Developments in Ukraine

By Christopher Chappell

Ever since Crimea was annexed in 2014, the nation of Ukraine has been locked in a state of war between the government in Kiev and Russian-backed separatists in the east. Where the second Minsk agreement achieved a tense faux-peace, recent events have shattered the status quo and the war in Ukraine was reignited.

The new phase in the war began with Russian artillery and rockets hitting government forces as well as an accompanying advance of separatist troops to the government town of Avdiyivka.[1] The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was charged with recording violations of the Minsk agreement, and in its duties logged numerous violations of the ceasefire. Both Russian and Ukrainian artillery and tanks were to be removed from the “gray zone,” a no-man’s-land between government and separatist forces. On 29 January 2017, the first day of the renewed conflict, the OSCE has noted over 2,300 violations of the agreement and in the weeks following numerous appearances of tanks and heavy weapons platforms moving into the gray zone.[2]

There are concerns that Moscow planned this offensive around the change of power in the United States. On 25 January, Olexander Motuzyanyk, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense spokesperson, reported that Russia was shirking OSCE and Minsk protocol obligations by initiating a military build up that was observed as early as the 16th of January. The build up consisted of around 34,000 troops in the Rostov region that borders Ukraine.[3] This information comes from a joint report from Ukrainian, Danish, and Canadian officials as well as Ukrainian military intelligence.[4] Alexander Vershbow, former deputy secretary general of NATO reported on 1 February that Ukrainian transport planes were targets of Russian ground forces.[5]

Not much has changed on the ground in Ukraine in terms of territory. Government forces are still controlling Avdiyivka, but must actively defend it against separatist forces.[6] No major shifts in positions have been recorded aside from an increasing number of missions in the “gray zone” from both sides. Along with military conflict, there exists a paramilitary element of Ukrainian nationalists that are unendorsed by the government in Kiev. These nationalists have blockaded cities in the Donbass region in order to stop the sale of coal which they argue finances the separatists.[7] In response, the separatists issued an ultimatum to the Kiev government to lift the blockades or suffer the seizure of still independent Ukrainian business in the separatist region. Since Kiev maintains that it has no control over the nationalist paramilitary groups, the rebels seized businesses of Ukrainian oligarchs.[8] Numerous authors and academics have argued that the combination of attacks and posturing is meant to test and gauge the reactions of the Trump administration.

Recent events such as the Russian recognition of separatist issued documents have raised concerns of possible annexation or occupation that exists in Crimea and Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia.[9]

However, the continuation of the conflict may be to the advantage of the Ukrainian government. Alexander Motyl, professor of political science at Rutgers University, argues that the war spares the Ukrainian budget of having to sustain the “economically depressed” regions and instead placing the burden on Russia. If Motyl’s argument is correct then the war has become a geopolitical game of “hot potato” where the holder of the territories by the end of the war loses.

In order to draw attention to Russia or possibly to maintain the status quo, Kiev has adopted a different approach: filing suit against Russia in the International Court of Justice.[10] Much like Georgia’s unsuccessful suit in 2011, Ukraine alleges that Russia violated UN anti-terrorism and anti-discrimination laws.[11]


[1] Mcleary, Paul. (2017, February 1). Putin Testing Trump Early With Ukraine Attacks.

[2] OSCE. (2017, January 30). Latest from the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM), based on information received as of 19:30, 29 January 20173 .

[3] Ponomarenko, Will. (2017, January 26). Ukraine says Russia continuing military buildup.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mcleary, Paul. (2017, February 1). Putin Testing Trump Early With Ukraine Attacks.

[6] Klymenko, Oleksandr. (2017, March 8). Ukraine’s winter war heats up.

[7]  Whitmore, Brian. (2017, March 6). The Power Vertical Briefing: Raising The Stakes In Ukraine .

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.