Ukraine Conflict Monitor, Jan. 24-31, 2017

Ukraine 101:

  • No significant developments.

West’s leverage over Russia:

  • No significant developments.

 Russia’s leverage over West:

  • No significant developments.

Russia’s leverage over Ukraine:

  • No significant developments.

Casualties and costs for Russia, West and Ukraine:

  • The Ukrainian military reported that 17 of its soldiers were killed in the December battles. At least 16 more have been killed in fighting from Jan. 1 to Jan. 30, including seven on Jan. 29 to Jan. 30. On Jan. 31, Kiev said three of its soldiers were killed over the previous 24 hours, but it was unclear whether that figure included the three servicemen reported killed on Jan. 30. (RFE/RL, 01.30.17)
  • Every fifth Russian enterprise has suspended investments, according to a poll of company managers by Russia’s Higher School of Economics. As many as 54% of the polled managers said Western sanctions directly impact their investment activities, the Russian edition of Forbes reported on Jan. 31. (Russia Matters, 01.31.17)
  • If the U.S. eases sanctions, the Russian currency would appreciate 5% to 10%, according to a majority of economists surveyed by Bloomberg, with 41% of respondents predicting a gain of 1% to 5%. (Bloomberg, 01.30.17)
  • The European Court of Justice has upheld an EU ruling to place sanctions on Russian arms manufacturer Almaz-Antey. (The Moscow Times, 01.25.17)
  • Ukrainian nationalists have vowed to indefinitely block a railway line into eastern Ukraine to protest against trade with Russia-backed separatists. (RFE/RL, 01.28.17)

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:

  • Fighting between government troops and Russia-backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine escalated on Jan. 31, killing at least eight people late Jan. 30 and early Jan. 31, injuring dozens and briefly trapping more than 200 coal miners underground, the warring sides reported. Separatist military spokesman Eduard Basurin denied reports that separatist shelling cut power lines and heating stations in Avdiyivka, a government-controlled city on the northern outskirts of the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, saying they had been damaged earlier. The artillery shelling, which appears to be the worst in many months, was concentrated around Avdiyivka. The sides traded blame on Jan. 31 for the surge in hostilities that has led to the highest casualty toll since mid-December. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko cut a visit to Germany short on Jan. 30, citing what his spokesman called "an emergency situation verging on a humanitarian disaster" around Avdiyivka. (AP, 01.31.17, RFE/RL, 01.31.17)
  • Frustrated by the stalemate in this 33-month war of attrition, concerned that Western support is waning and sensing that U.S. President Donald Trump could cut Kiev out of any peace negotiations as he tries to improve fraught relations with Moscow, Ukrainian forces anxious to show their newfound strength have gone on what many in Ukraine are calling a "creeping offensive” in the Donbas area. Observers say the Ukrainians appear to be trying to create new facts on the ground, while officials and commanders insist they are fighting to stop the flow of contraband. (RFE/RL, 01.30.17, RFE/RL, 01.31.17)
  • According to a survey carried out by state pollster VTsIOM, Russians today most fear international conflict and rising prices. (The Moscow Times, 01.30.17)

Arming and training of Ukrainian forces by Western countries:

  • Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has signed a decree allowing troops from the United States and other NATO countries to carry out training missions in Ukraine during 2017. (RFE/RL, 01.26.17)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • Prior to meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, DC, British Prime Minister Theresa May said that the West should engage with Russia, but remain wary about Moscow’s intentions. Addressing Republican lawmakers on Jan. 26, May alluded to former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s approach to talks with his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. "We believe the sanctions should continue until we see the Minsk agreement fully implemented. And we’ve been continuing to argue that inside the European Union," May said. If the U.S. were to lift sanctions on Russia, the European Union would not necessarily follow Washington, as its sanctions remain tied to implementation of the Minsk peace deal, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters Jan. 27. (Reuters, 01.27.17, RFE/RL, 01.27.17, Reuters, 01.27.17)

Analysis:

  • Samuel Charap and Timothy J. Colton, a Russia expert and a professor of government and Russian Studies, write: “By annexing Crimea, supporting the Donbas separatists and lashing out at the West directly, Russia wants to make clear that it will do whatever it takes to have its interests taken into account … the consequences of allowing the Ukraine crisis to continue extend far beyond that country’s borders. In order to find a new stable equilibrium in relations between Russia and the West, all parties must urgently make a good-faith effort to resolve it.” (Project Syndicate, 01.24.17)

Other important news:

  • In their phone conversation on Jan. 28, U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke about Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran’s nuclear program, the situation on the Korean peninsula and the Ukraine crisis, according to the Kremlin. The official readout provided by the White House made no mention of Ukraine. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that no decision has been made on sanctions, and “that really wasn’t brought up” in the call with Putin. The two leaders also discussed working together to eradicate the Islamic State group and “resolving problems around the world, including Syria,” Spicer said. Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said that Putin and Trump may meet before this year's G20 summit in July. (The Moscow Times, 01.30.17, AP, 01.28.17, Bloomberg, 01.28.17, New York Times, 01.29.17)
  • “I’m absolutely opposed to lifting sanctions on Russia,” U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Jan. 29 on ABC’s “This Week” program. “If anything, we ought to be looking at increasing them.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Jan. 27 called on U.S. President Donald Trump to reject the “reckless course” of easing sanctions. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it would be a “huge mistake for American foreign policy” to remove the sanctions “until the reasons those sanctions were put in place are resolved.” (Bloomberg, 01.29.17, AP, 01.29.17)
  • The Kremlin on Jan. 31 accused Ukrainian-backed forces of undermining a peace deal over eastern Ukraine by launching an attack there on pro-Russian rebels the previous day. (Reuters, 01.31.17)
  • The European Union called for "the fighting [in eastern Ukraine] to stop immediately," saying it violated a cease-fire and put civilians at "grave risk." (RFE/RL, 01.31.17)
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced her concerns over the ongoing violence in eastern Ukraine ahead of talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Berlin on Jan. 30. (DPA, 01.30.17)
  • Germany and France agree that any moves to lift sanctions against Russia must be tied to progress in the peace process for eastern Ukraine, German Foreign Affairs Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Jan. 28. (Reuters, 01.28.17)
  • Eight EU member states are calling for more cooperation between the United States and the European Union in pushing for reforms in Ukraine. (RFE/RL, 01.31.17)
  • Poland’s foreign minister is under fire for publishing a March 2008 internal document that outlined the previous government’s thinking about Russia and Ukraine. Witold Waszczykowski said Jan. 24 the document exposed the liberal government of the time as departing from Poland’s traditionally pro-Ukraine policy and embarking on a pro-Russia course. (AP, 01.24.17)
  • Russian media reports say Valery Bolotov, former leader of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's Luhansk region, has died in Russia at the age of 46. (RFE/RL, 01.27.17)