August 14, 2015

Russian-backed attacks escalate as widened sanctions take effect

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KYIV – The war being waged by the Russian Federation against the Ukrainian state reached a new phase on August 10 when Russian-backed terrorists intensified their attacks on towns in the Donetsk region where Ukrainian military forces are based.

That same day, the latest round of expanded economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. government against private individuals and companies, both Russian and Ukrainian, went into effect. Political players and experts didn’t draw a link between the two events.

The widespread view was that the Russians remain interested in fueling the war as part of a strategy to inflict as much damage on Ukraine as possible, and on all possible fronts. Russia and Ukraine exchanged their own economic sanctions in the days following the U.S. measures.

“Some 7,000 killed, over a million people displaced on the very doorstep of Europe… This must not be allowed to be [called] a frozen conflict,” said British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon during an August 11 visit to Kyiv. “It seems to me pretty red hot, given many of your own troops have been killed since the signing of the peace agreement.”

The intensified violence drew the standard round of condemnations from the West. The Ukrainian government issued an advance warning that it would respond accordingly and detour from the ceasefire that is stipulated by the Minsk accords – and which only the Ukrainian side has consistently upheld.

“If this group engages in an offensive, then that will be a direct threat to our soldiers, and we have the right to use all means available, including heavy artillery,” Valentyn Fedychev, the director of the department of social and humanitarian policy of the Defense Ministry, said on a political talk show on TV on August 11.

He was referring specifically to the August 11 attack on Starohnativka, a town in the Donetsk region on the separation line. On the evening of August 13, Ukraine’s Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed that the Ukrainian military returned artillery fire.

The ministry issued the warning to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Ceasefire Monitoring and Coordination Center, Mr. Fedychev said. The center consists of both Ukrainian and Russian military officers.

Since the warning, attacks on Ukrainian positions only continued to escalate. In the 24 hours before noon of August 13, Russian-backed terrorists shot at Ukrainian positions 153 times, causing two deaths and 10 injuries among soldiers, reported Oleksandr Turchynov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council. “Such intensity of gunfire practically corresponds to active military fighting,” he said, as reported by his press service.

The same evening, Ukraine’s Joint Chiefs of Staff announced that the Russian-backed terrorists were positioning themselves for an offensive.

“Our agents have reported that armored vehicles and infantry are being repositioned and those preparations being made indicate they’re preparing not for defense, but offensive activity,” said Vladislav Seleznev, the head of the press service of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Starting on August 10, Ukrainian positions in at least nine towns near the separation line were targeted with heavy artillery, Grad rapid rocket fire, as well as mortar and rifle fire.

Those most attacked were Starohnativka, a town with a pre-war population of about 2,000; Chermalyk, a Donetsk region town of about 2,000 pre-war residents; and the district of Shyrokyne, an Azov Sea town of about 1,400 where demilitarization efforts have been attempted for four months by diplomats to no avail.

The August 11 assault on Starohnativka was an attempt to conquer the town using intensive tank and Grad rocket fire, reported the Financial Times that day, citing the Ukrainian Defense Ministry.

The Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry offered its own take. “The last incidents of the escalating situation were a conscious and clearly planned operation in Shyrokyne, as well as Starohnativka,” Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin said on August 12, as reported by the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.

“All these incidents are examples of how the Russian side, together with Donetsk and Luhansk, are trying to undermine the implementation of the Minsk accords,” Mr. Klimkin added.

The European Union backed Mr. Klimkin’s view, and its Foreign Policy Service on August 11 issued a statement confirming that the escalated attacks, particularly on August 10 and 11 near Starohnativka, violate the spirit and letter of the Minsk accords.

In his condemnation of the attacks, Mr. Klimkin also mentioned that trilateral negotiations to launch the Ukraine-European Union Deep and Comprehensive Trade Area are scheduled for September 7 in Brussels, involving the foreign affairs ministers of Ukraine, the European Union and Russia.

However, the implementation of the free trade area, scheduled for January 1, is not a condition of the Minsk accords and Mr. Klimkin didn’t say the attacks were aimed at disrupting them.

On the economic front, among the targets of the expanded U.S. economic sanctions were Serhiy Kurchenko, an insider of the Yanukovych administration who served as a proxy owner of accumulated assets; Oleksandr Yanukovych, the president’s elder son, who played a direct role in the alleged theft and corruption that occurred; and Roman Rotenberg, a top Gazprom official and Kremlin insider.

“The sanctions work in geometric progress,” Gene Burd, a lawyer at the international law firm Arnall Golden Gregory LLP, told Voice of America’s television program. “Each person on the list has thousands of various business and financial ties. And imagine that thousands of organizations and companies with ties to all these people must either sever their relations with them or think about how to change them.”

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