Ukraine rebels take back Donetsk airport, as new peace talks loom

Donetsk has seen a surge in fighting, both in the city and around its nearby airport, amid Western accusations that Russia has begun sending troops into Ukraine again.

Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters
A woman walks past a damaged building near a trolleybus stop in Donetsk, Ukraine, today. At least 13 civilians were killed on Thursday when a shell or a mortar hit a trolleybus stop in the rebel-controlled city.

Just as European leaders thought Moscow was starting to see things their way on Ukraine, Russia appears to be resuming its stealthy push of troops and materials into that nation – forcing new questions about Vladimir Putin’s intent and Europe's response. 

With talks under way in Berlin involving Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine, and with some analysts thinking President Putin would like to end the conflict, it is unclear whether the new aggressive phase in Ukraine is actually part of a face-saving exit strategy for Moscow.

Under heavy attack, Ukrainian troops today abandoned part of an airport outside Donetsk they have held at high cost, according to Ukraine’s defense ministry. The loss of the airport terminal is “a major blow to pro-Kiev forces and will send political shockwaves back to the capital,” according to the BBC.

Meanwhile, in Donetsk itself, some 13 people were killed when a rocket hit a passenger bus. Separatist leaders said Kiev’s forces were responsible for the shelling, even as Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin labeled it a “terrorist” attack and called on Moscow to “stop the terrorists,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, in Switzerland at the annual Davos gathering of world political and business leaders, said that 9,000 Russian troops are operating in his country, with 1,000 of those crossing the border into Ukraine in recent days – a violation of the Minsk cease-fire plan agreed to in October.

Russia said Mr. Poroshenko’s statement was based on “hallucinations.” US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, on the other hand, this week confirmed the presence of Russian troops, weaponry, and logistics in eastern Ukraine – though they have given no hard numbers.

"I will not go into specific figures or numbers, partly because what we have seen is that the Russians have moved forces back and forth and they have a high number of forces on the border," Mr. Stoltenberg said Wednesday. "For several months, we have seen the presence of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. And we also see a substantial increase in the number of Russian heavy equipment there.”

Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant, told The Christian Science Monitor on Tuesday 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."

Yet for now, “the situation,” as European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told The Washington Post on a trip to the US capital this week, “is not going in the right direction.”

After the Minsk cease-fire agreement, European leaders pushed ardently to give peace a chance, to stop talking about sanctions, and to coax Russia and Putin away from backing Ukrainian separatists. The overall EU policy vision, published this week by the Financial Times amid some controversy over its tone of sweetness toward Russia, involves a robust new policy engagement with Moscow to promote a common prosperity sphere “from Lisbon to Vladivostock.”

At a time when Russian solvency depends on $100 a barrel oil, but oil is priced at about $55 a barrel, Europeans say it would make sense for Putin to act in his economic self-interest. But whether Putin can be coaxed is unclear. Writing this week on the European Council of Foreign Relations website, analyst Kadri Liik argues that Putin is still divided over whether to make economic self-interest, or Russian pride and territory, his main "driving force." 

With Russian troops still on the ground, The Washington Post editorial board yesterday wondered if: "Rather than debating when they can resume trade discussions with Moscow, Western leaders should be deciding whether they are willing to do what will be necessary to preserve Ukraine’s independence." They pointed out that Ukraine could well go broke this year under the strain of its defense and related security costs. 

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