Paul Floyd: Hi my name is Paul Floyd a military analyst here at Stratfor and today I'm joined by Sim Tack, another military analyst, and today we'll be discussing the Ukrainian cease-fire and what has been happening recently in that country. So Sim, technically we're in a cease-fire, but there have been almost daily violations of that cease-fire with casualties and shelling and fighting. What is the disposition, are we seeing an offensive or what is exactly happening on the ground in eastern Ukraine?
Sim Tack: So to answer that question let me go back a little while to when the cease-fire actually started. We saw the original cease-fire announced on Sept. 5 last year. When both sides actually stopped conducting their major offensive moves against each other, but fighting did continue. We saw artillery shelling by both sides on each other. We saw small arms fire going on, even small territorial grabs along the frontline. Then this cease-fire gradually evolved around the beginning of December into a more settled down situation. For several weeks actually artillery fire died down. Heavy artillery pieces were being withdrawn from the frontline. But then around Christmastime we saw a re-escalation of this violence going back to the levels that we saw between Sept. 5 and Dec. 9 respectively. And right now we see a continuation of what's been happening since Christmas with Russian deployments into eastern Ukraine continuing to increase gradually over time.
Paul: So I can think of several examples, Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia and Azerbaijan, the line of control with Pakistan and India, where you know cease-fire lines have flare-ups. We see fighting, we see people dying. We see these artillery shellings back and forth, and that doesn’t necessarily shift the political paradigm. It's kind of almost par for the course sometimes for these lines of contact.
Sim: That’s true and for eastern Ukraine we can definitely say that it has become par for the course. But, the notable difference between this level of violence in the cease-fire and those that you mentioned in Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, is that we're not seeing occasional flare-ups. There is a constant presence of fire from both sides, which does make it difficult to move ahead with negotiations. We saw for example when this cease-fire did settle down to a more sustainable level of peace, we did see the Minsk talks actually progress at that time. Things were actually looking up for negotiated solution. But the re-escalation of violence has kind of made that more difficult now.
Paul: So a lot of times people are trying to put an intent behind this violence. And so you look at what's happening and you say are they rationalizing the lines around Debaltseve where there is a Ukrainian salient sticking into the Donbas lines? Is this about kind of making that make more sense in pushing them out or grabbing away the Donetsk Airport where we've seen lots of fighting? Or is this something else? Do you see something on the ground that says this is prepositioning and planning for an offensive to take other parts of Ukraine?
Sim: So all of those options are present and actually that's the core thing that we need to be aware of here. These separatists and the Russians are actually in a position where they are creating options. It's not necessarily clear what the eventual intent is going to be from this position. As you mentioned one of the things that would make sense for them to do and that they seem to be doing is establishing a more stable frontline. By taking Donetsk Airport they secure that last flank of Donetsk city. By trying to take Debaltseve or closing that last pocket that Ukrainians hold there, they would remove the Ukrainian positions that are established deeper into the separatist, the general separatist-held area. And then there are other such locations northeast of Luhansk, and of course we have the ongoing push for territory around Mariupol where we saw the artillery strikes last weekend.
Paul: And we've seen a steady increase of formal Russian troops in eastern Ukraine reportedly right?
Sim: Right and that also goes into potentially consolidating either the defenses that have been set up in eastern Ukraine. We've seen several months ago Russia already pushing in air defense systems, which have been set up in a way where they actually protect lines of supply and generate a cover, an air defense cover for the whole area rather than necessarily position for an offensive. Although on the other hand when you're putting those troops there it does give you that option to actually conduct offensive operations if that were a political imperative at that time.
Paul: So in other words this is about securing the territory taken maybe for future use, but based off the political and economic outcomes, it gives them the option, they retain the ability to actually exercise future offensives if they need to if they need to go to that military option to put pressure on negotiations for example.
Sim: Exactly. And in the end, any decision made on what they're actually going to do from this point on will be defined by the political and economical levels for Russia, as well as actions taken by NATO or Ukraine.
Paul: Speaking of, Russia's not the only actor in this fight. We have Ukrainian forces also making moves as well as NATO has also made some interesting announcements this week.
Sim: That's correct. On the Ukrainian side, for example, one of the notable things is the mobilization, basically a draft that's been installed by the Ukrainian government, where today we saw the first of those troops being put on a train for their training. That's going to take several months before this actually starts affecting the balance of power on the frontline. But Ukraine is in that long-term process of rebuilding its military, increasing its strength and at the same time when we talk about NATO or the U.S. specifically, there is a lot of attempt by Western military forces to be involved in Eastern Europe through training exercises, pre-deployment of equipment, to alter that general balance against Russia. And those types of moves and threats toward Russia are obviously going to impact Russian thinking about how they actually deal with crisis.
Paul: So this goes beyond just Russian actions. Russian actions aren’t the only thing happening and it's not in a vacuum. And in many ways there are responses to this. And in some ways, at least from the Russian point view, NATO and some of these other countries and Ukraine even have taken actions that could be provocative to them or they see as a threat. So this conflict is probably very far from over. Well thank you Sim. And for any further questions please visit us at stratfor.com.