As fighting between Ukrainian security forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine drags on, there are signs the conflict may escalate later this month. Monday evening, the latest Minsk contact group talks aiming to implement a buffer zone between the two sides ended after six hours of discussion — with no discernable progress. In the meantime, three Ukrainian soldiers were killed and seven injured Tuesday in yet another eruption of violence along the line of contact. There are two indicators we are watching that could provoke responses by both sides: newly trained pro-Russian separatists rotating in, and NATO finally installing Force Integration Units into Eastern European countries along Russia's periphery.
These developments are only the most recent of many indications that February's agreement to halt hostilities between Ukraine and the separatists is a cease-fire in name only. While fighting has ebbed and flowed since the start of the conflict nearly a year and a half ago, a sustained and systematic observation of the numerous cease-fire agreements has proved elusive. The political dimension of the conflict has so far barred any definite resolution, and as long as a deep gulf separates Kiev and its Western backers from Moscow and the separatists over the future of Ukraine, the potential for further escalation on the battlefield remains.
Despite various discussions in several negotiating formats, including tactical aspects and broader strategic dimensions of the conflict, two basic issues divide the two sides. The first is the political status of the separatist regions. Ukraine wants to see separatists implement the Minsk agreements and lay down their arms before officials amend the Ukrainian Constitution to grant the eastern territories more autonomy. The separatists want constitutional changes first, and they want a role in determining those changes. Only then, they say, can they fully implement the cease-fire. Broadly speaking, the United States and the European Union support the Ukrainian position, while Russia supports the separatists.
The second, deeper issue goes beyond Ukraine: the role of Russia as a regional power. For geopolitical reasons, Moscow sees the former Soviet Union as a sphere of influence in which it must have privileged interests. The West, and particularly the United States, wants to deny Russia that sphere. These conflicting imperatives were an important driver behind the crisis in Ukraine that began with the Euromaidan uprising, and in the past they have stoked frictions between Moscow and the West everywhere from the Baltics and Eastern Europe to the Caucasus and Central Asia.
It is in Ukraine, of course, where these frictions became so intense that they ignited into open warfare. Now, several factors are likely to prompt even more violence. One is the coming of warmer August weather, which will mitigate the logistical and transport hurdles that troops faced in the winter and spring, making it easier to mount combat operations. Another is the debate over Ukraine's constitutional reform process, with the rebels claiming the decentralization measures taken by the Ukrainian government do not adhere to the Minsk agreements and the leadership of the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist republics vowing to hold elections in October and November, a step Kiev rejects. Yet another is Russia's frustration over sanctions, which the United States has increased and the Europeans have extended until the end of the year. Moscow may see no reason not to escalate the conflict on the battlefield if the West is offering only more threats.
But an even more concrete warning sign is the fact that the NATO Force Integration Units proposed last year are finally set to be established later this month. The presence of these new forward staging units in Eastern Europe, right on Russia's doorstep, could end up provoking Moscow.
All this does not mean, however, that Russia is willing or prepared to ramp up military operations to the point of a full-blown invasion. There are still too many constraints on Moscow, whether disastrous economic repercussions or the prospect of a corresponding military escalation on the part of the West if Russian troops moved into Ukraine or elsewhere in the former Soviet periphery. Each side is currently walking in some space between escalation and trying to keep control over that escalation without launching a full war. But with meaningful progress in diplomatic negotiations so far sorely lacking, and with few positive signals out of the West at the moment, Russia may be considering sending its own message in eastern Ukraine in the next few weeks.