Is Putin stepping up the violence in eastern Ukraine?

A surge in fighting in eastern Ukraine over recent days has led to the highest death toll in weeks.

Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters
Miners are evacuated from under the Zasyadko mine after shelling caused a power outage in the rebel-held city of Donetsk, Ukraine, on Tuesday.

A recent surge in fighting in eastern Ukraine has both Russia and Ukraine pointing fingers at each other. 

The two countries on Tuesday blamed one another for the escalation that has resulted in the highest casualty toll in weeks and cut off power and water to thousands of civilians. Each says the other has launched offensives in the government-held industrial town of Avdiivka and fired heavy artillery, violating the Minsk ceasefire deal established in February 2015. 

"The current escalation in Donbass is a clear indication of Russia's continued blatant disregard of its commitments under the Minsk agreements with a view of preventing the stabilization of the situation and achieving any progress in the security and humanitarian spheres," said Ukraine's foreign ministry in a statement.

But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Ukrainian government troops of launching a deadly attack on Russian-backed separatists across the Avdiyivka front line on Monday as part of a ruse to draw attention away from domestic and other problems. 

"Such aggressive actions, supported by the armed forces of Ukraine, undermine the aims and the task of realizing the Minsk accords," he said. 

Since fighting intensified on Sunday, eight Ukrainian troops have been killed and 26 wounded, marking the military's heaviest losses since mid-December, Reuters reports.  

Despite the peace deal established two years ago, international security monitors say ceasefire violations, including gun and mortar fire, are a regular occurrence. But the recent surge in fighting is the first significant escalation since US President Trump, who has called for better relations with Moscow, took office less than two weeks ago.

As Fred Weir reported for The Christian Science Monitor shortly after Trump's election in November:

What Russia wants is more of a free hand in its own region, especially in places like Ukraine, and Trump seems to be signalling that would be possible under his administration. They are also tired of being lectured about their behavior at home and abroad by US leaders, whom they increasingly regard as hypocrites...

There is audible dismay in Kiev, and in the capitals of the three former Soviet Baltic states, where it is feared that Trump’s priority on restoring good ties with Russia might come at their expense.

Trump has even suggested that he might find a way to recognize Crimea as Russian territory, which would pretty much overturn whatever is left of the post-cold war order in Europe. Already politicians who seek better relations with Moscow are gaining ground in countries like Bulgaria and Moldova, and any perceived US pullback from the region might turn that into a stampede.

Both the separatists and the Ukrainian government could stand to benefit from an escalation in the east, Kiev-based independent political analyst Vadim Karasyov told the Associated Press. 

"Kiev is eager to win support of the new Trump administration, and for this they need to show that separatists and the Kremlin are derailing the peace accords," he said. "For the Kremlin, it's important to show that it holds war and peace in its hands – if the new US administration wants peace in Ukraine, it needs to offer something in return."

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press. 

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