Ukraine Conflict Monitor, Jan. 31-Feb. 7, 2017

Ukraine 101:

  • Ukraine takes the number one spot for large countries, those with a current population of over 20 million, in demographic decline. U.N. projections show Ukraine’s 2015 population of 44.8 million falling 21.7% by 2050. (Forbes, 02.01.17)

West’s leverage over Russia:

  • U.S. President Donald Trump on Feb. 2 denied that his administration is rolling back sanctions on Russia after the Treasury Department announced a change to penalties enacted by former U.S. President Barack Obama in response to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. “I haven't eased anything,” Trump told reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. The Treasury Department earlier in the day amended Obama’s additional Russian sanctions—levied in December—to allow United States technology companies to export products to Russia. The directive, issued on Feb. 2, authorizes IT companies looking to import, distribute or use certain information technology in Russia to pay up to $5,000 in a calendar year for licenses that might be issued by the Russian Federal Security Service. (The Hill, 02.02.17,RFE/RL, 02.02.17)
  • The European Union’s top diplomats vowed on Feb. 6 to uphold sanctions against Russia for destabilizing conflict-torn Ukraine, despite confusion over how U.S. President Donald Trump plans to manage his relations with Moscow. (AP, 02.06.17)

Russia’s leverage over West:

  • Montenegro’s main opposition party said Feb. 6 that it would organize a referendum on the country’s membership in NATO—with the support of Russia—if the ruling pro-Western majority keeps insisting the decision should be made in parliament. (AP, 02.06.17)
  • A year-long investigation found no direct proof that Russian media outlets were running a deliberate disinformation campaign in Germany, an unnamed source told Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. The source maintained that while officials still hadn’t “found the smoking gun,” they had found certain warning signs. “We would have liked to have raised the yellow card,” the source said. (The Moscow Times, 02.07.17)

Russia’s leverage over Ukraine:

  • No significant developments.

Casualties and costs for Russia, West and Ukraine:

  • Over 40 people were killed in government- and separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine in last week's escalation of fighting, adding to the nearly 10,000 killed since the conflict erupted in April 2014. (Reuters, 02.06.17)
  • Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine say one of their top commanders, Oleg Anashchenko, was killed when his car exploded early on Feb. 4. (RFE/RL, 02.04.17)

Red lines and tripwires:

  • Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has vowed to put the question of NATO membership to a referendum. Speaking to German newspaper Berliner Morgenpost, Poroshenko claimed most Ukrainians wanted to be part of the military alliance.  "Four years ago, only 16% were in favor of joining NATO. Now it's 54%," he said. The president promised to “do everything in his power” to join NATO if the Ukrainian people voted for it. (The Moscow Times, 02.02.17)

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

  • Kiev’s advances have contributed to the rekindling of the war. Since last abandoning its policy of disengagement last fall, Ukraine has been making increasingly frequent incursions into the “gray zone”—the no man’s land between government and separatist forces along the front line that the two sides have fought over since the first failed peace agreement was signed in September 2014. Separatists have more recently started making their own incursions into the no man’s land. The result is that the gray zone in eastern Ukraine has become a tinderbox: In many places along the front line, only a few hundred yards divide government troops from Russian-backed separatists. (Foreign Policy, 02.06.17)
  • International monitors said on Feb. 6 that fighting in eastern Ukraine has abated, but the warring sides have kept heavy weapons near the front line. Alexander Hug, deputy head of the monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said that “the fighting has now subsided somewhat,” but added that OSCE monitors have still registered more than 1,300 cease-fire violations over the past 24 hours. (AP, 02.06.17)
  • Ukrainian military authorities say that an unarmed military transport plane was hit by antiaircraft fire from a Russian naval vessel over a disputed area of the Black Sea. (RFE/RL, 02.01.17)

Arming and training of Ukrainian forces by Western countries:

  • No significant developments.

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, wrote: “The United States can help substantially increase Russia’s incentives to support a road map for Minsk II implementation by linking each step to specific sanctions relief. For example, following verified withdrawal of heavy weapons by the Russian-backed separatists, Washington should provide appreciable and immediate relief from sanctions barring U.S. financial institutions from medium- or even long-term lending to Russian entities.” (The National Interest, 02.01.17)


  • Columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote: “For Putin, there is a much more important goal than lifting sanctions: establishing a pro-Russian government in Kiev … A retaliatory strike and subsequent withdrawal, like in Georgia in 2008, would be quite a different matter. If Putin can provoke Poroshenko into moving first, having made sure an indifferent U.S. and a preoccupied, Ukraine-fatigued Europe won't interfere, he can deal the Poroshenko government a deadly blow.” (Bloomberg, 02.02.17)
  • With the election of U.S. President Donald Trump and support wavering in Washington, Kiev is prepared to consider a less-than-ideal agreement if Russia clearly shows it will compromise—though Ukraine has been evasive about what that would look like. Though polls show the military conflict in Donbas remains the most important issue for Ukrainians, only 9.2% of the population views the Minsk Agreements positively, and there’s little public appetite for any talk of compromise. (Foreign Policy, 02.06.17)
  • Michael Kofman, a fellow at the Kennan Institute, wrote: “Lessons from fighting in Ukraine and Syria suggest that Russia’s ‘good enough’ at current readiness levels is more than sufficient to take on any former Soviet Republic on its borders, and even engage a peer adversary like NATO in a short-term high-intensity fight. Russia would struggle occupying entire states, but it can crush their militaries and readily seize parcels of adjoining land.” (The National Interest, 02.02.17)

Other important news:

  • U.S. President Donald Trump said he did not take offense at the outbreak of a lethal bout of fighting in Ukraine that began within a day of his phone conversation with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, saying of the recent clashes, “we don’t really know exactly what that is.” “They’re pro-forces,” Trump said of the Ukrainian separatists in an interview that aired on Feb. 6 on “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News. “We don’t know, are they uncontrollable? Are they uncontrolled? That happens also. We’re going to find out; I would be surprised, but we’ll see.” (New York Times, 02.06.17)
  • A telephone call that U.S. President Donald Trump held on Feb. 4 with President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine raised further questions about Trump’s position on the conflict and his administration’s commitment to maintaining sanctions against Russia for the annexation of Crimea. In an official account of the call, Trump had said he was willing to work with Kiev and Moscow to resolve the conflict. But the statement referred to restoring “peace along the border,” while the violence has been playing out inside eastern Ukraine: "We will work with Ukraine, Russia and all other parties involved to help them restore peace along the border." Poroshenko's office said the conversation with Trump paid particular attention to "settlement of the situation in the Donbas and achieving peace via political and diplomatic means." Trump has also discussed the conflict in eastern Ukraine during a call with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg. (New York Times, 02.06.17, Reuters, 02.05.17, RFE/RL, 02.06.17)
  • “We’re watching,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said, when asked on ABC’s “This Week” whether the White House plans to put Russia on notice, as it has Iran, over violating the cease-fire in Ukraine. “And very troubled by the increased hostilities over the past week in eastern Ukraine.” (The Washington Post, 02.05.17)
  • In her first address to the U.N. since her appointment last month as U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley condemned Russia's “aggressive actions” in the Donbas region and warned that Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia will not be lifted until Crimea is returned to Kiev. U.S. President Donald Trump made warmer relations with Russia the centerpiece of his foreign policy during the campaign, and European leaders had been steeling for him to lift sanctions they and former U.S. President Barack Obama imposed on Russian President Vladimir Putin after he annexed Crimea. But on Feb. 2 Haley sounded a lot like her predecessor, Samantha Power. (Reuters, 01.31.17, The Moscow Times, 02.03.17, RFE/RL, 02.03.17, New York Times, 02.02.17)
  • Russia is testing U.S. President Donald Trump with a surge of violence in eastern Ukraine, and the U.S. president should give Ukraine the lethal aid it needs to defend against the attacks, Sen. John McCain said in a letter to Trump on Feb. 2. (Reuters, 02.03.17)
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Feb. 7 praised U.S. President Donald Trump's approach to the Ukraine crisis, saying it marked a big improvement from that of his predecessor Barack Obama, in comments likely to worry Kiev. "[Trump] said he wants to get to grips with everything in Ukraine and understand how to behave. This, I already believe, is a big and qualitative shift compared to the Obama's administration," the TASS news agency quoted Lavrov as saying. (Reuters, 02.07.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 2 accused Ukraine of starting the latest escalation to rally support from the new U.S. administration and other Western powers. “Kiev is trying to use the fighting it provoked itself as a pretext to refuse to observe the Minsk agreement and blame Russia," Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, told reporters Feb. 1. (AP, 02.01.17, AP, 02.02.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Ukrainian troops and separatist rebels on Feb. 6 to cease fire in eastern Ukraine. (AP, 02.07.17)
  • A recent flare-up of hostilities in eastern Ukraine shows the need for a swift resumption in dialogue between the United States and Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Feb. 1. (Reuters, 02.01.17)
  • "I think we should all hope there are agreements between Russia and the U.S., not to the detriment of Ukraine or to Europe, but if there is an easing of tensions between these two world powers, then that is good,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said. (Reuters, 02.05.17)
  • U.S. President Donald  Trump has agreed to meet the leaders of NATO at a summit in late May, the alliance said Feb. 6—an apparent first step in his efforts to push NATO to focus more on counterterrorism and for members to spend more on their militaries. Trump also said the United States "strongly" backs NATO, but that members of the military alliance must earmark more money for defense spending. (AP, 02.06.17, RFE/RL, 02.06.17)
  • The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has shelved a plan to meet with Ukrainian officials about the alliance's missile-defense system, Western officials said. This is a new sign that the alliance is trying to avoid provoking Russia. NATO had considered meeting with Ukraine to discuss the possibility that debris or an errant interceptor could fall on their territory if the alliance's missile-defense system were used. (Wall Street Journal, 02.02.17)
  • Ukraine’s gross domestic product advanced about 2% last year, the Economy Ministry said Feb. 3. (Bloomberg, 02.03.17)
  • Ukraine is the world’s third-most likely country to default on foreign debt and remains dependent on the International Monetary Fund’s four-year, $17.5 billion bailout plan, which requires energy-sector reform and the removal of utility subsidies. (Bloomberg, 02.06.17)
  • The International Monetary Fund is demanding that Ukraine raises the retirement age from 60 to 63 by 2027 to alleviate losses at the state pension fund, Social Minister Andriy Reva said in an interview. The government wants the thresholds to remain unchanged, instead seeking to widen the pool of contributors to eliminate the deficit—145 billion hryvnia ($5.4 billion) last year—by 2024, he said. (Bloomberg , 02.03.17)
  • Ukraine showed a 2 point improvement, from 27 to 29 out of 100 possible points, on the 2016 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, while the increased number of countries assessed caused Ukraine’s rank to decline to 131 out of 176 from 130 out of 168 a year ago, Transparency International Ukraine has reported on its website. (Kyiv Post, 01.25.17)