After the recent completion of elections in Ukraine there was hope the conflict in the east would ease, but that has not happened. Military convoys from Russia are flowing into rebel-controlled areas again, raising fears of a new offensive and a long-term conflict.
Late last month, Ukrainians in most of the country elected their most reform-minded and pro-European parliament ever. A week later, Russian-backed separatists in two small eastern enclaves held their own vote in an attempt to legitimize rebel leaders and their claims of independence.
Ukraine and the international community rejected the results, but Russia recognized them -- and then began moving aggressively into the region.
European monitors, NATO and local residents confirm at least three convoys of Russian heavy weapons, equipment and troops in unmarked uniforms crossed into rebel-held Ukrainian territory in recent days. Russia denies the claims. But for many it is reminiscent of the invasion of Crimea earlier this year, which Russia also denied until it was over.
Some observers believed the situation in eastern Ukraine had reached the stage of “frozen conflict.” However, the international director of the Royal United Services Institute, Jonathan Eyal, said that’s the wrong way to think about it.
“It’s wrong to call them 'frozen conflicts.' They’re never frozen. They’re only frozen for Western governments that don’t want to look at them. Otherwise, these are conflicts that generate an enormous amount of hardship, bloodshed, victims, and they usually end up erupting in bigger wars, like we’ve seen in Georgia,” said Eyal.
During the summer, the Ukrainian military pushed the rebels back from the large areas they have been claiming, to small enclaves near the Russian border. Now, Russia and the rebels seem intent on reversing that.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hinted at that in recent days, saying Ukrainian and rebel authorities need to finalize the terms for disengaging their forces and restoring the cease-fire negotiated in September.
“The long-term objective is simple -- either the Ukraine enters into the Russian sphere of influence as a whole state, or if it remains in a Western sphere of influence, as the Russians see it, it would only be as a truncated Ukraine,” said Eyal.
Already, the fighting has intensified, with daily shelling from both sides and a mounting list of casualties, including civilians.
Orysia Lutsevych, who follows European affairs at London’s Chatham House said, “The parties are still testing the strength of each other.”
She said the situation in rebel areas is “very grave,” with frequent shelling, and shortages of food and electricity. In part, Lutsevych blames the West’s policy toward Russia since its invasion of Georgia in 2008.
“The West, in a way, was trying to compromise, didn’t want to make Russia too angry. And I think it was not a good strategy. This will only cost more in the long term,” said Lutsevych.
Ukraine’s leaders are left to try to pursue their strategic shift to the West, while managing the apparently worsening Russian-inspired crisis in the east -- a crisis that continues to take both a political and human toll.