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The thawing of a frozen conflict

  • 30 November 2021
  Global warming, much in the news of late, has been accompanied by another unwelcome thaw. The ‘frozen conflict’ in the East of Ukraine between a Western-backed, Ukrainian nationalist government and Russian-speaking rebels with cultural affinity with Moscow, has been heating up alarmingly. Back in 2015, the Minsk 2 Agreements were signed between Ukraine and separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk with various ‘guarantors’ and ‘mediators’ also adding their names to the document — Russia, France and Germany. Notably, the United States, which is the lead backer of the Ukrainian government, was not a party. Unfortunately, like its predecessor, the Minsk Accord of 2014, Minsk 2 is functionally dead — with none of its provisions having been implemented.

The result has been a volatile front line with periodic shelling causing misery for local inhabitants. The conflict has, however, been prevented from spreading more widely by a certain balance of deterrence. The Russians, who provide the rebels with moral and material support, have not gone further than this (despite periodic scare claims in the West), have no desire to assume responsibility for the breakaway regions themselves. Similarly, Ukraine, at least until recently, has recognised that it has been unable to secure control of the area by force and that it would have no Western backing (beyond ongoing arms and training) for an open offensive.  

Recently, however, there have been some worrying shifts in the balance. The US is reported to have deployed a military command ship, the Mount Whitney, to the Black Sea as well as a missile destroyer. At the same time, the US imposed new sanctions on Russia on 23 November (in response to the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe which would allow Russia to compete with more expensive imported US natural gas without it transiting Ukraine). Recent Western reports also state that the US has increased military activity around Russia’s borders, has offered an ‘open door’ to NATO membership for Ukraine, and is reactivating a Cold War nuclear missile unit in Germany, equipping it with hypersonic missiles.

While Secretary of State Blinken has claimed that much of this is in response to a Russian troop build up on Ukraine’s borders, Ukrainian officials themselves have denied that such a build up has happened. The Ukrainian government has, however, tabled a new bill in the Rada (Ukrainian Parliament) which would officially disown the requirement to cooperate with the