Russia and its Ukrainian Rebels
Who’s Calling the Shots?

Russia, which was counting on countries like France, Italy and Spain to push for at least a partial relaxation of sanctions, is likely to be disappointed come July: EU sanctions will be extended through the end of the year, several papers are reporting. The Wall Street Journal:

While the plans aren’t finalized—some haven’t even been formally discussed yet at EU level—the officials say there is growing confidence in Brussels that the bloc is united behind a policy which would ensure no weakening of EU pressure on Russia until Moscow has fully met its cease-fire commitments. These include pulling troops out of Ukraine and handing back control to Kiev of the Ukrainian side of the border between the two countries. […]

“You don’t have that doubt any longer,” one senior official said.

Under the current plans, the bloc would take a political decision at a summit on June 25-26 to extend the economic sanctions to the end of January, the officials said. That date hasn’t been nailed down yet. But several officials said it would give member states proper time to assess Russia’s Minsk compliance.

The Financial Times says that the issue of the extension of sanctions will probably be officially raised at this weekend’s G7 meeting in Munich—and maybe not raised again: the paper’s sources indicate that the EU consensus has solidified to such an extent that leaders may not even debate the matter at their summit in late June.

Meanwhile, fresh fighting broke out around Donetsk today, with reports differing as to the number of casualties among soldiers and civilians. Each side blamed the other for starting the shooting, but both agreed that this was the most serious outbreak of violence since the Minsk ceasefire was signed in February.

Given the murky nature of the conflict, if the shooting in fact started on the rebel side, it’s not even clear whether it was approved in Moscow. The Kremlin had been signaling lately that it sees the breakaway regions staying within Ukraine, much to the consternation of some rebel leaders. The former rebel commander, Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, speaking at a conference in Moscow, expressed his frustration:

“We have completely non-transparent politics in Russia… We do not know what the president actually wants,” Mr Girkin told a panel discussion in Moscow. “We [Russia] are conducting special operations there [in Ukraine] but everything is a big secret.”

He continued: “At 2am this morning I was woken up by someone who said there was shooting in Gorlovka… But on television I saw nothing about this… [Russian] mass media organisations have been ignoring this recent fighting. From this, we can assume that Russia is continuing its policy of burying its head in the sand.”

He then went on to warn about Ukrainian plans to disrupt Russia’s grip on Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region by appointing Mikheil Saakashvili as governor of Odessa earlier this week.

Strelkov doesn’t necessarily speak for the rebels—or for anyone but himself, really—so it’s hazardous to draw too big a conclusion from his outbursts. And if the situation keeps unraveling in eastern Ukraine, Moscow will probably feel like it has no option but to keep its side from getting rolled—especially if it concludes that sanctions are unlikely to be lifted any time soon. Moscow may seem to be calling all the shots as it works towards its nefarious goals, but it’s impossible to know just how much in control Putin is.

The dynamics playing out as a result of Putin’s adventurism are interesting, to say the least.

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