Accusations fly as clashes in Donbass threaten to reignite war

A woman with a child walks past stalls, which were damaged by shelling, at a local market in Donetsk, June 4, 2015. Source: Reuters

A woman with a child walks past stalls, which were damaged by shelling, at a local market in Donetsk, June 4, 2015. Source: Reuters

Fresh fighting in the outskirts of Donetsk has seen the situation in eastern Ukraine sharply deteriorate over the last two days, with the neighborhood of Maryinka witnessing fierce clashes involving heavy weapons. While the two sides have blamed each other for the outbreak of hostilities, Russian observers claim it to be a provocation and say that the Minsk agreements are being threatened.

The situation in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine once more appears to be on the verge of breaking out into open conflict following intense clashes on the western fringes of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

The fighting, which took place on June 3 in Maryinka, a government-held city lying adjacent to Donetsk, was the most serious since February this year when heavy clashes took place around the strategic railway junction of Debaltsevo. Despite the cessation of the active phase of the confrontation in the Donbass, experts do not exclude a new explosion of violence with the potential to undermine the peace process.

After the clashes in Maryinka the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) reported that 21 of its fighters had died and 124 were wounded. There were also casualties among the civilian population: five dead and 38 wounded. The Ukrainian side cited five dead and almost 40 wounded.


Reciprocal accusations

As has become customary in the conflict, the two sides accused each other of having started the clashes. The DNR claims the Ukrainian military first voluntarily left the city and rebel fighters then occupied it. In an interview with the Kommersant newspaper, Representative of the DNR Defense Ministry Vladislav Brig said that the rebels’ activity in Maryinka was a "response to the prevention of shelling of Donetsk," which had occurred on a regular basis. According to DNR Deputy Defense Minister Eduard Basurin, the Ukrainian side had organized “a provocation.”

In turn, Kiev announced that the rebels had launched a full-scale attack in Maryinka, but were then stopped and forced to retreat. The Ukrainian government is convinced that Russia is behind this escalation. In his annual message to parliament on June 4, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that Russia needed the fierce fighting in this neighborhood in order to call an extraordinary session of the Federation Council, which would make the decision on officially sanctioning the use of Russian troops in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Valentina Matviyenko, president of Russia’s Federation Council explained an earlier announcement about the possible need for an extraordinary session of the council during the summer period by linking it to the necessity of passing important bills before the end of the spring session.

In March 2014 the Federation Council granted Russian President Vladimir Putin permission to send troops into Ukrainian territory in relation to "the situation in Ukraine and the threat to the lives of Russian citizens and Russian servicemen in Crimea." The Russian president did not officially use the authority invested in him, though there is mounting evidence that Russian troops are in fact operating in the Donbass, despite the Kremlin’s denials.

Ukrainian experts agree with the country's government that Moscow is to blame for the escalation of the conflict. In an interview with the Ukrainian publication Glavred, ex-Defense Minister and head of the Expert Council of Ukraine's Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies Leonid Polyakov said that Russia is interested in using the Donetsk and Lugansk “republics” as a means of pressuring Ukraine, and it intends to "drive the Ukrainian troops away from the main administrative centers – Donetsk and Lugansk – by another 20-30 kilometers" as a means of trying to strengthen the self-proclaimed entities.

The U.S. State Department also blamed Russia for the escalation in the Donbass. "Russia is directly responsible for the prevention of such attacks and the realization of the ceasefire agreement," said spokeswoman Marie Harf.


Clashes are provocation, say Russian experts

Russian experts call what happened in Maryinka a provocation from the Ukrainian side. According to Alexei Fenenko from the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of International Security Problems, these events are part of the general logic of the current political process in Ukraine, one of whose main features is President Petro Poroshenko's "shaky position."

"On the one hand Poroshenko cannot accept the Transnistrian option (a frozen conflict with a part of the Donbass practically separated) and the beginning of the political process,” explained Fenenko.

“On the other hand he understands that a new war would most likely lead to his defeat. Therefore, as in the previous case, he has selected the same tactic: small skirmishes that would demonstrate to the Ukrainian people that the war is continuing, but which would not lead to full-scale military activity," he said.

However, as Fenenko says, sometimes "this tactic breaks down." This happens when there is an "accumulated escalation." It happened in Debaltsevo after the signing of the first Minsk agreements and now it has happened again. Fenenko does not rule out that the current clash will not be limited to Maryinka, yet he does not believe that it will result in the renewal of large-scale hostilities. Most likely everything will end in a local operation, another defeat for the Ukrainian army and the signing of a third ceasefire agreement.

Editor-in-chief of NationalDefense magazine Igor Korotchenko also argued that the events in Maryinka were a provocation by the Ukrainian side, whose aim he said is to provoke the rebels into attacking. In his opinion, it is being done on the eve of the G7 summit with the purpose of accusing Russia of escalating the situation in south-eastern Ukraine. However, Korotchenko justified the rebels’ desire to push the frontline back in order to stop the shelling of Donetsk, despite the fact that the frontline is established by the Minsk agreements.

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