Ukraine began the week by renewing accusations that Russia-backed separatists have escalated attacks in eastern Ukraine significantly. According to Ukrainian officials, cease-fire violations in the Donetsk and Shyrokyne areas over the weekend were more intense than they had been in the past few weeks.
The second Minsk agreement was never fully implemented in eastern Ukraine; some weaponry that should have been withdrawn is still being used, Russian forces are still present, and cease-fire violations occur regularly. Nevertheless, a baseline pattern of activity had established itself. The events reported along the demarcation line in the past few days are not out of pattern. However, Ukraine had a particular interest in showing that Russia is unwilling to cooperate in the implementation of the full cease-fire agreement ahead of a foreign ministers' meeting as the peace process evolves.
Meanwhile, the United States has been making preparations for a controversial training operation in western Ukraine, with U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade forces stationed in Italy scheduled to begin training the Ukrainian national guard by April 20. Over the weekend, the first U.S. paratroopers and their equipment were deployed to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv; approximately 50 members of the brigade's support battalion rode in a convoy through Eastern Europe toward Ukraine to prepare for the trainers' actual deployment. The Russian government has raised little controversy over the arrival of the support forces and made few references to it.
That Russia did not use the arrival of the U.S. troops as occasion to launch accusations at NATO and Washington speaks to Moscow's immediate interests in Ukraine. Though Russian leaders have criticized NATO's growing presence in Eastern Europe, Moscow has indicated it is willing to allow the situation in eastern Ukraine to calm down. Moreover, though it is not necessarily going to great lengths to fully implement the second Minsk agreement, Moscow has kept activities in eastern Ukraine at a low enough level to avoid sparking a Ukrainian military reaction or compelling European countries to boost sanctions against Russia. Because Russia's economic challenges and the logistical difficulties of launching a wider campaign preclude significant escalation, the Kremlin's strategy is to keep the separatist regions as leverage in negotiations with Kiev.
However, even within NATO, some countries have shown markedly conciliatory positions regarding the fighting in eastern Ukraine. This divergence has highlighted the persistent political rift among NATO members about their strategies regarding Russia. Gen. Christophe Gomart, the head of France's military intelligence, said at a hearing in the country's parliament on March 25 that contrary to NATO reports, French military intelligence believes that Russia never deployed the logistics that would have indicated preparations for an invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, ahead of an April 13 meeting of the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier emphasized that progress has been made in withdrawing heavy weapons from eastern Ukraine.
On the other hand, NATO — as well as officials from Ukraine, the United States, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — has continued publicly emphasizing that Russia is rotating personnel into eastern Ukraine. On April 12, an anonymous NATO official told German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that Russia is supplying troops and weapons in eastern Ukraine. The next day, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine reported renewed intense fighting around the city of Donetsk and east of Mariupol.
These differences in rhetoric have been developing for months. For Western European governments, especially Germany, mediating a de-escalation in Ukraine and working toward establishing a stable security environment in the region — as well as normalizing economic relationships with Moscow — is desirable. However, for the largely U.S.-dominated NATO, the priority is boosting defenses along the alliance's eastern edge and providing a deterrent to additional Russian moves without provoking Russian military actions. These competing imperatives are driving a wedge between the allies.
The political divergence among NATO members is also demonstrated by their significantly different defense spending patterns. The main Western European defense spenders, including France and Germany, have all been slashing their budgets in the face of economic hardships, but the Eastern European NATO members (particularly the Baltics and Poland) have been spending more as they perceive an increased risk from Russia. These spending differences are in line with an already visible division: The strategic depth between NATO's Western European members and Russia minimizes their perception of a threat, so their investments in military capabilities are mostly for the benefit of the Eastern European "security consumers" within NATO.
This dynamic explains why the United State has chosen to boost bilateral relationships with Eastern European NATO members, especially Poland and Romania. NATO as a whole does not necessarily share the U.S. interest of establishing a new security paradigm in Eastern Europe, so Washington has sought bilateral cooperation with those Eastern European countries. Operation Atlantic Resolve is a significant example of this activity; it has resulted in more than a brigade's worth of troops being permanently rotated through Eastern Europe. The prospect of forward deploying heavy equipment for these forces in Eastern Europe, which would facilitate both exercises and potential deployments, also addresses Eastern European NATO members' requests for more direct military support.
As low-level fighting continues in eastern Ukraine and as negotiations over the implementation of some parts of the Minsk agreement remain largely deadlocked, diverging imperatives and strategic goals will further fragment the Western coalition. Although countries like Germany and the United States supported the Maidan movement that toppled former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's government, the Western Europeans' perception of the conflict in Ukraine differs from those in Eastern Europe. While Western European states work to de-escalate tensions and reach some kind of stability in the region, the United States will continue boosting its bilateral defense ties in Eastern Europe and building a regional alliance that could prevent Moscow from making further military moves in the Russian periphery.