Renewed fighting in Ukraine – just as West reassesses relations with Russia

This weekend, the G7 meets in Germany, with Ukraine and Russia’s behavior expected to figure prominently on the agenda. Also, EU countries will be deciding whether sanctions imposed on Russia over actions in Ukraine should be renewed.

Alexander Ermochenko/AP
A firefighter extinguishes the fire at a market destroyed after shelling in Donetsk, Ukraine, Wednesday, during battles in eastern Ukraine. Intensified battles around the rebel stronghold of Donetsk left more than a dozen people dead and threatened to tip the country back into full-blown war, according to Ukraine’s General Staff.

Renewed intense fighting between government forces and Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine raises the question, why now? – especially given the diplomatic context.

The West is seeking to reaffirm its warnings to Russia over Ukraine even as the renewed violence suggests that Russia wishes to keep Ukraine weak and "unstable."

This weekend, the newly re-minted Group of Seven industrialized countries – it ceased being the G8 last year after Russia was dropped from the elite club over its annexation of Crimea – meets in Germany, with Ukraine and Russia’s behavior expected to figure prominently on the agenda.

More important for Moscow on a practical level is the fact that European Union countries have begun deliberating over whether EU sanctions imposed on Russia over its actions in Ukraine should be renewed when they expire in July.

In recent weeks, multiple signs pointed to building momentum in some EU countries to reward Moscow for a calmer Ukraine by at least weakening sanctions, if not scuttling them altogether. But the resurgence of shelling and loss of life around Donetsk will probably quiet any calls for encouraging gestures toward Russia, some European officials say – with some predicting that EU sanctions will now be easily renewed into next year.

The new violence also comes shortly after Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Sochi, Russia, to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The May 12 meeting was trumpeted by the Russian government as evidence that Western attempts to isolate Russia were futile and that even the United States recognized it needed working relations with Russia.

The new fighting, described as the most intense since a cease-fire was signed in February in Minsk, Belarus, will darken the diplomatic atmosphere and almost certainly put off any Western gestures toward Russia, regional experts say.

Shelling from rebel-held Donetsk to the nearby government-held town of Maryinka has very likely “tipped the scales” of Western diplomatic thinking once again heavily against Russia, says Julianne Smith, former national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and now director of the strategy and statecraft program at Washington’s Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

Sustained fighting, especially on the heels of stepped-up reports of Russian soldiers deployed in eastern Ukraine, would very likely leave Mr. Putin’s former fellow club members in the G7 “willing ... to send a stronger signal to Moscow,” she says.

Each side blamed the other for Wednesday’s heavy fighting, which reportedly killed more than a dozen civilians and fighters on both sides and left the town of Maryinka in flames. But Maryinka is in a band of territory west of Donetsk that the rebels have repeatedly said they hoped to “liberate” – even after the Minsk cease-fire.

Photos and video footage emerged Wednesday of buildings in Maryinka destroyed by heavy artillery and tank fire. The Ukrainian government accuses Russia of supplying the rebels with heavy weaponry. Reports also claimed that both sides were using multiple rocket launchers known as Grads, even though such weaponry is supposedly banned from areas along the line of separation by the Minsk agreement.

By Wednesday afternoon, Russia was officially blaming the intense fighting on “Ukrainian provocation.”

But Russia has laid responsibility for Ukraine’s civil war at Kiev’s feet ever since fighting broke out last year. At the same time, it has forcefully denied any direct role in the fighting, despite mounting evidence of Russian soldiers and heavy Russian weaponry in rebel-held territory.

It’s hard to tell yet if Russia played any role in encouraging the resurgence of fighting in eastern Ukraine. But if it did, it would fit in the playbook that Russia appears to have been following concerning Ukraine, some regional experts say.

“Putin wants a Ukraine that is kept off balance” by unabated instability, says Richard Fontaine, president of CNAS and former foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona.

Mr. Fontaine says Putin’s aim has been to engineer a situation where “he can control the dialing up and dialing down” of violence in eastern Ukraine in a way that keeps the country politically and economically unstable – but yet does not deepen Russia’s confrontation with the West.

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