It’s unlikely to be coincidental that the opening of Donald Trump’s presidency has seen a sudden worsening of the situation in eastern Ukraine, where what had been mostly a “frozen” separatist conflict has sprung to life with a hard-fought battle for the strategic town of Avdiivka. At least 35 people people are reported to have been killed in the last week, in the heaviest fighting since 2015.
Avdiivka, which has been held by the Ukrainian army since July 2014, is strategically important because it abuts the main road between the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Horlivka (see map here). The situation on the ground has been basically stable since the ceasefire agreement in Minsk two years ago, and so far that doesn’t seem to have changed.
The most likely explanation for the flare-up is that the rebels, with at least the tacit consent of their patron, Vladimir Putin, have decided that the geopolitical situation has tilted somewhat in their favor, and that this is therefore a good time to seize some extra ground. They currently control about a third of the two eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, including the majority of their major cities. The fact that it is a government-held town in the firing line lends support to the idea that this is a rebel initiative.
Although less likely, it is also possible that the Ukrainians made the first move, thinking that from their point of view things are only going to get worse, so some territorial gains now might improve their bargaining position.
As regular readers will know, I don’t hold with the usual narrative that Putin is a master strategist. I think that for the last couple of years his strategy in Ukraine has mostly consisted of sitting on his hands and hoping that something would turn up.
Now it has, in the shape of a sympathetic American president. Even so, it is still not really clear what Putin can hope to achieve. We know what he wants: a friendly government in Kiev that will stay comfortably in the Russian sphere of influence. But he looks no closer to getting it.
A full-scale military offensive, say to clear Donetsk and Luhansk and threaten Kharkiv and the Dnieper basin, might not faze Trump, but it would certainly make very large waves in Europe – and also within the Republican Party, where anti-Russian sentiment is strong and many are already none too happy about how Trump has started out.
Most obviously, anything that looks like unprovoked aggression in Ukraine would risk serious damage to Putin’s political alliances in Europe. He has had considerable success in recent years in building up a stable of clients, mostly on the far right, who exert pressure towards lifting sanctions on Russia and otherwise assisting in his foreign policy goals, including the destabilisation of the European Union.
But very few of those clients would see any electoral benefit from an increased Russian military threat. In that event, Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and the rest would either have to step back from Putin’s embrace or face a voter backlash.
As I see it, this makes it all the more imperative for the Ukrainian government to take the initiative in trying to settle the conflict in the east. It’s clearly not going to get any help from Trump, and a frozen conflict is more of a drain on its resources than it is on Russia’s.
Offering a comprehensive deal at this point – recognition of Russian sovereignty in Crimea and generous autonomy for the Russian-speaking east, in return for a complete Russian withdrawal and disarming of the rebels – would put the ball back in Putin’s court. It’s not what he really wants, but it would be difficult to justify a refusal. And given the difficulty of achieving diplomatic goals through military force, such a deal might well be the best he can get in the circumstances.
In any case, it’s hard to see what benefit the Ukrainians will get from waiting until a Trump-Putin axis has reshaped the world.