Ceasefire in Syria Turns Putin's Eye on Ukraine Once Again

Ukraine rebel sits with his gun in Donetsk
A member of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic forces sits inside a building destroyed during battles with the Ukrainian armed forces, Donetsk airport, Ukraine, January 12, 2016. Government-reported violations of the ceasefire have increased since the start of the year, prompting fears of a return to fighting. Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Over the past month, the Kremlin has turned up the dial once again in its low intensity war in Ukraine's east.

In September 2015, when the Kremlin decided to intervene in Syria, it reduced the violence in the Donbas and reined in local fighters who opposed this course. Before September, ceasefire violations had averaged 70 to 80 fire incidents per day, before dropping to 30 to 40.

At that time, it was clear to Moscow that its operation in Ukraine was not succeeding. Ukraine had stabilized defensive lines; it made sense to pause as the Kremlin focused its military attention on Syria. Moscow hoped that a reduction in violence—but not a total ceasefire—might persuade the EU to ease sanctions in December. This ploy failed and sanctions were renewed for six months.

Since January, the daily number of fire incidents in the Donbas again jumped to more than 70. In addition, over the past six weeks pro-Russian forces in the area have committed 73 weapons violations (the maintenance of heavy weapons in an area prohibited by the ceasefire) as opposed to 12 by Ukrainian forces. And observers have noted 88 tanks assembled on the Russian side of the ceasefire line near Debaltseve.

Moscow's decision to increase hostilities in Ukraine's east is related both to the war in Syria and the situation in Ukraine and Europe. Through the end of 2015, the Kremlin operation in Syria was not going well. It is true that Russia's intervention quickly stopped the retreat of the Assad regime, which had been steadily losing territory to its opponents through the first eight months of 2015. Still, by late last year, the Kremlin intervention had only restored 0.004 percent of Syrian territory to Assad's control.

In January, however, the tide of battle in Syria began to turn. Moscow resorted to carpet bombing the weak Western opposition and civilian centers in urban areas on the road to Aleppo—a tactic that it used successfully in the second Chechen war. The bombing campaign has routed those forces, produced massive civilian casualties, and driven the civilian population into flight. It has allowed Assad's forces to capture significant territory in the approach to Aleppo and has exacerbated the refugee crisis in Europe. Seeing progress in Syria culminating now in a ceasefire and increasing pressure on Europe, Moscow decided that it could raise the stakes again in Ukraine.

There were other reasons too for this Kremlin decision. Moscow's objectives in Ukraine have not changed since former President Viktor Yanukovych fled for Russia in February 2014. If Russia cannot restore a pro-Russian government in Kiev, it will destabilize the current Western-oriented leadership by maintaining control in parts of the Donbas and keeping military pressure on the country. Moscow saw no downside to upping military operations.

Sadly, the Western reaction to Putin's growing aggression in Ukraine has vindicated Moscow's calculations. Despite the clear increase of ceasefire violations from the Russian-controlled territories of Ukraine, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault lectured Ukraine on fulfilling its commitments under the Minsk process on February 23 in Kiev. Steinmeier said publicly that the "peace plan drawn up last year in Minsk between Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine has stalled as both warring parties violate a ceasefire and Kiev fails to pass a key electoral law."

The key to ending the war in Ukraine's east is a clear understanding of its origins and nature. It is not a Ukrainian civil war; it is a not-so covert war, led, financed, and armed by Moscow. Estimates of Russian troops in the Donbas range from several hundred to ten thousand.

The most important, immediate commitment under Minsk II is to stop shooting. Since the Minsk II ceasefire, 375 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 1,500 wounded. In that same period, Ukraine has lost several hundred square kilometers of territory. Yes, Ukraine has made a commitment to pass a law for local elections in the Russian-occupied territory, but such elections cannot be held as long as there are daily violations of the ceasefire. Russian heavy weapons remain in the occupied territories and Moscow's proxies do not permit Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitors free access to all sites under their control.

The best thing that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande can do right now is to note the increase in violence and call on Putin to end it. If the violence in the Donbas does not end, they should announce their intention to table the summer renewal of sanctions at the March EU Foreign Ministers Meeting. The U.S. should do its part, too. President Barack Obama should provide anti-tank missiles to Ukraine before summer if the Kremlin continues to violate the ceasefire.

John E. Herbst is Director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006.