Without suggesting in any way that Ukraine’s civil war ever really stopped, because it never really did, it seems clear now that it’s back on in a big way. It’s one thing for the army and the Donbas rebels (and the Russians?) to still be struggling over control of the Donetsk Airport, but it’s quite something else for the rebels (Russians?) to be back on the offensive, as now appear to be in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol:
The key port city of Mariupol became the latest flash point of rapidly intensifying hostilities in eastern Ukraine on Saturday, as a barrage of rocket fire struck the area, killing dozens of civilians, and pro-Russian rebels announced a push toward the strategic coastal city that serves as Ukraine’s last bastion of control in the region.
The onslaught on Mariupol, which separates Russia from its newly annexed territory of Crimea, comes just a day after pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk rejected an existing cease-fire agreement and pledged to press their offensive all the way to the borders of the region.
Saturday’s shelling sparked a fresh wave of outrage in Kiev and among its allies, who blame the rebels and Russia for the bloody event and warned that if Moscow did not withdraw support for the separatists, the West would step up already punishing pressure against Russia.
Mariupol is the main port city in Ukraine’s east, so it’s a pretty desirable target for rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk who might be hoping to turn their breakaway republic into a viable statelet, or for Moscow, if it’s thinking about annexing Donbas one of these days. It’s also, as that WaPo piece says, a key point along the coast for anyone who might like to, say, connect their breakaway republic in eastern Ukraine with Crimea, or for a foreign power who might have recently annexed Crimea and would be interested in controlling the points where the peninsula connects to the mainland.
It’s an important place, in other words, and if there’s any hill that both Kiev and the rebels would be willing to die on, it’s probably Mariupol.
The head of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” Alexander Zakharchenko, is actually blaming Kiev for the rocket fire, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense except as some kind of “false flag” operation (doubtful) or out of sheer incompetence by the Ukrainian army (maybe, but still less likely than a rebel attack), and says that the rebels will not attack the city (not sure I’d take their word for it, to be honest, since Zakharchenko has talked openly in the recent past about launching an offensive against Mariupol). On the other hand, Kiev has unveiled another of its blessedly unverifiable, “trust us, this is really what we say it is” pieces of “evidence” to support the accusation of a rebel attack:
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s security service has published what it claims are intercepted audio messages between separatist rebels speaking about the Mariupol attack.
The authenticity of the messages has not been independently verified.
Anyway, the issue of “who shot first” probably isn’t going to matter much to the people trapped in Mariupol by the fighting that’s likely to really flare up there now. With no peace talks in sight, this war looks set to continue for some time to come.