Recent weeks have seen a dramatic escalation in the Ukrainian separatist conflict. Civilian deaths have increased substantially, and with the current separatist offensive gaining significant ground from government forces, the US is considering arming the Ukrainian military. However, such a move could provoke further escalation of the conflict, with an increase in US involvement risking more direct intervention by Moscow, and diminishing hopes of a negotiated truce by further worsening Russia-West relations.
Despite numerous attempts to enforce the ceasefire agreement reached in Minsk in September 2014, the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine is deteriorating. On 23 January, Alexander Zakharchenko – leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic – rejected any prospect of a truce, and the separatists’ unwillingness to enter negotiations forced the abandonment of peace talks in Belarus a week later. Kiev has echoed a separatist pledge to conduct a major recruitment drive, as separatist forces continue their assault on the city of Debaltseve. The city is strategically located between the separatist strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, and its fall would represent a major victory for the pro-Russia forces. The level of the separatists’ territorial ambitions was perhaps indicated by their brief attack on Mariupol on 24 January, a city which lies on the road to Russian-controlled Crimea. The UN has since warned of a potential humanitarian crisis, as the conflict zone threatens to spread over a region containing some 5.2 mn people.
Amid the repeated, failed attempts at reviving the ceasefire agreement, recent actions by the US and NATO have risked further destabilising the situation. In the past week, officials in Washington have stated that they are considering arming the Ukrainian military, broadening assistance to Kiev beyond non-lethal military aid. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich warned that this would result in “colossal damage” to Russian-US relations, and NATO’s announcement on 5 February of its greatest defensive reinforcements in Eastern Europe since the Cold War will further antagonise Moscow.
The extent to which the US is willing to follow through on its threat is questionable. Washington has sought to portray the threat as meaningful, and during his confirmation hearing in front of Congress, defence secretary-nominee Ashton Carter indicated that he would support the commencement of lethal aid. Three major US officials – Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and current Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel – have travelled to Europe to discuss the situation with Ukrainian and NATO officials, adding further credence to the threat. However, there are indications that Washington would lack support among many of its major European allies, with both France and Germany declaring their opposition to a plan to supply arms. In addition, any lethal support from the US would likely be matched and exceeded by Moscow, and the US would be unlikely to sustain the level of commitment required to offset Russia’s suspected provision of military aid to the separatists.
As noted by NATO commander General Philip Breedlove, an escalation of the conflict may provoke a strong response from Russia. This could come in the form of more direct intervention by Russian forces, who Moscow insists are currently involved on a small-scale and voluntary basis only. It may also impact on the US directly, through an increase in sanctions on US businesses operating in Russia, and a rise in Russian cyber attacks against US government offices and businesses. Such attacks have already increased in concurrence with the Western sanctions regime against Moscow, as exemplified by the major Russia-linked data breach at US bank JP Morgan Chase and nine other major financial institutions in the summer of 2014, regarded as one of the largest such breaches in history.
Given the lack of international support for the plan, along with the risk of escalating the conflict and exacerbating poor relations with Moscow, the prospect of the US arming Ukrainian troops remains low. The threat has, however, served to increase the urgency around finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict, with French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel travelling to Kiev on 5 February to launch a renewed attempt at a negotiated peace. Although details of the proposal have yet to be announced, Hollande has claimed that it is based on preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and that it may prove acceptable to all sides. The leaders are due to meet with President Putin on 6 February to discuss the deal.
Yet the experience of recent ceasefire attempts leaves the outlook of this latest effort pessimistic. President Poroshenko has steadfastly refused to countenance any proposal that threatens Kiev’s sovereignty over the separatist regions in the east, a position which is unacceptable to the separatists. Meanwhile, even if Russia can be persuaded to support the plan, indications among separatist forces suggest that they have little interest in ending their offensive at this time. As such, regardless of the US decision over supplying the Ukrainian military with arms, the conflict threatens to resume at its current intensified state. With Kiev and the separatists both augmenting their forces, there is a heightened risk that the conflict will expand, and the civilian death toll will continue to escalate.