A new troop build-up of at least 1000 Russian troops near the Ukrainian border has sparked fears of escalated violence in Eastern Ukraine. Daily fighting has already cost at least 360 lives, and devastated the relations between Russia and the West.
Is there any end in sight?
At the end of last month, Vladimir Putin informed Angela Merkel of Germany that he would partially withdraw troops. During a phone call, the two agreed to cooperate to bring stability to the region.
Likewise, new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko promised to halt his army’s current push against the pro-Russian insurgents. A proposition that Moscow seemed to endorse.
It was a promising two weeks, but it’s gone now.
The new troop build-up might destroy that small but significant progress.
“I consider this [troop build-up] a very regrettable step backwards,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated. “It seems that Russia keeps the option open to intervene further into Ukraine.”
Poroshenko most likely provoked the troop build-up by promising to sign a trade-pact with the EU on June 27. At the very least the vow irritated Kremlin, which has fought tooth and nail to prevent the trade deal.
Poroshenko has also appointed pro-western officials into his government, such as making Pavlo Klimkin, who led the EU trade negotiations, foreign minister. He is now conducting closed door negotiations with Russian officials.
Who was “winning” in Eastern Ukraine before the troop build-up?
In a recently published YouTube video, a rebel leader said that pro-Russian forces have been overrun. The man seemed to try to persuade the Russian government to send in more help.
A top rebel commander, Igor Strelkov, said they’ve sustained heavy losses. Strelkov told Reuters, “We beat off the first attack and destroyed one tank. But it is difficult to take on 20 tanks. The battle is going on.”
Despite the overwhelming Ukrainian force, insurgents have ignored ultimatums to lay down their arms in exchange for amnesty.
The troop build-up may reverse Ukraine’s winning streak. It could also force Poroshenko to break his promise to unilaterally end the fighting.
And what about the aircraft interceptions, the competing war games, and natural gas disputes?
This troop build-up is just another in a long list of events that have eroded the Kremlin’s relationship with the Ukraine and the rest of the world. The recent events are discouraging at best.
It all comes down to the EU trade pact.
When Viktor Yanukovych, the former President of Ukraine, rejected an EU association agreement, the people rioted. They threw out Yanukovych and sent a clear message: “We want to be part of the Western democratic world.” Russia got angry.
But even after the initial troop build-up, aircraft encounters, annexing Crimea, and fighting Russian insurgent forces in the East; the Ukraine is still signing an EU treaty.
What will happen before the 27, when Poroshenko signs the paper, is anyone’s guess.