It seems the mask of a cease fire has come off in East Ukraine. Ukrainian government forces report assaults across the front lines in recent days with the heaviest attacks on the territory around Mariupol, the key port city on the Sea of Azov. Mariupol lies between pro-Russian separatist-controlled areas of East Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia last year.
The violence is flaring as the Minsk peace process stalls with each side looking to exploit the lull in the fighting to reinforce positions and prepare for the next phase of the conflict. The strategy of the government in Kiev remains to hold off superior Russian strength long enough to restructure its debt and attempt to reinvigorate the Ukrainian economy. Additional time to continue to modernize and develop the Ukrainian armed forces is also very helpful to Kiev. Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko is in California attempting to finalize a deal with the country’s creditors. Reducing the government’s debt burden is key to giving Ukraine a chance to develop economically and to receive further support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The more time the government can buy itself to right its financial ship, the more the people will be drawn into the orbit of the European Union and the higher the chance for success for the government in Kiev.
Moscow knows this and is incentivized to force change upon the Ukrainian constitutional system and allow greater autonomy for the pro-Russian breakaway region to the east. A few months back, Kiev removed all financial payments to the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). Supporting the Eastern Ukrainian population has placed great financial strain on the Moscow where extra money is simply nonexistent due to Western sanctions and the collapse in the price of crude oil. Time is not on Moscow’s side. Perhaps Moscow wants to apply additional pressure on Kiev to renew its commitment to the peace process and to forgo the possibility of a frozen conflict which drains their precious resources.
Either way, the situation in East Ukraine is volatile and appears to be heading back to full-scale war. It is hard to see how Europe could put the genie back in the bottle if the Minsk peace process fails completely. Russia would have no choice but to openly back the rebels if this happens. If Mariupol falls under rebel control, the entire scope of the conflict could change completely, with Moscow no longer able to deny its involvement. Europe and the United States could be drawn in as well militarily. The pressure on Western leaders to act would be immense.
Perhaps NATO military leaders understand this and that is why they are becoming much more active in exercising forces in the Baltic region to deter further Russian action in Estonia and surrounding areas. The world seems to be at a precipice in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, but Western politicians are focused elsewhere as China shakes financial markets and Greece secures another round of bailouts. However, the ability of political leaders to ignore what is happening in East Ukraine may not last for long. The first shooting war between two nations in Europe since World War II could be about to get a whole lot hotter.