Western leaders are threatening to bring new sanctions against Russia after scores died in a weekend of violence in eastern Ukraine. The new fighting has turned what had seemed to be an easing conflict just a few weeks ago back into a diplomatic crisis for Europe and the US.
Russia-backed rebel forces launched multiple attacks over the weekend, BBC News reports. Seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed and at least two dozen more injured in the past 24 hours amid shelling in the east, the Ukrainian military says. And 30 civilians died Saturday in the city of Mariupol amid heavy shelling. Independent monitors said that the shelling came from rebel-controlled territory, some 20 miles to the east, The Associated Press reports.
A dashboard camera in Mariupol captured one of the salvos as it struck the city. Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko "initially announced that his forces had begun an offensive on the government-controlled city of Mariupol. But after the extent of civilian casualties became known, he backtracked and blamed Ukrainian forces for Saturday's carnage," AP notes.
The surge in violence brought swift condemnation from Western leaders, who accused Russia of supplying troops and weapons to the rebels. Reuters reports that "after months in which European politicians had been debating whether it was time to start rolling back sanctions, the talk now is of how to tighten them."
"If the Russian government cannot prove that it is making verifiable progress towards a de-escalation of the situation, we'll have to talk about more severe sanctions unfortunately," said German politician Karl-Georg Wellmann, a foreign policy specialist for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
Merkel called the attack on Mariupol "a clear and totally unjustifiable violation of the ceasefire" in telephone calls with the presidents of Ukraine and Russia on Sunday, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said, and asked Russia's Vladimir Putin to prevent further escalation.
President Obama also promised to "ratchet up" sanctions against Russia, who he blamed squarely for the outbreak in violence, Voice of America reports.
"We are deeply concerned about the latest break in the [Ukrainian] cease-fire and the aggression that these separatists, with Russian backing, Russian equipment, Russian financing, Russian training and Russian troops, are conducting," he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blamed Kiev for the rebels' attacks, arguing they were made out of self-defense, AP reports. "To expect that they (the rebels) would simply reconcile themselves to being bombed would be naive," he said. "They started to act ... with the goal of destroying Ukrainian army positions being used to shell populated areas."
AP notes that the Russian ruble, already hard hit by Western sanctions and falling oil prices, began to slide again Monday morning on news of the violence.
The outbreak of violence in Ukraine has been particularly jarring because it appears to be at odds with the position that Moscow has been promoting, of the urgent need for more talks. The Christian Science Monitor reported last week that Moscow's diplomatic efforts have contrasted sharply with the demands of rebels, who declared peace talks dead last week. "Even Russian experts are expressing bafflement at the disconnect between Moscow's diplomacy and the declarations of rebel leaders in Ukraine."
Some suggest it may be a coordinated "good cop, bad cop" game, aimed at achieving maximum leverage in negotiations. But others believe Moscow's actual ability to force its proxies to accept a deal may be limited.
"Everyone is playing their role. Russia is trying to mediate for Donetsk to remain part of Ukraine. Kiev says it wants peace, but doesn't want to compromise with the status of these [rebel] republics. Zakharchenko doesn't want to exchange his military successes for empty commitments from Kiev," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "Zakharchenko listens to Moscow, and Moscow is helping him to maintain [rebel gains]. But that doesn't mean Zakharchenko will be willing to give up his positions."
Bloomberg writes that this may be because of a changing of the guard in the Kremlin, as President Putin seems to be "snubbing" his oligarch allies in favor of a far more hardline foreign policy. "Putin is increasingly suspicious of men who owe their wealth to their ties to him and who are being hurt the most by U.S. and European sanctions, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisal," Bloomberg reports.
“There is a group of people in the upper echelons trying to protect themselves from losses,” [Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst in Moscow,] said. “They are critical of Putin but they can’t challenge him because he can easily crush them. That makes them even more unhappy.” ...
Among the people hit with sanctions for their ties to Putin are billionaires Gennady Timchenko and brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, who have known the president for decades and were blacklisted by the U.S. in March. Arkady Rotenberg was also sanctioned by the EU in July, which led to the seizure of Italian luxury properties worth 28 million euros ($32 million). ...
Timchenko’s wealth fell to $4.1 billion from $11 billion in 2014, while the Rotenbergs’ dropped to $2.1 billion from $5.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.