Ukraine conflict

Violence Flares Up in Eastern Ukraine

For months now, the restive eastern reaches of Ukraine have known relative peace. On Tuesday, February, 18, that stability was shattered. At least one person died as fighting flared-up between government troops and Russia-backed separatist rebels. Under such febrile conditions, knowing who fired first shot is never easy, and each side blames the other. Efforts are underway to dial down tensions, but peace looks to be a long way off.

What Happened?

With little warning, rebel forces shelled Ukrainian troops stationed on the front line. One soldier and four rebel fighters were killed in the ensuing violence. That, at least, is Kiev’s account of events.

Separatist groups offer a different story. According to them, government forces tried to break through their lines before getting caught in a minefield, rebel leaders said soon after the news broke.

Whoever instigated the fracas, it’s in both parties’ interest to see relative peace restored. For six years the war in eastern Ukraine has rumbled on, claiming at least 13,000 lives and displacing many, many more. 

Zelensky’s 2019 Election Win Hinged on Ending the War

Ending the conflict was key to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s election success last year. On Tuesday, after meeting with security chiefs, his message was clear: the peace process must continue.

Zelensky’s determination is well-founded — his efforts in recent months have led to a number of breakthroughs. Kiev-Moscow relations have improved significantly since he took office, with he and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin holding regular phone calls.

Late last year the pair negotiated the return of seized Ukrainian ships and brokered two major prisoner swaps. But news that high-caliber weapons — presumably Russian in origin — were used by rebel fighters in Tuesday’s skirmish is a reminder of the two leaders’ differences.      

It’s also worth remembering that in December, when Putin and Zelensky met to thrash out a ceasefire, no progress was made on two of the peace process’s most contentious issues: when local elections will be held in the east, and when Kiev can retake control of the Russian-Ukrainian border.

Zelensky Has Reason for Confidence

Still, developments elsewhere will give Zelensky fresh confidence. Now that Donald Trump’s impeachment proceedings — which hinged on the President’s relationship with Zelensky — have concluded, Kiev can be hopeful of renewed US support. 

Having Washington (and the West more generally) onside would certainly strengthen his hand in negotiations with the Russians, experts believe. 

“[The recent] aggression must be condemned by [the] US and EU, and Putin must understand that only path to better West/Russia relations runs through Ukraine,” said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former NATO Secretary General. 

But with an election on the horizon, Trump might feel that the situation in Ukraine is simply too toxic to be involved with. Where does that leave Zelensky? Dependent more and more on the help of European allies. 

Who Can Zelensky Trust to Help Ukraine?

France, however, is keen on tightening relations with Russia and cannot be trusted to take a firm line with Putin. Likewise, Germany’s Angela Merkel is determined to see completed the Nordstream 2 project — a pipeline that channels Russian gas into Europe via the the Baltic Sea. And Britain, wrapped in the upheaval of Brexit, is too preoccupied to play a meaningful role.     

And so it must fall to Zelensky himself, a man who this time last year was a television comedian. Facing off with Putin will not be easy, but with peace as the prize he must push on.