Ukraine Conflict Monitor, Feb. 14-21, 2017

Ukraine 101:

  • No significant developments.

West’s leverage over Russia:

  • U.S. House Democrats are pushing forward with legislation to make sure Congress can block any effort President Donald Trump's administration might make to lift sanctions on Russia. The House legislation, introduced on Feb. 15, mirrors a measure put forth a week earlier by Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate. (RFE/RL, 02.15.17)

Russia’s leverage over West:

  • A multi-nation WIN/Gallup International poll published just ahead of the annual gathering of the transatlantic security community in Germany on Feb. 17 showed that most of the countries polled chose the U.S. for their go-to defense partner. At the same time, however, China and Russia picked each other, war-torn Ukraine and Iraq split down the middle, while four members of the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization—Bulgaria, Greece, Slovenia and Turkey—chose Russia as their defense partner. (Bloomberg, 02.17.17)
  • Frauke Petry, the leader of Germany's far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) held talks with Russian officials during a visit to Moscow over the weekend, including with an ultra-nationalist ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a spokesman said on Feb. 21. (Reuters, 02.21.17)

Russia’s leverage over Ukraine:

  • No significant developments.

Casualties and costs for Russia, West and Ukraine:

  • The Ukrainian military said on Feb. 17 three Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 10 others injured in fighting against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in the past day. (RFE/RL, 02.17.17)
  • Ukraine’s president on Feb. 16 pledged to resume coal supplies from separatist-controlled parts of the country after it was blocked by volunteer battalions, threatening to disrupt the country’s power supply. Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers has earlier declared a state of emergency due to serious shortages of anthracite coal. In spite of the shortages, Ukraine will not import electric power from Russia, according to Ukrainian Minister of Energy Igor Nasalik. (AP, 02.16.17, Kyiv Post, 02.15.17, TASS, 02.14.17)

Red lines and tripwires:

  • No significant developments.

Factors and scenarios that could cause resumption of large-scale hostilities or lead to accident between Western and Russian forces in Europe:

  • U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, sat down with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. The meeting resulted in an agreement on enhancing communication to avoid “unintended incidents," the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Feb. 16. Russia’s Defense Ministry said Dunford and Gerasimov “determined the areas of joint work to improve security of military activities, reduce tensions and risk of incidents.” The United States later issued an almost identical statement. It was the first meeting between the nations' top military officers since the U.S. ceased military-to-military relations with Russia after the Crimea takeover three years ago. (AP, 02.16.17, The Hill, 02.16.17)
  • Anatol Lieven, professor of international politics at Georgetown University in Qatar: “If, as many of the hawks in Brussels and Washington claim, Russia wanted to undermine and then invade Latvia, it would have done so after 2008, when the Latvian economy was in collapse and it would have been easy to create a crisis there. Instead, Moscow did nothing—the Russian government is well aware that any such move would bring Western Europe and the United States back together in hostility toward Russia.” (New York Times, 02.14.17)
  • Evelyn Farkas, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia : "So far Moscow has not used military force against the United States or our allies. But the risk that the Kremlin might do so as a result of an accident and misunderstanding rises with each Russian violation of European and Japanese airspace.” (Foreign Policy, 02.15.17)

Arming and training of Ukrainian forces by Western countries:

  • No significant developments.

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • Anatol Lieven, professor of international politics at Georgetown University in Qatar: "The United States should work with Russia on a compromise for the Donbas, which should be demilitarized and secured by a United Nations peacekeeping force. Meanwhile, the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula should be accepted (since short of a world war there is no way Russia will give it up). Though the annexation shouldn’t be recognized legally, American sanctions on Russia should be lifted.”(New York Times, 02.14.17)
  • Paul R. Pillar, academic and CIA veteran: “If the U.S. administration were for its own good reasons to adopt, say, a policy in Syria more in parallel with that of Russia, this could be part of a formula that leads Vladimir Putin to pull back from his malicious mischief in Donbas.” (The National Interest, 02.13.17)


  • Stephen Kinzer, senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs: “Russia does not threaten any vital U.S. interest. If it seemed likely to subjugate all of Europe, that would be different—but there is no prospect of that. Russia’s attempts to exert influence over some of its neighbors do not threaten the U.S. Our security in no way depends on the politics of Ukraine, Georgia or other nations that will always be more important to Russia than they are to us.” (Russia Matters, 02.15.17)
  • Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute: “By using force against and seizing territory from Ukraine and Georgia, Russia has challenged the post-Cold War European security order, yet the West’s punitive sanctions also help Russia further justify its challenge to the Western-led global economic order.” (Russia Matters, 02.15.17)
  • Steven Pifer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution: “Attitudes in Ukraine toward Russia, the separatists and Minsk II have hardened over the past two years, understandably given how the conflict has dragged on. As a consequence, the Poroshenko government would not find it easy to implement Minsk II’s political measures. It is not clear that Poroshenko could secure the 300 votes needed in the Rada (parliament) to pass a constitutional amendment on decentralization. Passing laws on elections and special status could likewise prove very problematic.” (Brookings Institution, 02.15.17)
  • Thomas Graham, managing partner at Kissinger Associates and senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs: “No enduring European security arrangement is possible without the participation of Russia, which has been a great power in Europe for the last 300 years.” (Russia Matters, 02.15.17)
  • Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation: “In fact, better relations with Russia are in our national interest. Cooperation on nuclear proliferation, arms control, terrorism and other issues is vital to our security. Consolidating a zone of peace in Europe cannot happen without Russian engagement." (The Washington Post, 02.21.17)
  • Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest: “Russia today is not set to become a regional hegemon in Europe as its economy is approximately one-eighth the size of the EU’s, though it will gain somewhat following Brexit. So long as the U.S. ensures the survival of its European allies and actively cooperates with them on European security, Russia is unlikely to seek such a role.” (Russia Matters, 02.15.17)

Impact of the Ukraine conflict on other countries:

  • U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis issued an ultimatum Feb. 15 to NATO allies, warning that if they do not boost their defense spending to goals set by the alliance, the United States may alter its relationship with them. Mattis also said the U.S. remains fully committed to NATO in his first meeting with his alliance counterparts on Feb. 15. (AP, 02.15.17, Bloomberg, 02.15.17)
  • The U.S. call for NATO partners to step up funding for the transatlantic alliance is "a fair demand," German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said on Feb. 10 after what she called a positive first meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis. (Reuters, 02.10.17)
  • About a third of Germans and French would like to see their countries spend more on the military. Poland and other eastern European countries are reliably in favor of stepping up defense expenditure. (Bloomberg, 02.13.17)
  • U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Feb. 18 conveyed a message to jittery partners that the Trump administration will “hold Russia accountable” and maintain steadfast support for NATO, a military alliance the American commander in chief once dismissed as “obsolete.” “Know this: The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground, which as you know President Trump believes can be found,” Pence said. (AP, 02.19.17)
  • U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Feb. 20 vowed to stand with the European Union and the NATO military alliance, but was met with some skepticism from leaders shaken by U.S.  President Donald Trump’s more critical comments. Pence, as he did in an address Feb. 18 at the Munich Security Conference, also said Trump would demand that Russia honor its commitments to end the fighting in Ukraine. “In the interest of peace and in the interest of innocent human lives, we hope and pray that this cease-fire takes hold,” he said. (AP, 02.20.17)
  • Since U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis' visit to Brussels last week, European leaders have been wondering what the U.S. might do to reduce its commitment to Europe should allies not spend more on defense. On Feb. 18, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence took one option off the table. He promised the U.S. would continue to support its contribution to the NATO deterrent force in Poland and the Baltic states. And he said the Trump administration would boost its military spending to strengthen its forces and better protect NATO allies. (The Los Angeles Times, 02.18.17)
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel says that Western states must protect the principle of territorial integrity and NATO needs to strengthen its eastern flank following Russia's interference in Ukraine. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 18, Merkel said that territorial integrity is a crucial foundation of the post-World War II order. (RFE/RL, 02.18.17)
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said the military neutrality of Sweden and Finland is fundamental to the security of the Baltic region. (RFE/RL, 02.21.17)

Other important news:

  • A week before Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser, a sealed proposal was hand-delivered to his office, outlining a way for U.S. President Donald Trump to lift sanctions against Russia. The proposal, a peace plan for Ukraine and Russia, was pushed by Michael Cohen, the president's personal lawyer, who delivered the document; Felix Sater, a business associate who helped Trump scout deals in Russia; and a Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Artemenko. Essentially, the plan would require the withdrawal of all Russian forces from eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian voters would decide in a referendum whether Crimea, the Ukrainian territory seized by Russia in 2014, would be leased to Russia for a term of 50 or 100 years. (New York Times, 02.19.17)
    • U.S. President Donald Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen has denied acting as a go-between in a back-channel scheme to broker a secret Ukrainian peace deal. (The Moscow Times, 02.21.17)
    • The Kremlin said Feb. 20 that the Russian government does not know anything about a Ukraine peace plan crafted by an opposition Ukrainian lawmaker and two of U.S. President Donald Trump’s associates. The draft plan, first reported by The New York Times, calls for all Russian forces to withdraw from eastern Ukraine. It also calls for a referendum to let Ukrainian voters decide whether Crimea, which was seized by Russia, should be leased to Moscow for 50 or 100 years. Russia isn’t going “to rent its own region,” Peskov said. (AP, 02.20.17)
    • Ukraine's top prosecutor says his office is investigating Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Artemenko on suspicion of treason after he presented associates of U.S. President Donald Trump with a controversial peace plan for Ukraine and Russia. (RFE/RL, 02.21.17)
  • Russian president Vladimir Putin has signed an order recognizing passports issued by separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. (ABC News, 02.19.17)
    • Ukraine’s president on Feb. 21 called for new sanctions against Russia over its decision to recognize passports issued by separatist authorities in the east, while the Kremlin accused Ukrainian authorities of denying vital documents to people in the rebel regions. (AP, 02.21.17)
    • The United States says it is disturbed by Russia’s decision to recognize passports and other documents issued by rebel authorities in eastern Ukraine. (AP, 02.19.17)
    • The Kremlin on Feb. 20 defended its decision to recognize passports issued by separatist authorities in eastern Ukraine, saying it came as a response to Ukraine’s blockade of rebel regions. (AP, 02.20.17)
    • Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to temporarily recognize passports issued by rebels in Ukraine violates the Minsk peace agreement, a German government spokesman said on Feb. 20. (Reuters, 02.20.17)
    • Russia's decision to recognize identification documents issued by separatists in eastern Ukraine will hurt the chances for a cease-fire to take hold, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) told RFE/RL on Feb. 19. (RFE/RL, 02.19.17)
    • European diplomats see the Kremlin’s move to recognize identification documents issued by separatists in eastern Ukraine as a warning to Ukraine and the west, amid disappointment in Moscow that the new U.S. administration has failed to side with Russia in the conflict. (Financial Times, 02.19.17)
  • U.S. President Donald Trump has tapped Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, a prominent military strategist known as a creative thinker, as his new national security adviser, replacing the ousted Michael Flynn. Last year, McMaster was reported to have been overseeing a high-level U.S. government panel intended to figure out how the U.S. Army should adapt to Russian military action in Ukraine. Russian ability to shut down Ukrainian networks has “been a real wake-up call,” McMaster said in 2016. McMaster also said last year that the conflict in Ukraine had revealed that the Russians have superior artillery firepower, better combat vehicles and have learned sophisticated use of UAVs for tactical effect. Should U.S. forces find themselves in a land war with Russia, McMaster said, they would be in for a rude, cold awakening. (Chicago Tribune, 02.20.17, Politico, April 2016, DefenseOne, 05.19.16, Breaking Defense, 02.06.16)
  • U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis made no mention of Russia by name as he spoke to reporters on arrival at the NATO meeting. But he did refer obliquely to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea three years ago and continuing Kremlin-backed violence in eastern Ukraine, which prompted the U.S. and EU to impose sanctions. “The events of 2014 were sobering and we must continue to adapt to what’s being revealed to us in terms of our security challenges,” he said. (Bloomberg, 02.15.17)
  • U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made his debut on the world stage Feb. 16, meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and urging Moscow to pull back in eastern Ukraine, then signing a joint statement condemning North Korea's latest ballistic missile test. He attended almost a dozen meetings with his diplomatic counterparts from the G-20 group of major world economies. Tillerson called on Russia to honor its commitments under the Minsk agreement to end the fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas region. “As we search for new common ground, we expect Russia to honor its commitments to the Minsk agreements and work to de-escalate the violence in the Ukraine,” Tillerson said after talks with Lavrov. Lavrov, speaking separately, said that the issue of sanctions on Russia was not discussed. (The Washington Post, 02.16.17, Bloomberg, 02.16.17, AP, 02.16.17)
  •  “We’re working for a more constructive relationship with Russia,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on the sidelines of a NATO meeting at which U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was also in attendance. “But of course our dialog with Russia has to be based on some core principles, the respect for the territorial integrity of all nations, states in Europe, including Ukraine, and of course we need to combine dialogue with credible deterrence.” Stoltenberg also said he would meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the margins of the Munich Security Conference Feb. 17-19.  (Bloomberg, 02.16.17, TASS, 02.14.17)
  • Russia called on U.S. President Donald Trump to live up to his pledge to improve relations, amid growing unease in Moscow that he may not lift sanctions imposed over the crisis in Ukraine. “Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?” Trump said on Twitter Feb. 15. Senior officials in Moscow had earlier criticized White House spokesman Sean Spicer for saying on Feb. 15 that the president expects Russia to “return” the Black Sea peninsula annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call that Crimea is a part of Russia and its status won’t be discussed with the U.S. (Bloomberg, 02.15.17)
  • Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says he received a "very strong message supporting Ukraine" in a meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and recent talks with other top U.S. officials. Poroshenko has earlier warned against any "appeasement" of Russia, arguing at the Munich Security Conference that cutting a deal with Moscow on his country would make the situation worse. The remarks came as the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic said Feb. 17 that the rebels aim to "free the occupied territories" in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces by force if political means fail. (AP, 02.17.17, AP, 02.17.17, RFE/RL, 02.18.17)
  • Former Russian State Duma Deputy Denis Voronenkov, who defected to Ukraine last year, has called Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region “a mistake." Voronenkov said that Vladislav Surkov, adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, had opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “The decision to annex [Crimea] was made by one person. All normal people were against it, including those in his inner circle,” said Voronenkov. (RFE/RL, 02.14.17, Meduza, 02.16.17)
  • EU ambassadors are expected to agree to extend asset freezes imposed against former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and 15 of his associates for another year, according to EU sources. (RFE/RL, 02.21.17)
  • Ukraine this spring will renew its search for human remains at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, Dutch Security and Justice Minister Stef Blok has said. (RFE/RL, 02.17.17)
  • A Vienna court has granted Washington’s request to extradite Ukrainian oligarch Dmitri Firtash to the United States to stand trial on racketeering charges. (The Moscow Times, 02.21.17)
  • Hundreds of people gathered in central Kyiv on Feb. 20 to commemorate the third anniversary of the bloodiest day of protests that led to the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. (RFE/RL, 02.20.17)
  • The Framingham, Massachusetts-based Internet security firm CyberX said it has spotted a new weapon in the ongoing cyberwar between Russia and Ukraine—a program called BugDrop that is being used to steal vast amounts of sensitive data from Ukrainian businesses and institutions. (The Boston Globe, 02.17.17)