February 21, 2020

NEWS ANALYSIS: Ukraine seeks peace, but Russian forces attack in the Donbas


KYIV – During the last week or so, talk of peace at the annual high-level Munich Security Conference was deafened by the sound of intensified gunfire from Russian forces in the Donbas. The flare-up in the fighting highlighted once again the gulf between the search for peace proclaimed by Ukraine’s Zelenskyy administration and the realities on the ground reflecting Moscow’s enduring intransigence.

On the eve of the Munich forum, held on February 14-15, there were hopes in some quarters that it would reinforce the beginnings of a new dialogue between Kyiv and Moscow created in Paris in December 2019 at the Normandy Four format summit. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared to have the tactical advantage as his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, was not attending. Evidently, the Ukrainian leader hoped to make use of this major international event to promote Ukraine’s cause and interests and to counter its image as a hopelessly corrupt state generated most recently within the context of U.S. political infighting.

Yet hardly had the Munich Security Conference ended than a localized, but fierce, attack on Ukrainian positions in the Donbas raised new concerns about the prospects for launching a peace process and the Kremlin’s motives. Significantly, among those who expressed their apprehension was the host of the Munich forum, Germany, which together with France, Ukraine and Russia, is one of the Normandy Four.

The Munich Security Conference itself got off to a controversial start. The Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group (EASLG), a group of American, European and Russian former government officials and think tank experts, including several Ukrainians, issued a joint statement titled “Twelve Steps Toward Greater Security in Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic Region” designed to serve as recommendations to bring greater security to Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic region. This unofficial discussion paper was promptly criticized by Ukrainian representatives, both from within the government and by the administration’s opponents, as being biased against Ukraine. Some saw it as a roadmap for removing the sanctions imposed on Russia after its aggression against Ukraine.

The Atlantic Council, a leading American Atlanticist think tank in the field of international affairs, which last year announced a strategic partnership with the Munich Security Conference “to bolster the trans-Atlantic alliance and rules-based international order,” also rejected the document as a “flawed peace plan.” It published a statement on February 14 in which 29 former U.S. diplomats, government officials and experts pointed out “errors” and the underlying “Kremlin-friendly approach.”

When he gave his address on the second day of the conference, President Zelenskyy noted another problem: that despite the continuing war and occupation of Ukrainian territory by Russia, the annual Munich Security Report contained only eight references to Ukraine. “This is a war in Europe,” he reminded his international audience. “And, along with the annexation of Crimea, it has already lasted as long as World War II.”

Mr. Zelenskyy’s key message was that “the new Ukrainian authorities are doing their best” to bring peace closer and that they “consistently and steadily adhere to a peaceful, diplomatic path of settlement in accordance with the rules of international law.”

He said Kyiv was ready, for example, to open a dialogue with the inhabitants of the occupied areas, but will not deal directly with the representatives of the fake authorities installed there, something that Moscow keeps insisting on. But Ukraine needs consistent international support to withstand Russian pressure and to persuade it to mend its ways.

The Ukrainian leader recalled that at the Paris summit a commitment to a comprehensive ceasefire was agreed. Nevertheless, he pointed out, “in the last two months, more than 400 cases of shelling of Ukrainian positions have been recorded. These continue to kill Ukrainian people and Ukrainian servicemen ….Without the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and the return of Crimea, we cannot fix a damaged regional security system in Europe,” he stressed. “International agreements must be confirmed not only by applause, but also by joint action.” [The full text of President Zelenskyy’s speech appears on page 4.]

After his address, the Ukrainian president gave a public free-ranging interview before the same audience to the celebrated international TV journalist Christiane Amanpour of CNN. He seemed confident and relaxed, and used this further opportunity to reinforce some of his previous points and to urge foreign politicians and potential investors to give Ukraine and his government the benefit of the doubt. According to CNN, he “strongly rejected U.S. President Donald Trump’s claim that Ukraine is corrupt.”

“Please, please stop saying that Ukraine is a corrupt country, because from now, it’s not true. We want to change this image,” he added.

Mr. Zelenskyy also stressed why Ukraine needs to be able to defend itself and why it needs international support. “If there is no Ukrainian strong army, there will be no Ukraine, and that then [belatedly] everyone will understand… it’s not [just] a war in Ukraine, it’s a war in Europe.” He told Ms. Amanpour: “We are defending our country, our land. We are not attacking anyone, because that is immoral. …It is not civilized.” He surmised: “I will be candid by saying Europe wants it [peace]… Honestly, Russia should want it, to give our territory, our land back to us.”

Moscow clearly heard these messages and three days later there was a response, whether direct or indirect. In the early hours of February 18, Russian occupation forces attacked Ukrainian defense positions near the settlements of Novotoshkivske, Orikhove, Krymske and Khutir Vilnyi in the Luhansk region of the Donbas. They employed mortars, large machine guns, tanks and grenade launchers of various types. Under fire cover, enemy soldiers attempted to advance across the line of contact.

According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, soldiers serving in the Popasna district reported: “This was all happening simultaneously, for about five hours, in a coordinated manner, along a wide front sector – they opened fire both at us and our neighboring units.” Apparently, “the enemy hoped they would penetrate our defense positions but didn’t expect a decent and adequate rebuff,” one of the soldiers said. One Ukrainian military serviceman was killed and another six were wounded. Five enemy troops were reported by the Ukrainian side to have been killed. It was the most serious escalation seen since President Zelenskyy took office.

News of the fighting in the Donbas exposed the jittery state of nerves in Ukraine after almost six years of war with Russia and the continuing daily reports about shelling and new casualties on the frontline. The first responses in the press and social media depicted the attack as a major offensive that made a mockery of President Zelenskyy’s hopes for peace through dialogue with Moscow. After convening an emergency session of the National Security and Defense Council in the late morning of the same day, the Ukrainian leader made a statement designed to calm emotions.

Mr. Zelenskyy carefully worded his reaction to the attack. While other representatives of his administration blamed Russia directly for the attack, he preferred to try keeping the tenuous lines of communication with Moscow open and to suggest that local proxy forces were responsible.

He denounced the assault as an attempt on “the fifth anniversary of the Debaltseve tragedy” [one of the fiercest battles of the war, during which Ukrainian troops suffered a major reversal] to block the quest for peace. “This is not just a cynical provocation, the purpose of which is to press on the Debaltseve wound that will never heal completely. This is an attempt to disrupt the peace process in the Donbas, which has begun to move forward, albeit in small, but relentless steps,” Mr. Zelenskyy said.

The enemy had been repulsed and there was no need for panic or exaggerating what had actually occurred, the president said. “Our course towards ending the war and adherence to international agreements remains unchanged – as does our determination to repulse any manifestations of armed aggression against Ukraine,” Mr. Zelenskyy concluded.

The following day, speaking after a meeting behind closed doors of the parliamentary Committee for National Security, Defense and Intelligence, Defense Minister Andriy Zahorodnyuk also stressed that the situation was under control. “It was under control even during the fight. We control the line and control the situation, and there is no reason for any panic or questions,” he said.

The attack had not caught the Ukrainian forces unprepared, he said. “We had known about the accumulation of [enemy] equipment even before it happened. And that’s why we were prepared,” enabling the Ukrainian army to repulse the attack. It had retained all its main positions with the loss of one advance observation post.

How will all this – President Zelenskyy’s reaffirmation of Kyiv’s position in Munich and the military “provocation” by the Russian side – affect the prospects for another Normandy format summit scheduled to be held in April? President Zelenskyy continues publicly to exude guarded optimism, while his minister of foreign affairs, Vadym Prystaiko, has already indicated that a delay can be expected.

Meanwhile, Moscow, seems to still be relying on the stick rather than the carrot, and is continuing to press Kyiv to make concessions that the latter has reiterated are unacceptable.