At a time when the U.S. and Russia are holding talks about the status of Ukraine, the government in Kiev is raising alarm about increased fighting in eastern Ukraine and Russian moves to deploy troops and create “provocations.” While Ukraine’s authorities are generally accurate in describing spikes in ceasefire violations, statements regarding Russia’s intentions in the region are likely designed to influence the ongoing negotiations between Russia and the West.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate has announced that in the Donetsk region, Russia is redeploying special-purpose troops and military hardware prohibited by the Minsk agreements. Moreover, on Nov. 12, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Presidential Administration claimed that Russia is preparing a “provocation of the international scale against Ukraine.” At the same time, Ukrainian authorities reported that on the night of Sept.16, Russian-backed rebels used mortars, grenade launchers, anti-aircraft systems and small arms to fire on areas throughout the Donetsk region, including Ukrainian positions near the city of Mariupol. Ukrainian troops have said that professional Russian forces attempted to surround and destroy their positions in Shyrokyne, east of Mariupol, and that the militants have moved their own positions one kilometer closer to the Ukrainians. Ukrainian forces also reported Russian reconnaissance activities in the area. Significantly, Ukrainian officials said that separatist forces fired multiple-launch rocket systems twice, a rare occurrence following the onset of the ceasefire in September.
Despite some low-level violence, September and October were quiet months along the frontlines in eastern Ukraine, with relatively low casualty rates compared to previous months. Nevertheless, since Oct. 31, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s observers on the ground in Donbass have noted a relative increase in attacks, especially in the Donetsk region. During the first week of November, the observers reported a spike in fire exchanges near the Donetsk airport, matching Ukrainian reports of shelling using small arms and automatic grenade launchers in the Donetsk city area. Two weeks later, Ukrainian authorities reported growing casualty rates, as observers said attacks increased throughout the Donetsk region. At the same time, the international observers also reported an increase in the use of heavy weapons since the beginning of November.
While there is increased activity along the frontlines in eastern Ukraine, there are no indications yet that Russian-backed rebels, or Russian troops, are moving to seize significant territories not currently under their control. Throughout the conflict, shifts in the intensity of fighting on the ground have often been used as political tools to shape negotiations. The spike in shelling and casualties is prompting Kiev to attempt to shape the ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and Russia. With the world’s attention turned to Syria, Ukrainian decision-makers are likely worried about U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria and how U.S. interests in the Middle East may compel Washington to compromise with Russia over Ukraine. Russia’s goal is to make Ukraine, at the very least, a neutral buffer zone. Russian moves to help the U.S. achieve its goals in Syria could prompt the Americans to accept some of Moscow’s demands in Ukraine.