It has been more than three years since Ukrainians gathered at Maidan Square in Kyiv on the night of Nov. 21, 2013, to demand closer integration with Europe and the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych. As the protests spread and Yanukovych refused to sign the Association Agreement with the EU, a full-scale uprising forced him to flee and led to conflicts across the country that have since claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people. It also led to a de facto division of the country between a pro-European west and a pro-Russian east, as well as loss of Crimean Peninsula to Russia.
Though a cease-fire signed between the government and Russian-backed separatists on Feb. 11, 2015, has largely kept matters silent amid occasional flare ups, the recent outbreak of conflict in the town of Avdiivka, north of Donetsk, showed again that nothing is settled yet. The timing of the clashes, coinciding with U.S. President Donald Trump’s first phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Jan. 28, sparked further speculation as to what they talked about Ukraine and Crimea.
While the Ukrainian government blamed Russia for the offensive in Avdiivka, which is the bloodiest escalation since the cease-fire came into force and resulted in the deaths of at least 35 dead, Russia predictably accused the government of seeking to advance into the region under rebel control. The reality, as usual, is somewhere in between: The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine announced that both Ukraine and Russia had stepped up their military build-up in the region on the eve of the clashes.
Devoid of strong and present support from the West, particularly the United States, Ukraine does not have the military capability to deter Russian activities and dominance over its territory, meaning the reaction of the new U.S. administration is crucial for the future of the conflict.
The issues discussed during the phone call between Trump and his Russian counterpart, as well as the decisions taken by the Trump administration so far, have showed that the relationship between the two countries could begin to improve through cooperation in several fields, such as tackling the terrorism posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). As the Trump administration has announced its foremost determination to destroy the ISIL threat both in Syria and Iraq, Ukraine and its problems seemed to be relegated further down the list of U.S. priorities.
However, Trump pledged “to restore peace” in eastern Ukraine in his phone call with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Feb. 11, and White House Spokesman Sean Spicer clarified the U.S. position on Ukraine during a Feb. 14 press conference that predictably focused on the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, following reports that he held phone conversations with the Russian ambassador prior to Trump’s inauguration but failed to report them. Spicer told reporters that the president “has made it clear,” to Putin, presumably, that “he expects the Russian government to de-escalate the violence in Ukraine and return Crimea,” while at the same time wishes to solve the problem of sanctions installed by the Obama administration.
Obviously, there is still some confusion in the new administration on what to do about Ukraine. It seems that with the European Union in the grips of yet another existential debate, the Ukrainian government’s expectation to see bold steps from its Western partners will not materialize just yet. Neither the U.S. nor the EU will be in a position to give a hand to Ukraine soon. However, the recent fighting has exposed once again that the future of Ukraine still sits on very thin ice.