UD. 12 November 2017.  

By Iryna Terlecky.

As war in Eastern Ukraine escalates, the world asks what message Trump gave Putin.

Hardening conflict

News emerging from Ukraine has been dominated by a fresh onslaught by Russian-backed separatists on the strategic town of Avdiivka. 

The last two weeks has seen daily reports of Ukrainian soldiers and innocent civilians, including a 16 year old boy killed, as the separatists bomb Ukrainian positions from civilian locations, with evident mounting of weapons banned by the Minsk agreements being used by both sides. 

At least 40 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have been killed, with many more wounded. 

One of the wounded was British photographer, Christopher Nunn, who suffered shrapnel injuries to his eyes when a window was shattered by a shell exploding immediately outside, while a woman in the flat he was visiting subsequently died of her injuries. 

The world’s media has focused on the consequences of the conflict on civilians. 

As reported by RFERL, “Roughly since January 28, day and night, outgoing and incoming artillery salvos have been almost ceaseless. The industrial city has been transformed into a place of broken glass and mourning, where armored vehicles clog traffic and soldiers outnumber locals on the streets.”

Residential and industrial areas of the Ukrainian-controlled town were hit by heavy artillery and rocket barrages, which resulted in damage to the main electricity power line, leaving thousands of residents living with little or no access to electricity or water amidst subzero winter cold, which prompted aid agencies to warn of a possible humanitarian crisis. 

The fighting damaged vital infrastructure, leading to power outages while temperatures in Avidiivka plummeted as low as minus 18º Celsius (0º Fahrenheit). 

Persistent fighting hampered repair efforts and there were reports that, as emergency workers began repairs, shelling from separatists increased. 

Over 170 children have been evacuated from Avdiivka by the Ukrainian government. Many locals left the town on their own. 

Ukrainian services and volunteers established warming centres for those who could not or did not want to go, while elsewhere in the region, there were large queues of people who volunteered to give blood to help the injured.

“Shooting at civilian infrastructure is a particular crime. If they prevent us from repairing electric and thermal networks by deliberately escalating the situation, [they are consciously] provoking a humanitarian disaster,” said Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.

Where next?

As reported by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, both sides in the conflict are using weapons which should have been withdrawn under the Minsk Agreement. 

The Russian-backed separatist have been using Grad missiles, while the Ukrainian army has reinforced its positions in Avdiivka with tanks and large calibre artillery. 

Ukrainian Commander Yevhen Deydey was unapologetic in an interview with RFERL. 

“Our tanks are preparing for battle,” Deydey said inside the Ukrainian Army’s forward-most command centre, “This is a real escalation.” 

Deydey saw a Russian hand in the tactics employed by fighters on the other side, who he said had made several attempts to outflank his soldiers but were repelled by the Ukrainians.

“When the artillery strikes are especially accurate, and repeatedly, we know it’s professional [Russian] army guys,” he said.

Deydey displayed evidence of what he said was Russian psychological warfare targeting Ukrainian defence forces: text messages sent from mysterious numbers addressed to Ukrainian soldiers that read, “You are just meat to your commanders,” “Your body will be found when the snow melts,” and, “You’re like the Germans in Stalingrad.”

Not unexpectedly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergiy Lavrov has said that the only way forward is for Ukraine to respect the Minsk agreements, while President Putin at a news conference in Budapest on 2 February accused Kyiv of provoking the latest outbreak of violence and using it as a ploy to win support from new US President Trump. 

But in a completely unexpected airing of free speech, Russian opposition politician Leonid Gozman, during a live talk show, blamed Russia’s government and public for the nearly three-year-old war in eastern Ukraine that has killed about 10,000 people. 

Gozman said ,“this horrible war with casualties, ugliness, and violence from both sides would not continue for more than a day if we didn’t support it with weapons, money, and people, if we didn’t support these so-called leaders of these “republics”.

Trump, Putin and Ukraine

Many commentators believe it is no coincidence that the renewed attacks from Russian-backed separatists began on 28 January, just after the first telephone conversation between Presidents Putin and Trump. 

Trump has made several extraordinary statements about President Putin, both during the campaign trail and subsequently. 

In an interview with Fox News, he said he respected Putin even though he’s “a killer”. When challenged by the interviewer Mr Trump equated Russia with the US in a statement which shocked many in his own party, “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think, our country’s so innocent?”


The Kremlin gave a very positive readout of the call between the two Presidents, saying there was a large measure of agreement on the need to combat international terrorism. It was reported that Ukraine was mentioned only in passing. 

Although there was no direct mention of sanctions, Mr Putin’s spokesman said that both sides had “stressed the importance of rebuilding mutually beneficial trade and economic ties between the two counties’ business communities.” 

However, Russian commentators believe that Trump will be ready to do some kind of deal, and that he is likely to use lifting sanctions against Russia as a bargaining tool. 

Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, spoke out against lifting sanctions, calling the Putin “a murderer and a thug” and said that he seeks to “undermine American national security interests at every turn.”

President Trump’s position on Ukraine became even more confused and worrying in a further interview where he said he did not take offense at the outbreak of renewed lethal fighting in Ukraine that came within a day of the phone conversation that he had with Putin, saying of the recent clashes, “we don’t really know exactly what that is.”

“They’re pro-forces,” Trump said of the Ukrainian separatists in an interview that aired this week on Fox News. “We don’t know, are they uncontrollable? Are they uncontrolled? That happens also. We’re going to find out; I would be surprised, but we’ll see.”

A telephone call with President Poroshenko, raised further questions about Trump’s position on the conflict and his administration’s commitment to maintaining sanctions against Russia for the annexation of Crimea.

In an official account of the call, Mr. Trump had said he was willing to work with Kyiv and Moscow to resolve the conflict. But the statement referred to helping to “restore peace along the border,” while it is evident that the violence has been playing out deep inside eastern Ukraine.

While Trump seems unsure about what is happening in Ukraine, his own appointees for UN envoy and Secretary of State, Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson respectively, have both been much clearer on and critical of Russia’s behaviour. 

Haley condemned the separatist attacks as “ Russian actions,” while Tillerson issued several strong statements, condemning Russia during his confirmation, including the admission that Russia “has invaded Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea.” 

Trump’s Defence Secretary James Mattis also weighed in on the threat of Russia at his confirmation, saying that “right now the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with Mr. Putin and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.”

Whether President Trump will heed his appointees, or continue to take his own, often ill-informed approach, is something which will concern not only Ukraine, but the rest of Europe.

And finally…

A prominent separatist commander, Mikhail Tolstykh, known as Givi, was killed when a rocket was fired into his office in what separatists are calling a terrorist attack by Ukrainian security services. 

Oleg Anashschenko, who was de facto defence minister of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), had been killed just four days earlier in Luhansk when his car blew up. 

The Ukrainian government puts the deaths at the door of infighting between the separatists, but with the death toll of separatist leaders now standing at seven, there is suspicion that the Kremlin has had a hand in clearing the separatists of those who are not obeying orders.

Elsewhere, we are seeing increased reports that the Kremlin is actively interfering in the French Presidential election with the aim of helping Putin supporter Marine le Pen to the Presidency, and a general fear from Ukrainian analysts that support for Ukraine from western countries is dwindling.

The OSCE has reported large numbers of Russian troops and equipment massing in the region around Rostov-on-Don which raises fears that a further onslaught is brewing. Times remain uncertain and dangerous for Ukraine and its people.

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