With the Obama administration’s attention focused on crises elsewhere, the 6-month-old fragile cease-fire between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russia separatists has deteriorated steadily in recent weeks, reigniting fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin is poised to greenlight a fresh offensive to seize more territory across the border.
Renewed clashes between the Ukrainian military and rebel forces have grown so intense during recent days that the leaders of France and Germany, who brokered the cease-fire in February, have called for a hastily arranged meeting Monday with Ukraine’s pro-Western president.
Officials say the goal is to begin hammering out a strategy for quelling the fighting, but the timing is creating concerns. Ukraine’s Independence Day falls this Monday, and tensions are likely to be raging between Moscow and Kiev.
If the violence continues to surge, the Obama administration’s slow-walking of U.S. support for Ukraine’s military in the past months can be expected to come under fresh criticism in Washington. Regional analysts say the White House finally may be pressured to upgrade its military support for Kiev, including mobile radar systems designed to track incoming Russian missile fire.
“The administration is just not going to be able to avoid seriously revisiting the Ukraine problem if there is a major escalation in fighting in the next few weeks,” said Andrew C. Kuchins, who heads the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Mr. Kuchins said President Obama has resisted shipping weapons to the Ukrainians because he is concerned about the shakiness of President Petro Poroshenko’s government in Kiev and about whether such shipments would incite Russia to escalate the conflict.
Others say Russian forces already have violated the cease-fire — known as the Minsk II agreement — and argue that it is only a matter of time before Moscow tries to carve out an expanded swath of territory in eastern Ukraine.
“The offensive is coming,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, who contends that the Russia-backed separatists are preparing to move deeper into eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region.
The area includes the predominantly Russian-speaking Black Sea coastal city of Mariupol and sits roughly 200 miles north of the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in March 2014.
“Clearly, the Russians are already not in compliance with the Minsk II agreement and they are now checking what kind of reaction their advance will get from Ukraine and from the West,” Mr. Cohen said.
The United Nations estimates that the war has killed 6,400 people since April 2014, and the Obama administration has acknowledged that the fighting has been more intense in recent weeks than at any other point since the signing of February’s cease-fire.
But the clashes are intensifying as the Obama administration is struggling to contain the Islamic State threat in Iraq and Syria and is consumed with the battle on Capitol Hill over the Iran nuclear deal.
There is evidence that Ukrainian military forces are also violating the agreement with attacks and equipment movements, but officials at the Pentagon and the State Department have blamed Russia-backed separatists for carrying out repeated heavy artillery strikes on eastern Ukrainian towns.
A nightlong artillery exchange between the two sides claimed several lives Monday, according to reports by The Associated Press, which cited the Russia-backed rebel-controlled Donetsk News Agency as saying Ukrainian military artillery fire had killed three people in the front-line town of Horlivka and two in the rebel capital of Donetsk.
Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, reported two civilian deaths on their side, in a suburb of Mariupol.
Fighting around the city of roughly 500,000 has prompted growing speculation that Moscow may be intent on taking Mariupol as part of an evolving plan to carve out a Russia-controlled land bridge between the Crimean Peninsula and the Russian border — some 250 miles to the northeast.
Putin in Crimea
Mr. Putin made headlines this week with a high-profile, three-day visit to Crimea.
Mr. Poroshenko accused Mr. Putin of attempting to whip up tensions in the region ahead of Ukraine’s Independence Day celebrations.
Officials in Moscow claimed Mr. Putin’s real agenda was to hold meetings on development and to promote tourism on the peninsula, but the Russian president seemed just as eager to trade barbs with Mr. Poroshenko.
According to Reuters, Mr. Putin criticized his Ukrainian counterpart for appointing foreigners to key government posts, such as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was named governor of Ukraine’s southern Odessa region in May. “Stop this shameful practice,” Mr. Putin said. “It is humiliating for the Ukrainian people.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested Wednesday that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande should pressure Mr. Poroshenko to be more accommodating when they meet next week.
“It is necessary in our view to mount additional pressure on Kiev to convince them that they have to implement the agreements and obligations agreed in Minsk,” Mr. Lavrov said.
But Mr. Cohen said it is Russia that is engaged in a campaign to “exhaust and shatter” the economically and politically struggling government in Kiev.
“They want Ukraine to collapse because they perceive the regime in Kiev as anti-Russian and pro-American,” he said.
Moscow’s goal is for pro-Russia operators to return to the Ukrainian capital to fold the republic of the Soviet Union back into Russia’s orbit and “close the door forever to Ukrainian cohesion with the West,” he said.
“Ukraine is very important to the Russian neo-imperialist narrative, much more so than most people in the U.S. government realize,” said Mr. Cohen, who believes Mr. Putin ultimately wants the Soviet empire back and “that resonates with the vast majority of the Russian people.”
Mr. Kuchins agreed that domestic factors in Russia are driving Moscow’s meddling in Ukraine.
With global oil prices at a six-year low and the ruble struggling, he said, “Russian economic prospects look about as dead at the moment as they ever have.”
Noting that Mr. Putin’s domestic popularity rose 25 percentage points after the annexation of Crimea last year, Mr. Kuchins said it is likely the Russian president sees Ukraine as a tool to distract Russians from their own nation’s economic woes.
“To me, that would be the main explanation for why there would be a new offensive in eastern Ukraine,” he said.
Mr. Kuchins dismissed speculation that the Putin government has a land bridge to Crimea in its sights.
“To create a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, you’d have to take a lot more than Mariupol and Mariupol itself is going to be a big and bloody mess,” he said. “Can the Russians do it? Yes. But it’s going to result in a lot more body bags, which is going to make it increasingly difficult for the [Putin government] to play this game with the Russian people that the Russian military is not involved in Ukraine.”
At the same time, Mr. Kuchins said, Russian desires to drive a wedge between Western European powers and the U.S. over Ukraine may deter Mr. Putin from authorizing a wide-scale offensive.
Washington and its European Union allies are united in leveling economic sanctions against Moscow. But such unity could dissolve if the European Union, where several nations depend on Russia for oil and gas, chooses not renew its side of sanctions at the start of next year.
“If the Russians do a major offensive in Ukraine now, it’s going to make it extremely unlikely that the Europeans will withdraw their sanctions,” Mr. Kuchins said.