Ukraine reminds everybody that it’s still there and still at war

Map of the situation in the Donbas, current as of mid-January (Wikimedia | Marktaff and ZomBear)

Per Vox’s Zach Beauchamp, it looks as though violence is back on the rise in eastern Ukraine:

The resumption of hostilities in Ukraine, with exchanges of machine gun and mortar fire across the front line up to levels not seen since last summer, suggests a willingness by Russia, which supports the rebels in eastern Ukraine, to sustain two conflicts at once. In late September, Russia began airstrikes in Syria on behalf of the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

A cease-fire took hold here in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and the government on Sept. 1, which was apparently coordinated with Russia’s military deployment in Syria.

But that truce is now unraveling, and Maryinka has become one of the new hot spots.

“A week ago, we had shelling every two to three days, and mostly at night,” Lt. Col. Mikhailo M. Prokopiv, the commander of Ukrainian Army troops in this town, said in an interview on Sunday while touring the front line. “Now, not a day goes by when we don’t fight.”

So far the fighting hasn’t escalated past small arms and mortars, but it’s not too hard to envision a scenario where heavy artillery re-enters the picture.

Ukraine was supposed to be on the path to a genuine political settlement by now. Under the terms of the Minsk II, by the end of last year Ukraine was supposed to have reabsorbed the breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk under terms that would give them considerable autonomy. But Kiev still hasn’t taken action on the constitutional changes necessary to provide for that provincial autonomy, and there has been absolutely no indication from rebel leaders that they would be willing to accept a restoration of Ukrainian authority, autonomy or not. Russia’s attentions have obviously been on Syria for the past several months, and Beauchamp argues that it’s possible that this latest spurt of fighting could be Russia’s deliberate attempt to keep things in eastern Ukraine frozen in instability for the time being.

If that’s what Moscow is doing (assuming that Moscow is even behind the new violence), then honestly they may be on to something. If (a big if, but still) Russia and the US are able to collaborate on winding down the war in Syria and ramping up the focus on fighting ISIS, Moscow may figure that the Obama administration will lose its stomach for imposing new sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. But it also looks like Ukraine is heading for another period of general political chaos that could seriously weaken Kiev’s ability to cope with the situation in the Donbas:

And in the capital, Kiev, Ukrainian politicians face a growing backlash over an economy in shambles and widespread cronyism it had pledged to eradicate when parliament voted on Feb. 22, 2014, to oust Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. Parliament’s actions were backed by mass demonstrations on Maidan square in Kiev, where Yanukovych’s troops shot and killed many protesters.

While the conflict in the east saps energy and costs lives, what’s at stake in Ukraine’s faltering struggle with corruption is the support of its European allies and full integration with the West, Germany’s ambassador to the United States, Peter Wittig, warned.

The “fight against corruption should be a top priority of the Ukrainian leadership,” Wittig told USA TODAY.  “If Ukraine doesn’t modernize and reform its economy, if corruption is not tackled, European and Western investors will not go to Ukraine. Nobody goes to a country where there is a risk of becoming entangled in structures that are not based on the rule of law.”

Some of this public anger has targeted Russian banks operating in Ukraine–three Russian bank branches in Kiev were attacked over the weekend by right-wing Ukrainian nationalist mobs. But it may be that Russia wants to block a settlement in the east because instability there contributes to the possible collapse of the Petro Poroshenko/Arseniy Yatsenyuk-led government over massive ongoing corruption. The destabilization of Ukrainian politics makes it tougher for the EU and US to keep backing Kiev, and if something really drastic happens like snap elections or even a new series of massive protests leading to another coup, then Russian proxies in the east might be able to use the chaos to shore up their position.

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