Russian President Vladimir Putin is testing the new U.S. administration as it deliberates American policy toward Russia. Putin spoke with President Donald Trump by phone on January 28. President Trump subsequently stated publicly that he had not determined his position on the existing sanctions regime against Russia. Russia’s proxy forces in eastern Ukraine rapidly escalated hostilities with Ukrainian forces on January 29. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley condemned Russia’s actions, vowing to maintain Ukraine-related sanctions. President Trump held a telephone conversation with President Poroshenko on February 04 in which he promised to work with Ukraine to help “restore peace” along the Ukrainian-Russian border amidst discussions of "Ukraine's long-running conflict with Russia." The United States and its partners should continue to support the Ukrainian government, the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine, and the Minsk II negotiations. The U.S. and European responses to this renewed crisis will shape how Russia perceives its freedom to act militarily in Eastern Europe.
Russian-backed separatist forces launched a series of failed assaults on Ukrainian positions on December 18 near the Svitlodarsk Arc, a protrusion in the line of contact north of the strategic rail hub of Debaltseve. Separatists had previously seized terrain in this arc from Ukraine, overtly violating the Minsk II ceasefire. Ukrainian forces conducted an immediate counter-offensive and forced from their positions the dispersed, low-quality separatists, whose command structure has been undermined by factionalism. Ukrainian forces took ground left uncontrolled by separatist forces in a series of tactical advances and counter-attacks until January 12. Ukrainian units regained the terrain they had lost in 2015 and thus came closer to separatist-controlled logistics nodes, such as the rail hub and the M-04 Highway. These defeats endangered separatist supply lines and left their northern border highly vulnerable.
The Kremlin’s relatively high-quality proxy forces stationed around the separatist stronghold of Donetsk assaulted the Ukrainian controlled town of Avdiivka on 28 January. Ukrainian armed forces killed or wounded several high profile separatist commanders amidst heavy fighting, a rare occurrence, indicating that separatist forces were using their best available assets. The fight continues at publication time. Separatist forces could not push Ukrainian forces from their positions as of February 5, and Ukrainian forces’ counter-attacks gained control of separatist staging areas. Separatists deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure, cutting off electric power in Avdiivka during extreme winter conditions, creating a humanitarian crisis.
Putin intends to use this fresh assault to reset conditions on the ground, prepare for a new diplomatic initiative, and end the conflict on his own terms, which include ending the sanctions regime. To that end, Russia launched a disinformation campaign portraying Ukraine as the aggressor and called for a dialogue between the Kremlin and the U.S. to address the humanitarian crisis. Russia’s proposed new framework for negotiation undermines the authority of France and Germany, who have led the Minsk negotiations, and exploits tensions in the U.S.- EU relationship . Russia also intends to ignore Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in the negotiations which would destabilize his pro-Western coalition and create opportunities to return Ukraine to its sphere of influence. The U.S. has not received Putin’s negotiation offer warmly. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley condemned Russia’s escalation in Avdiivka and previous seizure of Crimea on February 02, stating that the U.S. would not remove sanctions related to the latter. President Trump promised to work with “Ukraine, Russia, and all other parties involved” in a conversation with President Poroshenko on February 05.
The Kremlin will likely push its proxy forces to escalate further, in order to undermine the Minsk negotiations and pursue alternate negotiation formats. Ukraine may try to move separatist forces away from key infrastructure in and around Avdiivka to end the humanitarian crisis. Separatist forces do not have the capability to sustain operations on the battlefield without direct Russian support. The Kremlin likely does not assess that its proxy forces alone can successfully assault Ukrainian forces but will instead use them to create temporary hotspots and humanitarian crises in Donbas to undermine the Minsk ceasefire. Russia maintains its own forces in separatist territory, however, and continues to lead, train, and supply its proxy forces. The U.S. must watch for signs that Russia will reinforce the separatists and increase their capabilities, which could dramatically change conditions on the ground.
U.S. and Western support to the Ukrainian military continues to increase that force’s professionalism and combat-effectiveness. The U.S. and allies provide the Ukrainian Armed Forces with training, materiel support, and assistance with institutional reforms. Ukraine has also increased incentives for military service and its forces have gained experience during ongoing operations in Donbas. The U.S. must continue its support.