Fighting has escalated in Ukraine six months after a ceasefire was supposed to end hostilities, raising fears that Russian-backed separatists could soon launch another offensive as the West focuses on other global crises.
Ukraine’s military reported 127 attacks on Monday by the pro-Russian rebels, including an assault by 400 separatists and tanks about 30 miles north of Mariupol, a strategic government-held port in southeastern Ukraine. Four vehicles belonging to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were also torched last weekend in Donetsk, one of two main separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry “expressed grave concern” Thursday about the escalation in rebel attacks in a phone call with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart. Kerry urged Russia to end its support for the separatists and stick to the Minsk ceasefire signed in mid-February.
The Kremlin has blamed Ukraine for the recent upsurge in attacks and has denied providing substantial support to the rebels, despite mounting evidence that it has sent thousands of Russian soldiers to aid the separatists.
Luke Coffey, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom who studies European security issues, said in an interview that Russian President Vladimir Putin is pursuing a “very incremental, deliberate, slow” strategy in Ukraine. By taking small pieces of territory over a months-long conflict, he can blunt a concerted response from an international community that has devoted attention to other immediate issues, such as the Iran nuclear deal.
“Putin will do what he knows he can get away with,” Coffey said. “Right now he can get away with a lot.”
Coffey said the latest rebel attacks are likely a response to the European Union Council Summit in June, where foreign ministers agreed to extend economic sanctions on Russia through January 2016.
More than 6,500 people have been killed in Ukraine since rebels began launching attacks against government forces in April 2014. The fighting followed Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March and the ouster of a pro-Moscow leader from Ukraine’s government.
The separatists’ next target is likely Mariupol, the heavily fortified port that they “desperately need” to connect Crimea with resources from the Russian mainland, Coffey said.
“[Mariupol] will be a tough nut to crack, but it is the major obstacle standing in the way of the separatists,” he said.
Ukraine is not the only former Soviet country where Russia has sought to expand its influence. Russian forces extended the border of South Ossetia—a breakaway territory that the Kremlin seized from Georgia in a 2008 war—by about a half-mile last month, gaining partial control of an international oil pipeline.
Coffey noted that Russia achieved “incremental progress” in Georgia while the United States and EU were concentrating on the conclusion of the Iran nuclear talks—in which Moscow participated—and the bailout referendum in Greece.
Additionally, the Baltic states, all members of NATO with large Russian-speaking minorities, have become increasingly concerned about a Russian incursion in their territories. Russia has launched cyber attacks against the countries in recent months and assumed an aggressive military posture toward their defenses.
NATO aircraft in Europe—which recently reduced its patrols by half—intercepted about 150 Russian bombers and fighters over the Baltic last year.
Analysts say Putin is unlikely to assume a less belligerent approach toward his neighbors in Eastern Europe as Russia’s economy, beset by low oil prices and Western sanctions, enters a recession. The Russian leader, unwilling to implement market-oriented reforms that could loosen his grip on power, has staked his regime’s legitimacy on the patriotic mobilization of his citizens against Western adversaries. That could mean more trouble ahead, Coffey said.
“Vladimir Putin’s reaped huge popularity from his actions in Ukraine,” he said. “Whose to say that he won’t push the envelope even further to boost his popularity even more?”
While U.S. forces have begun training troops in Ukraine’s National Guard, the Obama administration has resisted providing arms that Ukrainian leaders say they desperately need, including small rifles, ammunition, and anti-tank weaponry.
Most Republican presidential candidates for 2016 have said they support supplying lethal arms to Ukraine. However, Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and Democratic frontrunner, has yet to state a position. A spokesman for Clinton did not respond to a request for comment.
Gen. Raymond Odierno, the retiring U.S. Army chief of staff, joined other top military leaders on Wednesday in calling Russia the “most dangerous” threat to U.S. security, citing their threats to use nuclear weapons and destabilizing actions in Ukraine.
Increasing the sanctions on Russia and arming Ukraine, Coffey said, could incite a domestic backlash and finally alter Putin’s calculus after previous measures have failed.
“Russians are quite happy to eat feta cheese from the North Caucasus because they can’t eat feta cheese from Greece,” he said. “But when the body bags come home, people are going to start questioning what’s going on.”