Continued UK support

In the meantime, a bright spot has been the UK’s renewed commitment to the sovereignty of Ukraine.

In December, the Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon announced that the UK training programme for the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) will be extended for another year. 

He confirmed that British personnel will now be deployed in the country until early 2018, continuing to provide defensive training to the UAF. 

This includes the identification of mines and other Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), life-saving first aid, logistics and operational planning.

The Defence Secretary also confirmed that the British forces currently based in the country are due to exceed their training target and by March 2017 are expected to have trained over 5,000 members of the UAF, over 1,000 more than initially planned.

In a statement, he said, “Extending British training of Ukrainian Armed Forces sends a clear message that we support Ukraine and remain firmly committed to its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, in the face of a more belligerent Russia.”

This commitment was underlined further in a visit to Ukraine on 20 January, when Sir Michael met Defence Minister of Ukraine, General of the Army Stepan Poltorak, and said that the UK is beginning to deliver training to Ukraine’s Air Force as well as its Army and Navy. 

He met with Ukrainian veterans to hear first-hand how the UK’s training provides vital support for the UAF. 

Later in his visit, which also marked the 25th anniversary of UK-Ukrainian diplomatic relations, the Defence Secretary also visited the ATO Memorial inside the National Defence University to pay tribute to the 127 soldiers killed in the East of the country in 2014-2015.

This reiteration of support is part of the UK’s consistent recent messaging about remaining a global player in spite of Brexit, but while it is backed up by concrete actions, must be welcome.

And over the pond…

The world is watching to see how new US President Donald Trump will start to deliver on his campaign promises. 

A key area will be the relationship with Russia, which has significant implications for Ukraine, and may be a source of contention between the President and Republican leaders, many of whom have been staunch supporters of Ukraine and openly acknowledged Russia’s role in financing and fuelling conflict in Ukraine, while Trump has said that he wants to improve relations with Moscow and that he would consider lifting US sanctions on Moscow imposed in response to the Crimea annexation.

The days before the inauguration were dominated by news of reports that Moscow had gathered compromising personal and financial information about Donald Trump that could be used for extortion, which he angrily rejected as totally unsubstantiated. 

However, he did concede for the first time that Russia had carried out cyberattacks against the two major political parties during the presidential election.  

President Putin said that both allegations were pure fantasy, though it is clear from the Russian media that the Russian establishment is delighted with Trump’s victory, giving him a level of adulation that has not been seen for any other western democratic leader.

Trump’s top team will be key. His nomination of Former ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State raised concerns because of his close business ties with Russia and personal relationship with President Putin. 

However, he won the backing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Monday to be Secretary of State when it voted 11-10 to send his nomination to the full Senate, after Senator Marco Rubio removed his objection, saying that he looked favourably on Tillerson’s support for NATO and his recognition that “Russia’s claims on Crimea are illegitimate.”

Tillerson went further than expected in the Senate hearing, criticising President Obama for a weak response to the Crimea land grab, saying it emboldened Russia to back separatists in eastern Ukraine with weapons and soldiers. 

He said that Washington should have advised Ukraine to move all available military assets to its eastern border and provided those assets with defensive weapons, US or NATO air surveillance, and intelligence.

The order underpinning US sanctions is set to expire in March, so Trump has around six weeks after inauguration to make a decision on whether to renew it, cancel it, or let it expire.

Asked whether he believes now is the right time to lift Ukraine-related sanctions, Tillerson said, “I would leave things in the status quo so we are able to convey this can go either way.”

Further comfort was provided by the appointment of James “Mad Dog” Mattis as Secretary of Defence, who has been a vociferous critic of Russian action in both Syria and Ukraine. 

Speaking at a conference in May 2015, he said that among world threats “in the near term, I think the most dangerous might be Russia,” and he has referred to President Putin as ‘possibly delusional’.

However, there is no certainty that Trump will necessarily heed his own advisers given his maverick approach to the presidency. 

Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s Foreign Secretary, has just announced that he will be visiting the US in February, to coincide with Ukraine’s presidency of the UN Security Council, and that he will be meeting members of the Presidential administration.

Watch this space…


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