Now, as the tenuous ceasefire observed over the holidays falls apart, the question is whether this latest violation of the Minsk ceasefire agreement is the beginning of a separatist offensive to claim more territory.
It certainly looks that way.
On January 13, the leaders of Donetsk People's Republic (DNR), one of the two breakaway pro-Russian enclaves in Ukraine's Donbass region, issued Ukrainian troops an ultimatum
to surrender Donetsk airport. Since then, the long standing derelict control tower, subject to months of shelling, has finally collapsed and with it any likelihood that this conflict will stay frozen over the winter. The assault triggered a Ukrainian counterattack, and erupted into a full scale conflagration.
Ukraine's defense ministry has said it has withdrawn from the main terminal
at Donetsk airport, but it is doubtful that separatist forces only have that in their sights anyway. After all, although the site holds symbolic value for both sides, it is a hulking ruin and of little strategic relevance. And the leader of DNR, Alexander Zakharchenko, has made clear he believes the borders of his breakaway republic should include the entire Donetsk region, which is double the current territory he controls. Such ambitions are not likely to be realized during the freezing cold of January, but separatist forces are now engaged in combat north of Luhansk and as far south as Mariupol.
It is difficult to see Russia's army sitting out on the sidelines as all this unfolds, leaving the stage set for another battle between Ukrainian and Russian regular forces as Ukraine's leadership and army are put to the test again. True, the separatist force barely numbers 25,000-30,000, and only a fraction of it is combat-capable.
But the timing of this latest operation is clearly aimed at fostering instability in Ukraine at a moment of economic weakness, rather than taking advantage of any newfound military opportunity. Ukraine's cash reserves fell to $7.5 billion in December
, while the political leadership is desperately awaiting a new tranche of funding from the IMF, without which Ukraine may soon go bankrupt.
Meanwhile, Ukraine faces an incredibly difficult year due to GDP contraction, inflation, currency devaluation, and anticipated fiscal austerity measures. Since much of its army depends on volunteer donations to survive in the field, prolonged fighting will create unbearable strain, on the people and the country. And despite Russia's economic woes, as well as the impact of Western sanctions, nothing seems to have visibly constrained Moscow's policies in Ukraine. In retrospect, it is clear Russia had no intention of starting this year with negotiations, rather than military action to change facts on the ground.
Russian leaders are for their part trapped in a dilemma of their own making. They are unable to secure Russian influence in Ukraine through the current agreement, in a manner that relieves sanctions, and satisfies separatist desires for a viable independent territory.
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko, of course also lacks domestic political support for a genuine compromise with Moscow, having created a coalition government with his political rival. However, it is Russia that struggles under sanctions and must find a way out of the current situation. And unfortunately, the only way out for Moscow seems to be war.
For Russia, the Minsk agreement is a dead end. The fact is that it should be for the United States as well. Making Russia stick to this agreement, despite its uselessness in achieving any path to settlement in the conflict, is a negotiating position that is unrealistic and has run its course. The pressure of sanctions is insufficient to coerce Russia away from using force, meaning that instead of a diplomatic victory, the West is witnessing Ukraine cede more territory to the separatists. Another defeat will shake its political system as well.
How should the West respond?
The U.S. has no good choices, only hard decisions to make. The first priority should be to negotiate a new ceasefire to end the bloodshed. If separatist goals are truly limited, it should not take long. Then, the Minsk agreement should be scrapped as a basis for settlement. That is far from Ukraine's first choice, but it is not in a position to expect best outcomes, especially when its army is in retreat.
Meanwhile, the West needs to work with Russian and Ukrainian leaders to come up with new terms. The framework will look similar to Minsk, but sanctions and economic woes have undoubtedly created strategic clarity in Moscow about the need for this conflict to end this year. Plus, the latest fighting will change Kiev's perspective as well.
If all this proves unsuccessful, then there is nothing to stop Western leaders from providing more weapons to Ukraine, or imposing new hardships on Russia. The latest fighting demonstrates the limits of what those policies might accomplish for Ukraine. Russia has not been brought to heel. It is time to try for a new peace settlement.