New Fires in Iraq Deflect from Simmering Ukraine

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by Derek Davison

While the world’s attention has largely shifted to events in Iraq following last week’s capture of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the crisis in Ukraine continues unabated. Ukraine’s relations with Russia are deteriorating, and recent events may have pushed the country closer than ever to a civil war.

The latest military salvo in the growing conflict between Kiev and separatist, pro-Russian militias in the eastern part of the country occurred on June 14, when separatists using shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles brought down a Ukrainian military plane that was attempting to land in the eastern city of Luhansk. All 49 people aboard the flight were killed and the ordinance it was carrying exploded. The self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” claimed responsibility for the attack. New Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko vowed retribution. A day earlier, on June 13, Ukrainian government forces took control of the port city of Mariupol, in Donetsk Province.

On June 16, Poroshenko called for a cease-fire with separatists that could be the first step toward a negotiated peace settlement, but said that it would be conditioned on Ukrainian troops regaining control of the country’s 2000 km (1240 mile) land border with Russia. That could take a while; there has been active fighting in the border region between the Ukrainian army and separatist fighters, but according to Poroshenko, the government has only regained control of around 250 km of the border. Meanwhile, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declared that as many as four million people in the Donetsk region are now at risk of losing their access to fresh water, since a pumping station near the city of Slaviansk had been damaged and repairs are being interrupted by sporadic outbreaks of fighting. On June 17, a reporter and sound engineer for the Russian state TV outlet Rossiya were killed by mortar fire outside of Luhansk, leading the OSCE to call for an investigation into the circumstances of their deaths.

Although the separatists who downed the plane claim that their anti-aircraft arms were taken from Ukrainian arsenals, the Ukrainian government, the United States, and NATO are accusing Russia of supplying advanced weaponry to the separatists, which Russia has denied. These accusations included the charge that three Soviet-era T-64 tanks crossed the Russian border and were later observed being operated by separatist forces, although there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding this claim. Images taken from civilian satellites and released by NATO over the weekend appear to show three tanks being loaded onto a trailer at a Russian military staging area near the Ukrainian border on June 11, and videos posted to YouTube later that day show T-64 tanks on the streets of two pro-Russian cities in eastern Ukraine, accompanied by a truck waving the Russian flag. This is a circumstantial case at best; T-64 tanks are still operated by the Ukrainian military, and the tanks seen in the YouTube videos could have been taken from the Ukrainian army by the separatists, although they do not appear to display the typical Ukrainian military markings and camouflage pattern. It must also be noted that previous supposed visual evidence of Russian military assets in Ukraine has been proven inaccurate.

Kiev’s relationship with Moscow also continues to fray on economic and diplomatic fronts. The most recent demonstration of this occurred on Monday when Russian energy corporation Gazprom announced it has cut all natural gas shipments to Ukraine. Negotiations over Ukraine’s total debt to the Russian firm, estimated at just under $4.5 billion, reached another impasse when the two sides could not agree on the settlement of $1.95 billion in immediately outstanding charges before the June 16 deadline. Gazprom has filed a suit against Ukraine’s gas firm Naftogaz over the debt in a Stockholm court, but Naftogaz has countersued, seeking $6 billion in repayment for what it calls “overpayments” since 2010 and a ruling that will force Gazprom to offer Ukraine substantially reduced gas prices. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk meanwhile accused Russia of manipulating the gas situation to “destroy Ukraine,” while his Russian counterpart, Dimitri Medvedev, suggested that Ukraine’s government is not up to the task of running the country.

While there is no immediate risk to Ukrainian citizens from Gazprom’s decision to shut the gas off, since relatively little gas is used during the warm summer months, the country is well short of the amount of gas it would need to stockpile to get through the winter; so an extended dispute could have a very damaging impact. Also at possible risk are Russian gas shipments to the rest of Europe, half of which flow through Ukraine; Gazprom will continue to supply enough gas through Ukraine’s pipelines to meet European demand, but warned Ukrainians not to tap into that supply. An explosion hit the West Siberian gas pipeline today in the central Ukrainian Poltova Province, but it is not yet clear how much damage the explosion caused, and there is no indication as to its cause.

Tensions in Kiev have also boiled over. On June 14, after the downing of a jet in Luhansk, a crowd of anti-Russia demonstrators attacked the Russian embassy, shattering windows and briefly raising the Ukrainian flag over the building. Russia formally protested the attack, and the United States called on the Ukrainian government to provide adequate security for the Russian embassy. Ukraine’s interim foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia, while speaking to the crowd of demonstrators in an effort to halt the attack, reportedly used an anatomical slur in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin, which drew further condemnation from Russian leaders.

Despite the deserved attention on Iraq’s growing crisis, the situation in Ukraine continues to develop and should not be overlooked. Its ramifications for European stability and world energy markets are too important to ignore.

A pro-Russian protestor yells at Ukrainian riot police outside the regional administration building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on March 22, 2014. Credit: Zack Baddorf/IPS.

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Derek Davison

Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. He has Master's degrees in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Iranian history and policy, and in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied American foreign policy and Russian/Cold War history. He previously worked in the Persian Gulf for The RAND Corporation.

One Comment

  1. Pay off time? Sooth the ruffled feathers? Total failures in the foreign affairs department. Who is running the show, the 3 stooges, the key stone cops, who???

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