Over the winter, a lull in the fighting between Russian-backed rebels and the Ukrainian military was mistaken by many to be an observance of the terms of a February ceasefire agreement signed in Minsk. That agreement was never observed by either party. In fact, the days that followed that agreement were characterized by a major offensive by pro-Russian insurgents that resulted in the humiliating retreat of Ukrainian soldiers from the strategic railway hub of Debaltseve.
But not everyone was fooled by the reduced intensity of the fighting. After traveling to the front late last month, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark warned that the Russians were preparing for a new offensive in Ukraine as soon as the snows melted. He noted that this flare-up could be expected to begin anytime between the Orthodox Easter (April 12) and the 70th Anniversary of the surrender of Germany in World War II (May 8). Clark was right.
“The Ukrainian military’s ATO press center claims today that Russian-backed forces committed 30 violations of the ceasefire between 18:00 and midnight yesterday,” Interpreter Magazine reported on Thursday. Interpreter analysts determined that the fighting had returned to pre-ceasefire levels.
“In addition, ATO forces’ positions were subjected to fire from mortars, automatic grenade launchers, machine guns and small arms near the settlements of Opytnoye, Peski, Mayorsk, Leninskoye, Avdeyevka, Kirovo and Marinka. Overall, the enemy opened fire on our position in these areas 19 times.
Ukrainian troops conducted fire with 82 mm mortars and small arms,” reports the press centre.
The intensity of the fighting has coincided with an influx of covert support from Moscow to the pro-Russian forces fighting inside of Ukraine as well as a buildup of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border.
“This is the highest amount of Russian air defense equipment in eastern Ukraine since August,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Wednesday. “After maintaining a relatively steady presence along the border, Russia is sending additional units there.”
“Combined Russian-separatist forces maintain a sizeable number of artillery pieces and multiple rocket launchers within areas prohibited under the Minsk accords,” said Ms Harf. “The Russian military has deployed additional air defence systems into eastern Ukraine and moved several of these nearer the front lines.”
On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry called on Russia to remove its forces from the border and from inside Ukrainian territory in a telephone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “ The U.S. says Russians provide heavy weaponry and training to Ukraine’s rebels, and operate surface-to-air missile sites,” the AP revealed. Of course, that call also touched on issues like the conflicts in Syria and Yemen as well as the Iranian nuclear deal; all areas in which the United States is dependent on Russian cooperation.
As Victory Day celebrations near, Russian forces have engaged in a variety of prominent exercises and demonstrations. Perhaps the display is purely one for the enjoyment of the Russians who turn out in Red Square to celebrate the Soviet victory in 1945. Perhaps it is something else…