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Flurry Of Claims Spells Trouble For What's Left Of Ukraine Cease-Fire Regime

Pro-Russian separatists withdraw tanks from the front line in the Luhansk region in October -- have they since returned, as some reports suggest?
Pro-Russian separatists withdraw tanks from the front line in the Luhansk region in October -- have they since returned, as some reports suggest?

Far from international front pages, the situation in eastern Ukraine is once again on the verge of open warfare.

While the situation around Donetsk, the capital of the Russian-backed fighters, has remained strained since the announcement of the newest cease-fire in September, with sporadic small-arms fire reported almost daily, it has deteriorated significantly in the last two weeks. In the first month of the cease-fire regime, both sides were reporting calm, even playing down attacks that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was reporting; but the Russian-backed separatists in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) are now reporting more and more Ukrainian attacks, often alleging use of heavy weaponry. Meanwhile the Ukrainian military is now reporting attacks numbering in the realm of what was last seen in August during a period of particularly intense fighting.

On November 9, the Ukrainian military claims, Russian-backed fighters conducted 52 attacks, with more reported the next day. By noon on November 11, a Ukrainian military spokesman announced that one soldier had been killed and five wounded over the previous 24 hours.

Notably, the fighting is not limited to the Donetsk area now. Several other key flashpoints have seen attacks over the last week, including the lines near the separatist-held town of Horlivka, the Luhansk town of Schastye, and Shyrokyne, on the Azov coast. Early on November 11, the Ukrainian military reported fighting across a large span of territory -- nearly the entire front from the Russian border east of Luhansk to the Azov Sea near Mariupol.

Russia appears to be bringing tanks back to the fore, with the Ukrainian General Staff claiming early on November 10 to have spotted 20 in the center of Donetsk and another four deployed near the front to the west of the city. Later that day, marines in Shyrokyne told a television news crew that enemy tanks had been deployed to the edge of the village as Russian-backed fighters shelled their positions.

The Ukrainians reported on November 10 that 120-millimeter mortars, heavy weapons that should have been withdrawn in accordance with the Minsk agreements, were used to shell the town of Popasna, in the Luhansk region, and a nearby village. Kyiv also reports an increasing number of attacks from BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles and SPG-9 recoilless rifles.

Late on November 10, the military claims, Russian-backed fighters twice attempted to break through the Ukrainian lines outside Novozvanivka, a village just south of Popasna. According to Kyiv, the attackers suffered several casualties, including fatalities.

Combat was also reported near Starohnativka, a village that saw some of the heaviest fighting of this summer. One Ukrainian soldier was reported to have been wounded after a skirmish with small arms and grenade launchers.

Meanwhile, the separatists have made multiple claims over the last week that the Ukrainian Army has used Grad rockets to bombard western suburbs of Donetsk. These weapons are usually the harbingers of an offensive period, with their last major use by Russian-backed forces reported in August, during heavy fighting in the south of the Donetsk region.

The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) has confirmed finding evidence of two separate Grad impacts, several days apart, in the separatist-held Donetsk suburb of Staromykhaylivka and in the Kuybyshev district of the city. According to the SMM, both rockets appear to have come from the northwest, that is to say Ukrainian-held territory.

However, while only impacts from two rockets have been found, a DNR military spokesman claimed last week that three whole salvoes from Grad MLRS had been fired into Staromykhaylivka. Such a heavy barrage would surely leave greater traces. One theory raised is that these rockets are being fired from Grad-P portable, single-tube launchers, perhaps even by Russian or separatist diversionary forces.

The separatists also claim that Ukrainian troops went on the offensive early on November 10 attempting to break through the front line near Debaltseve, a city captured by Russian troops in February this year. Kyiv has denied these claims.

But the Ukrainian Novosti Donbassa website did report on November 9 that a military official had confirmed that Ukrainian troops had taken new ground in the village of Zaytseve, just outside Horlivka, over the weekend. Russian news reports have also reported that "unidentified soldiers" took control of the same area. The situation therefore can be described as dynamic.

A Dirty Word

Regardless of who is prosecuting it, fighting is definitely taking place on a daily basis in Donetsk, with dozens of reports every evening from residents on social media.

Unfortunately, this is part of a predictable pattern.

"Cease-fire" has been a dirty word in Ukraine since September 2014's Minsk agreement was nearly immediately broken by Russian soldiers and their proxies. The agreement, signed at the point of the Kremlin's guns following Russia's outright invasion in August, was signed by France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia, and was supposed to be a road map for permanent peace. However, the fighting never stopped, Russia never stopped supplying new weapons, and Russia and its proxies were soon launching offensives to capture new territory around Donetsk, the largest and most important city controlled by the Russian-backed militants.

In February, just days before Russian troops stormed and captured the strategically important town of Debaltseve, Minsk II was signed, a new cease-fire that netted similar results. In the months that followed, Russian troops built new forward-operating bases just behind the front lines, and tanks and heavy artillery regularly moved through areas where such weapons were banned under the cease-fire agreements.

A False Dawn?

The cease-fire that started in September, however, has been different. For the most part, fighting has been far more sporadic and far smaller in scale, and both Moscow and the Russian-backed separatists have been far more cooperative with efforts to restore some sense of normalcy in the Donbas. Why the sudden change? Some suspected that Putin was trying to appear like the peacemaker in advance of his visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. Soon, as the Russian military began to bomb primarily U.S.-backed rebels in northern Syria, others argued that Putin was shifting gears from Ukraine to Syria. The OSCE, for its part, has consistently warned that Russian military support for the separatists was increasing, despite the cease-fire, and OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier even added that "you should really ask the Russians why they are suddenly becoming more cooperative" with efforts to bring about peace in eastern Ukraine.

The escalation in claims made by both Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists bodes ill for the future of what little is left of the cease-fire regime, as either the Ukrainian military and the separatists are going at each other full-pelt already or Russian-backed fighters, already mounting an ever-climbing number of attacks, are inventing stories to justify a renewed offensive.

We can only speculate as to why the situation is once again deteriorating. In the last two weeks, Ukraine has complained of more cease-fire violations. The use of Grad rockets on behalf of the Ukrainian military, then, could be a direct response to this growing threat. The Russian-backed fighters, on the other hand, claim that Ukraine has been the aggressor. The fog of war makes it hard to sort who is telling the truth in this instance, and it is clear to some longtime observers of this crisis that both sides have tried to downplay violence since the newest cease-fire took place in September.

One key problem -- a cease-fire was always only the beginning of the peace process in Ukraine, yet the rest of the process has always taken a back seat. All of the agreements between Ukraine and Russia, going all the way back to Minsk I, which was signed 14 months ago, all have the same core conditions: the holding of local elections under Ukrainian law, the release of political prisoners, and the return of the control of the borders to Ukraine being three key elements. So far, none of those conditions has been met, and the return of the borders to Ukraine while Russian combat troops are still operating on Ukrainian soil is nearly impossible to envision. As long as the other conditions of the Minsk agreements go unfulfilled, the cease-fire will always be a fragile success balanced on the verge of the precipice of open warfare in Eastern Europe.

James Miller @Millermena and Pierre Vaux @pierrevaux are analysts with The Interpreter online journal

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