MS Risk Blog

Ukraine Situation Update (24 July 2015)

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Despite the Minsk II ceasefire agreement officially still being in full effect since mid-February, eastern Ukraine has had to cope with a new wave of violence that started in June and which increased in intensity in July, 2015. During the last week of June the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany met in an effort to revive high-end diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the conflict between the governmental forces and the pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine. A statement released by the French foreign minister at the end of the meeting disclosed that the ministers agreed that a quick de-escalation of hostilities is imperative to allow the negotiation of a viable peace deal that would arrange a series of political, security, humanitarian and economic issues that arose with the creation of the rebel regions in eastern Ukraine.

However during July it was proved that the meeting did not succeed in decreasing the tensions between the two sides in Ukraine. The new violations were confirmed from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that warned on July 3 that a growing presence of heavy weaponry on the government controlled side of Donbass territory put governmental forces in violation of the terms of the demarcation line. It also noted the augmented movement and use of military equipment by the Ukrainian forces. According to OSCE Deputy Chief Monitor, Alexander Hug, the same processes were noted in the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk, where there was an increase in military equipment around Komsomolskoe. OSCE also reported that it had documented shelling on the buffer-zone areas in eastern Ukraine.

However, the biggest part of the hostilities are taking place in Donetsk, where between July 11 and 17 six people died as a result of hostilities, and 13 people were wounded, among them 11 civilians and two soldiers. In addition to that, six people were reported missing and illegally detained during the same period. Donetsk’s ombudswoman, Darya Morozova, reported that the number of people detained by the Ukrainian side has reached 1,500. She added that while prisoner exchanges have been effected between Ukraine and the rebel forces of Donetsk and Lugansk peoples republics, Kiev has refused to include many of the political as well as military prisoners it is holding. The tension between the two sides intensified further since the new wave of violence in Donetsk resulted in civilians deaths and the destruction of the city’s infrastructure. The National Defence and Security Council of Ukraine said that the pro-Russian militants has concentrated heavy weaponry in three major points around Donetsk: in the village of Spartak, at the now-destroyed Donetsk airport, and in the Kievskiy district of the city. According to the Council the separatists used these points to launch heavy shelling of both Ukrainian positions and residential areas on July 19. The shelling resulted in the deaths of four civilians —including a 9-year-old girl— and four others were injured in Ukraine-controlled territory. Additionally, the Ukrainian military reported that in the last 24 hours one Ukrainian soldier has been killed and seven others have been wounded. Apart from the deaths, the shelling caused the destruction of at least four residential blocks in the city of Donetsk. The separatist group, the self-described Donetsk People’s Republic, confirmed that 19 buildings were damaged including a hospital. Further destruction had been caused on July 18 when another person died and three were injured in a massive fire in the central part of the city, without the official causes of the fire being disclosed. On July 19 and after the news of new shelling and the destruction in Donetsk, Eduard Basurin, a spokesman for the Donetsk People’s Republic, said the Republic had agreed to withdraw 100-millimeter weapons to locations 3 kilometres from the front line. The media quoted Basurin saying that the decisions was dictated under the ‘’unswerving desire and the will to establish peace in the Donbass’’.

At the same time, the first week of July, a Ukrainian group that supports the Ukrainian government published a video captured by drone aircraft and it was reported that it shows a Russian military encampment in eastern Ukraine. There have been many claims concerning the Russian army’s involvement in eastern Ukraine however Russia has denied any direct involvement. If the video is proved to be legit it would be the first tangible proof of Russian army’s involvement in eastern Ukraine fighting along the pro-Russian militants. The video was posted on YouTube by Dnipro-1, a volunteer defence force. It included English subtitles and claims the encampment is in the village of Solncevo, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region. The video points out T-72 tanks, construction equipment and large tents, raising questions about whether a headquarters has been established for command and control. However. the authenticity of the video is still under doubt and there have not been any official commends regarding the footage.

On top of these incidents, the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, said that the threat of criminal violence has ‘’significantly risen’’ in Ukraine, describing the country awash with trafficked weapons. The crisis enables criminal to thrive and benefit from the instability. He said weapons were being trafficked from the conflict zone. With police resources focused on the east, “there will be an increase in grievous and especially life-threatening crimes” in other parts of Ukraine. Poroshenko and the government hope a new police force, which was trained by U.S. and Canadian forces, will help combat widespread corruption in Ukraine, which is on the brink of bankruptcy after years of economic mismanagement.

Violent incidents were reported in western Ukraine opening a new security crisis for the Ukrainian President. On July 11, two fighters of Ukraine’s Right Sector far-right paramilitary group were killed and four wounded in a shootout in Ukraine’s western town of Mukachevo. Earlier on in the day, Ukrainian media reported that one person was killed and nine injured in Mukachevo, after some unidentified people seized a local sport complex and exchanged gunfire with police. Anton Herashchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister, said that three attackers were killed and three policemen and four civilians were injured in Mukachevo. The mayor of Mukachevo later added that a total of 10 people were injured during the shootout, including five civilians and five members of law enforcement agencies. Alexander Sachko, the head of the Right Sector group in the Zakarpattia region confirmed that the group’s members were involved in the incident and said that the local police opened fire on them without warning.

In the meantime, Kiev has also to handle protests taking place in the capital with the people protesting high housing and public utilities prices, which have skyrocketed 88 percent since last year worsening an already difficult period for the Ukrainian people. Utility rates, including water and heating prices, have grown three-fold in Ukraine due to a rise in the price of gas since April 1, 2015. Electricity prices are being increased in accordance with a five-stage program, due to be completed by March 1, 2017. Amid the tension, Kiev has suspended Russian gas purchases after a breakdown in talks aimed at keeping supplies running for three to six months. It will be the second time in less than a year that Russian fuel supplies have stopped running to Ukraine. Moscow hiked prices after Kremlin-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February 2014.

In another wave of protests, about 1,000 Ukrainian pro-government fighters and far-right supporters have marched through the centre of the Ukrainian capital burning tyres and wearing balaclavas and demanding that the government ends the ceasefire accord and declare war on pro-Russian rebels in the east. Many in the rally were from volunteer battalions and were dressed in their battle fatigues. They said they had returned from fighting Russian forces and demanded an end to all diplomatic relations with Russia.

To the present the crisis in eastern Ukraine has resulted in over 6,400 people been killed since the start of Kiev’s anti-terror operation” and the seizure of large parts in eastern Ukraine by the rebels. A total of 1.35 million Ukrainians are now designated as internally displaced persons, according to UN estimates. Five months after the Minsk II ceasefire accord that was destined to be the base for a viable and peaceful solution in Ukraine, it seems that peace is as far away as ever.

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