New fighting in Ukraine: A prelude to peace talks?

The surge in violence around Donetsk's airport between government forces and Russia-backed rebels looks like a return to war. But analysts say it may actually be diplomatic positioning ahead of future talks.

Army.SOS/Handout/Reuters
An aerial shot shows the terminal building of the Sergey Prokofiev International Airport damaged by shelling during fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces, in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. The video was taken on Jan. 15 via a drone by Army.SOS, a Ukrainian group that supports the army by buying ammunition, food, and supplies for soldiers.

The Minsk peace accords appear to be in tatters as the hope for further negotiations between Moscow and Kiev recedes, fighting intensifies, and Ukraine accuses Russia of sending in more troops to bolster east Ukrainian rebels.

Barely 10 days ago the picture looked much more hopeful. But then preparations for a critical peace summit involving leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany collapsed amid a storm of recriminations and both sides began girding for renewed war.

The focus of the new fighting is the shattered hulk of Sergey Prokofiev Airport just outside Donetsk, which has been utterly destroyed in ongoing battles that reminds many observers of World War II's Stalingrad. The airport, a critical symbol for both sides, has changed hands repeatedly. Fighting has intensified over the past week as Kiev has plowed in tanks and troops to stem a rebel offensive.

Though it has no utility as an airport in the foreseeable future, the territory is an important forward position for Ukrainian forces. Their ability to shell the city of Donetsk and its surrounding area from it may account for the ferocity with which both sides continue to contest the place.

The question now is whether the tenuous Minsk accords, whose ceasefire has been more-or-less successful in stabilizing the conflict for four months, are now dead?

Portents of renewed war abound. Ukraine has announced a "partial mobilization" that will put 50,000 fresh troops into the field within months. On Tuesday, Ukraine accused Russia of pouring troops and materiel into embattled east Ukraine in quantities not seen since the huge battles of late summer, which led to Ukrainian defeat followed by the Minsk peace talks.

Russia denies inserting any forces at all, and warned Tuesday that what it describes as Kiev's resumption of hostilities near Donetsk could undermine any hope for a negotiating process, including possible plans to bring Ukrainian, Russian, German, and French foreign ministers together in Berlin on Wednesday.

But Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant, says that a complicated diplomatic game is probably afoot, rather than a full-scale return to war.

"Neither side has overwhelming superiority, and therefore no one is going to risk going on the offensive at this point," he says. "What we're seeing in the airport fighting is attempts to exert psychological pressure, and to improve bargaining positions when peace talks do resume."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has also dropped a few hints that the recent spike in fighting could actually be a prelude to fresh peace initiatives.

"Despite escalation of pressure and activation of terrorists, Ukraine is ready to sign the ceasefire agreement given the adherence to the Minsk agreements," he said on his official website Monday.

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