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Families struggle in war-torn Eastern Ukraine
02:29 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw is a writer and development professional who has worked on emergencies on several continents, most recently as a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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Michael Bociurkiw: Contradictory messages by White House could ignite fuse in conflict

Ukraine needs to hear from guarantors of Western order won't be left alone, he says

CNN  — 

When Nikki Haley delivered her maiden speech before the UN Security Council last week, a collective dropping of jaws might have been heard both in European capitals and in the offices of multilateral institutions such as NATO.

“The dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions,” the new US ambassador to the United Nations said.

” … The United States stands with the people of Ukraine who have suffered for nearly three years under Russian occupation and military intervention. Until Russia and the separatists it supports respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territory integrity this crisis will continue.”

Haley went on to say that the US Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine. The statement came as a horrific spike in violence was taking place in eastern Ukraine, killing dozens and bringing more than 11,000 explosions in one day alone along the front line, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Haley’s tough talk could have come straight out of the Obama administration playbook. But whether the harsh tongue-lashing against Russia reflected the views of the newest occupant of the White House is not entirely clear.

Indeed, fast-forward to Sunday and Vice President Mike Pence was telling George Stephanopoulos in an interview that aired on ABC’s “This Week” that the Trump administration will decide in the coming months whether to lift sanctions against Russia in return for joint action against ISIS and international terrorism.

The diplomatic mixed signals could not have happened at a worse time and have left Ukrainian diplomats scrambling for more clarification from the Trump White House.

In Kiev, the feeling is that Russian sanctions are the only remaining hammer left in an increasingly ineffective diplomatic toolbox. And should Washington withdraw support for sanctions, it could very well trigger a chain reaction, whereby European Union states such as Italy and Greece follow suit.

There are already hints that the Trump administration will lift sanctions, but in a step-by-step process. As violence began to flare in eastern Ukraine, the White House announced it is loosening sanctions imposed by Barack Obama on Russia’s Federal Security Service. Could the next step be a reversal of the expulsion of Russian diplomats ordered by Obama in the last days of his presidency?

A local resident walks past Red Cross employees installing billboards reading "Danger! Mines! Do not leave the road!" near the Ukrainian village of Berezove, Donetsk region on March 28, 2016.
On the ground in Ukraine, as violence increases
02:28 - Source: CNN

Whatever future action taken by the White House, one thing is abundantly clear: Tensions along the front line in eastern Ukraine have never been higher, and the prospect for a full-blown escalation is real. Both sides have moved plenty of heavy weaponry out of storage and in close proximity to each other. Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, proscribed by the Minsk agreement, are also back in action. The human toll is almost incalculable: Several dozen deaths in the past days have brought the total death toll since the conflict began in 2014 close to 10,000.

Most of the action has taken place in the flashpoint industrial city of Avdiivka, home to about 20,000 people and the location of a coke and chemical plant that not only provides heating to the surrounding community but also the raw material for Ukraine’s vital steel industry. Alexander Hug, the Deputy Chief Monitor of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said that continued shelling, especially at the coke plant, could trigger a humanitarian and ecological disaster. Also worrisome is that fighting has resumed in previously quiet areas, including those close to the strategic port city of Mariupol.

Though the Ukrainian side is far more battle-ready than when the conflict first began, there are real fears the rebel side is positioning to take more ground.

After the humiliating fall of Debaltseve, it is unlikely that Kiev will ignore increasing belligerence from the rebel side. If sanctions are lifted, they will likely have no choice but to move toward escalation. This could also lead to anxious and unpredictable actions on the part of Kiev.

The clear signal I picked up during a recent visit to Ukraine is that its people are feeling increasingly abandoned and can no longer rely on traditional, international security guarantees. As Ukrainian parliamentarian Nataliya Katser-Buchkovska says, Ukraine needs to hear from the “guarantors of the Western order” that it will not be left alone in its battle against outside aggressors.

Few people would disagree that the Minsk agreements have had little impact in bringing peace to the battle-weary people of eastern Ukraine. But they are the only markers, signed by all sides, that set standards of behavior in a conflict that has displaced about 3 million and could force many thousands more to flee.

Contradictory messages by the White House on Russia could ignite the fuse that pushes this grinding conflict beyond the point of no return.