by John J. Metzler
Weirs Times Contributing Writer
UNITED NATIONS -The rumble of artillery and the cracks of Kalashnikovs shatter the Winter chill. The refugees, the displaced and the injured have become part of the broken landscape which reflects the agony of previous battles. Yet the wider silence is broken by the unwavering voices who remind us that this is not beleaguered Syria in the Middle East nor Sudan in Africa but Ukraine in Europe.
Ukraine’s smoldering conflict has flared up again with a sharp upsurge in fighting in the disputed Donetsk region in the east of the country. Russian backed rebels have attacked Ukrainian government positions along the unstable ceasefire line. A ranking UN official asserts, there’s been a “dangerous intensification of the conflict.”
A Security Council meeting, sponsored by Ukraine, set the stage. Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko, who serves as the Council’s President for February, stated “Altogether 20 Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 134 were wounded by the Russian hybrid forces and Russia-backed militants since the beginning of this year in the area around Avdiyivka.” He stressed that Moscow-backed forces had broken the Minsk ceasefire accords and were destabilizing Ukraine’s sovereignty. Russia blames Ukraine for starting the recent round of fighting.
Nearly 10,000 people, military and civilians have been killed since the conflict began in 2014.
U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s debut address before the UN Security Council condemned Russia’s “aggressive actions” in eastern Ukraine and warned “Until Russia and the separatists it supports respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, this crisis will continue.”
Amb. Haley lamented that it was “unfortunate” that she had to condemn Russia during her first Security Council appearance, adding “we do want to better our relations with Russia.”
Significantly, the recent flareup up in Ukraine comes amid moves by the Trump Administration to improve relations with Russia. Some analysts question why Moscow would wish to reignite a conflict which would immediately put it at loggerheads with the new American Administration. Russia suggests that Ukraine plans to present itself as the victim to precisely forestall U.S./Russian rapprochement. A third option may involve the vodka soaked separatists themselves who want to keep the pot boiling to avoid being sacrificed as part of a Putin political deal with Washington.
Improving the severely strained USA/Russian relationship should not come at the expense of a sovereign Ukraine.
In earlier comments to the press, Ukraine’s Ambassador Yelchenko stated that Nikki Haley, the new U.S. Ambassador, was well-informed about the situation in his country. “She had confirmed that the United States would continue to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he added.
Indeed during Ambassador Haley’s strong condemnation of Russian actions in eastern Ukraine she added, “The United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea. Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.”
Importantly according to a story in Politico, President Donald Trump promised Ukrainian opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko that the U.S. won’t lift sanctions on Russia until it pulls out of Ukraine.
Nonetheless despite the renewed geopolitical posturing, the continued conflict in Ukraine’s eastern regions has created a terrible and growing humanitarian crisis.
Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s Humanitarian Chief told the Council, “Over three years into the conflict in eastern Ukraine, in what has become yet another protracted humanitarian crisis, we are now faced with a significant deterioration in the situation following the sudden and recent escalation in violence… The current escalation in violence is causing severe damage to critical infrastructure, water, electricity and heating. Combined with low winter temperatures, the result is a deteriorating humanitarian situation.”
Tragically O’Brien added, “This latest escalation in violence is exacerbating the ongoing needs of an estimated 3.8 million civilians who continue to bear the brunt of this protracted conflict… There are 700,000 more people in need this year compared to 2016. More than 60 per cent of those in need, reside in non-government controlled areas.”
Civilians on both sides of the artificial divide are suffering from the conflict.
Britain’s Ambassador Matthew Rycroft admonished, “The responsibility of the inception and continuation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine lies squarely with Russia and the separatists it supports.”
As Ukraine’s delegate Yelchenko admonished, “The remedy to stop this Russian aggression against my country and to avoid further civilian sufferings is rather simple. What the international community needs to do is to step up pressure on the aggressor and urge Russian Federation to get out of Ukraine.”
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China.