Clashes between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army have escalated in recent weeks, raising concerns among international observers. Russia says that it is pulling together troops for planned military exercises. Dmitry Peskov, presidential spokesman, noted that the movement of troops on the territory of the Russian Federation “should not worry anyone.” Ukraine is worried about the situation since it poses a threat to military security. Ukraine’s intelligence assures that Russia is preparing for actions that should provoke a military response from Ukraine on the line of collision in the Donbass. It is also possible that the Russian occupation forces might move deep into the territory of Ukraine.
German and French call for de-escalation
While Moscow has begun to actively move troops along the border with Ukraine under the pretext of exercises and training, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer expressed her doubts on the issue. As a result, she accused Russia of its aggressive behavior towards Ukraine in the last weeks.
Germany observes the situation in Donbass with deep concern. In one of the interviews, she said: “I have the impression that the Russian side is doing everything to provoke a reaction. And we, together with Ukraine, will not allow us to be drawn into this game. We are doing everything to avoid escalation.” Moreover, she added that she is thankful to Ukraine of showing restraint and behaving very reasonably so far.
Furthermore, she noted that since NATO is on Ukraine’s side, it seems Vladimir Putin is waiting for some action from Ukraine towards NATO, so that he can use it as a pretext for military intervention.
The Russian side rejected these allegations. Earlier, the Kremlin noted that de-escalation on the territory of Ukraine can occur only after Kiev refuses to act provocatively. For instance, Dmitry Peskov, presidential spokesman, said that the Ukrainian side is trying to present Russia as a party to the conflict; however, it is not true.
In addition, he argued that since the Ukrainian authorities believe that the internal problem could be solved by force, this puts Russia in a dangerous situation. As a result, according to Peskov, Russia must take measures to ensure its security. At the same time, he called the war in Donbass civil and added that Russia was not moving towards war with Ukraine and had never been a party to the conflict. On the other hand, Russia will not remain indifferent to the fate of Russian speaking citizens living in the southeast of the country.
Ukraine opposed these remarks and called on Russia to order troops in the Donbas to comply with the ceasefire. Moreover, Ukraine accused Moscow of obstructing the exchange of prisoners, as well as the withdrawal of troops.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Kiev is “always ready” to return to diplomatic conversation regarding the settlement of the situation in eastern Ukraine.
He added that since becoming head of state, he has done everything to intensify negotiations, to find a peaceful solution to conflict and calls on Russia to do the same.
Moreover, on April 16, Volodymyr Zelensky met in person with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel online. The leaders discussed Russia’s increasing assertiveness near the Ukrainian borders. The aim of the Kremlin was to instigate war panic to coerce Ukraine to comply with the 2015 Minsk “agreements” and push Berlin and Paris to approve this compliance through the quadripartite Normandy process.
It is interesting to note that Macron’s goal is to replace Merkel and become a key player in the Normandy process. As a result, he wants to become Russia’s main interlocutor in Europe. Before his visit to France, Zelensky successfully has set a stage for it. In one of the interviews, he claimed that Macron is the only leader who can “breathe new life into the Normandy process… Macron’s support is needed first and foremost.”
Nevertheless, it seems that French and German support of Ukraine is not as evident as it appears at the first glance. According to Andriy Yermak, President Zelenskyy’s top advisor, even though during Paris meeting no positions against Ukraine’s interests were expressed, the process continues on the basis of “Clusters” document, which favors Russia’s position more.
After a videoconference between the four Normandy leader, which was held on April 19th, the situation appeared even more confusing. The document “Key Clusters for Carrying Out the Minsk Agreements” was leaked to the Russian press mainly in order to push the Ukrainian side to react negatively and make Kiev look alienated in front of Berlin and Paris. In fact, the Franco-German document strictly sticks to the Russian-imposed Minsk-2 “agreement”, while altering the sequence of steps.
All in all, it appears that compared to 2014, Russia does not currently envision a full-scale war. Nevertheless, it is possible that Russia will use other forms of limited escalation to raise the stakes of the war in Ukraine. The first reason for doing this is that the escalation will provide an opportunity to change the terms of the legal dispute over the war in Donbas and will also serve as a pretext for Russia’s deployment of peacekeepers. The deployment of Russian troops will crush Ukrainian reserves, guarding the interior. Consequently, this situation will hamper Ukraine’s ability to respond to Russia.
It seems that the Russian Federation will try to push Ukraine to make concessions. The Kremlin demands Kiev comply with the Minsk agreements on its terms. In other words, it wants the separatist republic to be integrated into Ukraine, as it would give Russia a permanent veto on Kiev’s domestic and foreign policies. It was clear from the outset that Russia did not want to make any compromises in this regard.
However, it appears that Russia needs to reconsider its position, as neither Ukraine nor the West has ever said they would agree to Moscow’s terms. On the contrary, after a conversation between U.S. President Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, it became clear that Biden is on the side of Ukraine and its sovereignty is not for sale.
The United States has become much more active in contacting Kiev, as the situation in Donbass has worsened. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken have already had a phone conversation. Moreover, during the conversation between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Taran, they once again assured that the United States would not leave Ukraine alone in the event of an escalation of the conflict with Russia. The phone conversation of the heads of states also took place during the aggravation of the situation in eastern Ukraine.
During the conversation, Biden stressed the U.S. support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine in the confrontation with Russia in the Donbass and Crimea.
Moreover, after the recent aggravation of the situation in Donbas and the build-up of Russian troops near the borders, on April 1, the NATO ambassadors met and discussed the issue. NATO officials noted that Moscow is undermining efforts in order to de-escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine. At the same time, the European Union considers Russia’s flexing its muscles as testing the new US president in Ukraine. One anonymous EU diplomat notes that this is a common tactic used by Russia – to disperse and smooth over the conflict in order to destabilize the situation and show that Russia is a key player.
In Lieu of a Conclusion
Recent events in and around Ukraine indicated that the U.S. had been more direct in signaling its grievances against Russia’s assertiveness than its European partners. This can be mainly explained by two factors. First of all, the United States is located in a more “advantageous” location. Ukraine is on the border with Europe; thus, in the event of a complete escalation of the war, Ukraine will first of all turn to Europe. Hence, Europe will be the one that would need to deal with the serious consequences of the war, such as migration.
Moreover, it appears that Germany and France are playing a double game. It can be understood from their speeches that they fully support Ukraine and will help it in the event of a full-scale war. Nevertheless, their actions suggest otherwise.
In addition, Macron is trying to pursue his own interests, mainly by becoming a key European player in negotiations with Russia. As a result, the question of Ukraine becomes secondary.