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Has Ukraine Become the 'World War III Powder Keg'?

The cease-fire in Ukraine is threatening to unravel, and could lead to a more widespread conflict, given current tensions between Russia, Europe and the U.S. (Reuters photo)
The shaky cease-fire in eastern Ukraine has reached a "tipping point," a high-level Ukrainian government official says.

The official's comments underscore how geopolitical events—from the war in Syria to the rise of nationalist parties across Europe—have tested international resolve to maintain sanctions on Russia.

"There is no alternative" to the current cease-fire, the official said during a closed-door meeting Wednesday in Kyiv with a small group of foreign journalists, including one for The Daily Signal. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to diplomatic concerns.

"The conflict in the Donbas could be resolved very easily," the official said, referring to Ukraine's embattled southeastern region on the border with Russia. "It's up to Russia ... but you can't be so naïve to think that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will relinquish control of the Donbas. He wants to show that Ukraine is a failed state."

The conflict in Ukraine is moderated in its intensity by a cease-fire named "Minsk II," struck in February 2015 by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany, as well as representatives from the two breakaway separatist territories in eastern Ukraine.

Russia has been a party to the cease-fire's inception and implementation, even though the Kremlin insists Russian troops are not involved in combat operations in Ukraine.

Ukrainian diplomats and lawmakers increasingly are worried that European and American allies will prioritize Russian cooperation in Syria over resolving the conflict in Ukraine.

Kyiv also is concerned about the future of U.S. policy toward Ukraine and NATO after the presidential election, as well as the rise of nationalist parties across Europe—often funded by Moscow and having pro-Russian leanings.

"We are concerned that there is no unity inside the EU," the Ukrainian official said of the European Union, adding that Ukraine's partners need to show "patience and persistence" to deter Russia.

"The American side is trying to get a deal done with Russia before [President Barack] Obama leaves office," the Ukrainian official said. "And next year there could be a completely new Europe. It's a key issue for us to maintain the sanctions policy. Sanctions are bringing results. An aggressor country must feel the price for the brutal violation of international law."

The prospects for Ukraine aren't good, based on past moves by the Obama administration beginning with the U.S. policy "reset" with Russia in 2009, one expert says.

"Ukraine will be sold out in the same way Poland and the Czech Republic were sold out to Russia regarding missile defense ahead of the reset, and in the same way Gulf states were sold out ahead of the Iran [nuclear] deal," Luke Coffey, director of The Heritage Foundation's foreign policy center, told The Daily Signal.

"We never learn," Coffey said.


The French presidency will be up for grabs in an election next year, as will Germany's chancellorship. In both countries, far-right parties with pro-Russian leanings have gained ground.

Kyiv is worried that inconsistent messages from EU countries have dissuaded the Kremlin from negotiating over Ukraine.

In 2014, German Chancellor Angela Merkel united EU leaders to put sanctions on Russia after it annexed Crimea. The German leader has remained a staunch advocate of maintaining economic pressure on the Kremlin.

In June, however, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier advocated phasing out the EU sanctions.

France also has shown cracks in its Russian policy.

On July 28, a delegation of 11 French lawmakers and senators visited Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in March 2014, to take part in Russian Navy Day celebrations in Sevastopol.

Marcel Van Herpen, director of the Cicero Foundation, a Dutch think tank, said Russia is using the Ukrainian cease-fire as "a diplomatic tool to further its own revisionist goals."

"If it's no longer considered useful, Moscow will quit the negotiating table," Van Herpen told The Daily Signal. "Moscow has all the trump cards in its hands and Kyiv can only try to convince the Western powers of Moscow's bad faith."

The EU extended and expanded the sanctions due to Russia's ongoing efforts to destabilize Ukraine.

U.S., Norway, Switzerland, Japan, Canada, and Australia are among other countries that also put sanctions on Russia after its military actions in Ukraine.

Russia is the EU's third-largest trading partner, representing 8.4 percent of total trade before the sanctions went into effect in 2014. The EU is Russia's No. 1 trading partner.

France took a hard hit when it had to cancel the sale of two Mistral warships to Russia in 2014, losing more than 1 billion euros. France ultimately sold the ships to Egypt.

Overall, the EU suffered a 0.4 percent drop in gross domestic product in 2015 (about 50 billion euros) under the Russian sanctions, according to the European Commission. Analysts anticipate a long-term GDP drop of 0.8 percent if sanctions remain in place.

Europe's agricultural sector was among the hardest hit by the sanctions. The European Parliament estimates the European agricultural industry will lose about $6.7 billion and 130,000 jobs.

Overall, the EU stands to lose about 1 million jobs in the short term, and about 2.2 million jobs if sanctions remain in place for several more years.

As far-right parties, including France's Moscow-financed National Front, gain popularity, EU leaders are under mounting populist pressure to improve relations with Moscow.

The Bigger Threat

The resolve of some EU member states to maintain a hard line against Moscow was bolstered by a recent international investigation that concluded the surface-to-air missile that downed a Malaysia Airlines jumbo jet over eastern Ukraine in 2014 was Russian and was manned by a Russian military crew.

"Although Hungary, Greece, Italy and German social Democrats are pressing for an end of the sanctions, there are countervailing tendencies, also," Van Herpen said.

"One of these is the recent Dutch-led JIT [Joint Investigation Team] report on the downing of the MH17," he said, referring to the Malaysian flight. "This has strengthened the group, which wants to keep the sanctions in place. Not only the Netherlands, but also Belgium, Germany, Poland, and the Nordic and Baltic countries."

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Merkel was considering fresh EU sanctions on Russia for bombing the Syrian city of Aleppo. The U.S. has said Russia may have committed war crimes by deliberately attacking civilian targets in Aleppo, including hospitals.

EU leaders are in a pickle. They desperately need to resolve the Syrian war to prevent another wave of refugees from flooding into Europe. Yet, the tools EU leaders have available to pressure Moscow in Syria are limited by populist pressure across the Continent to walk back the sanctions on Russia over Ukraine.

With limited political capital left with which to punish Moscow, the ultimate question for EU leaders, therefore, is whether the conflict in Ukraine or Syria poses the greatest existential threat to European peace and stability.

In the long run, Van Herpen said, Ukraine is the bigger threat.

"Syria is a local civil war, which certainly has regional consequences—refugees, terrorism—but is a conflict of a completely different kind," Van Herpen said, adding:

Although this conflict will continue to fester, it will mainly remain local. So Ukraine is the biggest threat for Europe ... because of the attempts by the Kremlin to hollow out the European Union and to drive a wedge between Europe and the U.S.

Red Lines

There are several "red lines" on which Ukraine will not back down for the sake of making Minsk II work, officials in Kyiv say.

Those red lines include Ukrainian control over its border in the Donbas region, the removal of all foreign troops from Ukrainian sovereign territory and the security of elections in the separatist territories.

Kyiv also is demanding return of all Ukrainian prisoners of war held in separatist territory, and of political prisoners held by Russia.

Currently, Ukrainian and Red Cross officials estimate about 250 to 280 Ukrainian soldiers are held as prisoners in the two separatist territories. Ukraine has identified 11 of its citizens held in Russia as political prisoners.

Kyiv is concerned about being excluded from some negotiations by EU and U.S. leaders with Russia—such as discussions that occurred on the sidelines of September's G20 meeting in China—and being forced to give in on some of its red lines.

Sanctions related to Russia's annexation of Crimea are separate from sanctions related to the ongoing conflict in the Donbas. The EU conceivably could let up pressure on Moscow over Crimea while maintaining sanctions related to the war in the Donbas.

Some experts say, however, that the collapse of U.S.-Russian negotiations over Syria have left U.S. officials with little confidence in, and appetite for, any grand bargains with Moscow.

"Russia's breaking of the last cease-fire has depleted the last ounce of trust which still existed in the U.S.," Van Herpen said. "New negotiations between [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov and [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry seem to be senseless."

Kyiv is not under pressure "today or tomorrow" to make unfavorable concessions to Russia to secure peace in the Donbas, the Ukrainian official said. However, international unity to maintain sanctions on Russia appears to be waning.

"We are worried about EU silence about human rights violations in Crimea," the official said.

"Sanctions related to Russia's occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea will remain in place until Russia returns the peninsula to Ukraine," Daniel Baer, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Sept. 7.

Baer added: "We join the European Union in recalling that sanctions imposed on Russia for its aggression in eastern Ukraine will also remain in place until Russia fully implements its Minsk commitments."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, is the multinational body charged with monitoring the cease-fire in Ukraine.

Eastern Promises

The terms of the Minsk II cease-fire are broken down into two general categories.

First, Kyiv is supposed to implement a series of political reforms, including a constitutional amendment to decentralize federal power. Ukraine also is supposed to grant amnesty for separatist fighters, and bring the breakaway territories back into the political fold through elections.

The cease-fire's second tranche of rules is designed to reduce the intensity of the conflict.

Some key points include withdrawal of all foreign soldiers from Ukrainian territory, re-establishing Ukrainian control over the border with Russia in the Donbas, and the unimpeded access of OSCE monitors to all of the conflict areas.

Rules also require both sides of the conflict to pull back heavy weapons a prescribed distance from the contact line.

Kyiv acknowledges it still has work to do on political components of the Minsk deal. Yet, Ukrainian officials claim they are making a good faith effort to implement the required changes.

Ukrainian government officials contrasted their efforts to accomplish the required political reforms against Russia's continued military support for separatist forces.

The Russian Hand

U.S. and Ukrainian officials say Russia incited the outbreak of the conflict in early 2014 with subversive espionage and special operations actions.

Russia's covert campaign exploited years of propaganda in eastern Ukraine, which deftly took advantage of memories of the Nazi invasion in World War II and conspiratorial anxieties about the CIA, which were part and parcel of Soviet propaganda during the Cold War.

When protesters in Kyiv overthrew former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was pro-Russian, in February 2014, Russian media quickly painted the revolution as a CIA-sponsored coup that put in place a neo-Nazi government.

Russian media also have portrayed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine as mainly working-class people armed with confiscated Ukrainian military hardware. Yet, the prolific use of heavy artillery, armor, drones, signals jamming, and surface-to-air missiles suggest the overt presence of the Russian military in the conflict.

According to NATO and Ukraine, combined Russian-separatist forces in the Donbas currently possess about 700 tanks—more than Germany's armed forces.

Numerous independent news reports and investigations have proven Russian troops have been fighting in the Donbas, and that separatist forces are supplied, trained and commanded by Russia.

"Despite efforts by combined Russian-separatist forces to blind the SMM [OSCE Special Monitoring Mission] and disguise the flow of personnel and weapons from Russia into Ukraine, monitors continue to document clear evidence of Russia's direct role in sustaining the conflict," Baer said at a Sept. 8 meeting of the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna.

Cease-Fire Violations

Twenty months after the February 2015 cease-fire went into effect, shelling and small arms attacks remain daily occurrences along the front lines in eastern Ukraine. So do military and civilian casualties on both sides of the conflict.

About 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have died, along with an unknown number of pro-Russian separatists and Russian regulars.

As of Sunday, 174 Ukrainian troops have died in combat in 2016.

On Saturday, the Ukrainian military said combined Russian-separatist forces had violated the cease-fire 38 times during the past 24 hours, including the use of 120 mm and 82 mm mortars, grenade launchers, machine guns, and small arms. Four Ukrainian soldiers were wounded. One Ukrainian soldier died during the weekend after tripping a landmine.

OSCE monitors have tallied more than 12,000 "cease-fire violations" so far this year.

Cease-fire violations typically comprise attacks with weapons banned from the front lines, including large-caliber mortars and artillery, tanks and rockets. Small arms attacks are also considered to be violations.

The monitors can identify cease-fire violations through direct observation or by hearing the sounds of explosions or small arms fire. Each shot fired is not a distinct violation. Sometimes a single cease-fire violation comprises dozens of separate attacks.

On Aug. 4, for example, the OSCE logged one violation after hearing 100 undetermined explosions about 4 to 6 kilometers (2.5 to about 4 miles) from the Donetsk central railway station.

On Saturday, Ukrainian and separatist forces carried out a symbolic pullback of troops at two places along the front lines.

Speaking in Kyiv several days beforehand, the Ukrainian official downplayed the importance of the plan, which created a 2-kilometer-wide (1.25 miles) "disengagement area" between Ukrainian and combined Russian-separatist forces.

The official called the troop pullback a "pilot project," and said it represented "0.05 percent" of what is required for a lasting peace.

Critics say a 2-kilometer buffer is useless. Mortars used in the conflict have ranges up to about 7.25 kilometers. And other weapons sometimes used in the conflict, such as Grad, Uragan and Smerch rockets, have far greater ranges.

The war also has been a humanitarian disaster, displacing about 1.7 million people who are now refugees inside Ukraine, or "internally displaced persons" in U.N. parlance.

With the war's third winter approaching, the situation for civilians trapped in the conflict zone is critical.

In rural communities in the Donbas, it is not uncommon for people to grow their own food. Consequently, as winter approaches and gardens go barren, and with normal supply chains cut off due to the conflict, food shortages are a major concern.

'Pilot Project'

Opinions vary widely about Putin's strategic objectives. Whether he is trying to rebuild the Soviet Union, for example, or is pushing back against NATO's western expansion.

Some claim Putin considers himself to be a historic figure destined to reunite Kyivan Rus peoples. Others have a more cynical take on the Russian president, claiming his military adventures are simply domestic propaganda fodder to maintain his grip on power.

Whatever Putin's ultimate aims, his vision has translated into an interconnected web of military action in Ukraine and Syria.

"Russia connects all of these things—Syria, Ukraine, Georgia—in a way we fail to," Heritage's Coffey said. "Russia knows it can build up political capital in one place, like Syria, to spend in another, like Ukraine."

The Ukrainian official said Moscow's intent is to maintain "controlled escalation" in the Donbas as part of a larger strategy to destabilize Ukraine and bring the country back into Moscow's orbit.

"By being successful in economics and with anti-corruption [initiatives], we can deter Russia," the official said. "We need to be successful in internal reforms. We must rely on ourselves."

The Cicero Foundation's Van Herpen says Ukraine must exercise patience.

"Walking away from Minsk is no option for Kyiv," Van Herpen said. "So, the only solution for Kyiv is to wait out the conflict, manage the Western powers, strengthen its defense, and hope that a change will take place inside Russia."

Nolan Peterson is a former special operations pilot and a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and is The Daily Signal's foreign correspondent based in Ukraine.

This article was originally published at Used with permission.

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