National Security

Pro-Russian Forces Seize More Terrain in Ukraine

Putin’s actions popular in Russia despite crashing economy

Smoke rises from a destroyed house, in foreground center, damaged in Saturday's shelling at Vostochniy district of Mariupol, Ukraine, Monday, Jan. 26, 2015
Smoke rises from a destroyed house, in foreground center, damaged in Saturday's shelling at Vostochniy district of Mariupol, Ukraine, Monday, Jan. 26 / AP

Nearly one year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the crisis continues to deepen between Russian and Ukrainian forces over control of eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian army withdrew last week from the badly damaged Donetsk airport, one of its few remaining strongholds in the contested eastern portion of the country.

A rocket attack on Saturday in the strategic seaside city of Mariupol killed 30 people, according to reports, and residents of the town—which stands astride the route between pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine and Russian-annexed Crimea—are preparing for a siege.

NATO military commander General Philip Breedlove said in a news conference in Brussels that pro-Russian elements "had moved the line of contact to the west."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko rushed from the annual, high profile conference in Davos, Switzerland, last week amid reports that Russia had sent more troops into Ukraine to augment pro-Russian separatist forces.

Russian spokesmen have said little about Russian involvement, but Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Grigory Karasin, had pointed words for Ukraine. Karasin warned Ukrainian officials that, "it’s the biggest mistake by the Ukrainian authorities to use force to resolve the crisis. It may lead to irreversible consequences for Ukrainian statehood," according to the Washington Post.

The renewed fighting follows a pattern of continuing skirmishes and heavier fighting despite a September 2014 ceasefire, the terms of which required Russia to withdraw its forces and secure the Russia-Ukraine border.

Those terms have not been fulfilled and pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, almost certainly aided by Russian forces, continue to press for territorial gains. Meanwhile, civilian casualties mount and the United Nations estimates that 4800 lives have been lost since the crisis began last March.

A conference planned for mid-January in Astana, Kazakhstan, in which the foreign ministers from Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany were to develop a comprehensive peace plan by mutual agreement, was scrubbed. No new date for the conference has been proposed.

Ukraine also announced that it would conscript 200,000 soldiers this year, according to the Kyiv Post.

Despite taking control of Crimea, a strategic peninsula of importance to Russia’s navy and a symbol to Russians of their former domination in the region, the crisis has been far from cost-free for Russia. The United States and European Union have imposed a series of financial sanctions on Russian individuals and entities.

The sanctions, combined with falling oil prices, constitute a blow for Russian consumers and the Russian economy. Sanctions have chilled the investment climate for many Russian businesses while energy companies have been denied access to capital markets. The result has been the free fall of the ruble—which has lost as much as 50 percent of its purchasing power according to the Economist—and strong inflationary pressures.

Adding to the misery, Russian President Vladimir Putin has banned, as a retaliatory move, the import of many Western foods.

The Ukrainian incursion also has done considerable damage not only to Russia’s relations with the United States—which seems to be of little concern to Putin—but also with Germany, Russia’s largest trading partner. Speaking at Davos, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Russia’s actions in Ukraine were "a clear and flagrant violation" of the post war order.

Despite these setbacks, Putin’s domestic popularity has soared on the basis of his actions against Ukraine with Russians embracing the idea that he is restoring Russia’s status as a great power at the expense of the United States.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Moscow Times reports, said last week that Russia will not give up on Ukraine until the country adopts a federal structure that allows for greater autonomy for eastern Ukraine—which has large number of pro-Russian sympathizers. Lavrov did not emphasize in his remarks that eastern Ukraine is highly industrialized, and thus the more economically desirable part of the country.

International pressure does not seem to be achieving tangible results. Sanctions have been painful but have not eaten into Putin’s popularity. European leaders have indicated that they would prefer that the crisis settle down in a way that does not pressure them to impose a new round of sanctions. The Obama administration is occupied by crises in the Middle East, including events in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, and the stated desire of the Senate to impose new sanctions on Iran if the nuclear negotiations do not produce tangible results by the June deadline.

Russia’s recent moves suggest the next few months will bring little relief from the crisis.