After a period of relative calm near the end of winter, many Ukraine watchers are warning that all signs point to a new rebel/Russian offensive. The rebel leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, has been saying for a week that a new offensive is forthcoming. Meanwhile, Kiev has been sounding the alarm more loudly than usual, ordering troops to dig trenches by the beaches of the Sea of Azov and calling for more recruits.
The fighting, which never fully stopped, has already started to pick up again, per the LA Times. NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Phillip Breedlove is calling on Russia to stop pouring fuel on the fire. A journalist reporting alongside OSCE monitors in eastern Ukraine was seriously injured on April 14, as fighting intensified in the seaside hotspot of Shyrokyne outside Mariupol. As a Jamestown Foundation report explains, the fighters’ commitment to avoiding the OSCE missions monitoring the conflict is limited at best. The gunfire typically quiets for mere moments to avoid them:
[…R]ebel forces, including snipers, frequently open fire on Ukrainian positions within fifteen minutes after OSCE observers leave an inspection area. This suggests that members of the SMM are not receiving full cooperation from rebel forces or gaining a fuller picture of the on-the-ground developments (Gazeta.ru, April 10). These developments also coincided with a hardening of Zakharchenko’s rhetoric and clear dissatisfaction with Minsk Two and Kyiv’s political willingness to implement the agreement. On April 10, in another ominous sign, Zakharchenko cancelled military leave for rebels serving in the local DPR separatist forces (Echospb.ru, Lenta.ru, April 11; Interfax, April 10).
The report, which is worth reading in full, does an excellent job cataloging the rest of the bad news in detail:
On April 10, the pro-Russian Ukrainian rebel leader who heads the Donetsk “People’s Republic” (DPR), Alexander Zakharchenko, warned that the conflict could resume, pointing to Kyiv’s reluctance to implement the Minsk Two agreement. In fact, Zakharchenko implied that the possible targets of a fresh rebel offensive might by the key cities of Mariupol (Mariupil) and Slavyansk—lost to the regular Ukrainian army last year. “The problem is that we must recover territories that were temporarily occupied, preferably by peaceful means,” he said on April 8 (PressTV, April 9).
The “peaceful means” that would induce Kiev to give up Mariupol are not readily apparent, however. Kiev and the OSCE agree that Zakharchenko’s threatening rhetoric combined with the order for rebel troops to return from Crimea and Russia is a serious threat:
Zakharchenko’s warning and the wider fears concerning a fresh outbreak of violence in Donetsk are also reflected in recent statements from both Kyiv and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). On April 8, a Ukrainian military spokesman said that rebel forces were placed on “full alert” for a military offensive that Kyiv and Washington believe will occur within the next two months. “According to intelligence reports, the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic have put their troops on full alert, calling on the militants to return back from health treatment in Crimea, and Russia, as well as in other places,” Ukrainian military spokesman Colonel Andriy Lysenko said (Ukrinform.ua, April 8).
The report closes with a familiar story. It presents evidence that Russia is supporting the rebels and fomenting their potential upcoming offensive by providing both training and equipment. Of course, as the report notes, the Kremlin will likely hide behind a story that stretches the limits of plausible deniability to claim that it had no hand in things.