Over the last few days Ukraine’s military forces have continued to push forward with their aggressive and so far successful military counter-offensive against the rebels of Donetsk and Luhansk, as we have been expecting, rejecting calls for a cease-fire by the new leadership of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk. The so-called Ukrainian Anti-Terrorist Operation has succeeded in breaking the line of communication between Donetsk and Luhansk, and is likely to capture Donetsk before turning its effort to Luhansk (see SGH 8/5/14, “Ukraine: A Critical Inflection Point”).
At the same time, the NATO military leadership has stepped up its ominous warnings of the risk of a Russian invasion – under the pretext of humanitarian assistance to the citizens of eastern Ukraine – to “highly probable.” And there likewise has been a great deal of confusion over whether, as Kiev claims, Russia was in fact preparing a threatening military convoy to send into Ukraine under the guise of humanitarian assistance, thwarted by aggressive diplomacy, or whether Moscow was, as the Russians in turn claim, preparing for a far different type of peace-keeping mission, one that would fall under the auspices of a cooperative agreement with Kiev.
*** Despite all the confusion, warnings, and fighting on the ground, after a phone call with President Barack Obama, Ukrainian President Petro Poroschenko has indeed agreed to allow an international joint humanitarian mission into eastern Ukraine sponsored by Ukraine, the EU, and, critically, Russia and the United States, under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross. ***
*** While this may seem on the surface like a small humanitarian gesture to the beleaguered citizens of the area, the agreement to a humanitarian convoy that includes Russia (as we flagged in SGH 8/6/14, “Ukraine: An Outreach, with an Implicit Threat”), also represents a critical concession to Moscow. A joint humanitarian effort under the auspices of the Red Cross was sought and informally highlighted to us by sources in Moscow as potentially providing a crucial “face-saving cover” from the West that could help open the door for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to slowly extricate himself from the military conflict, while allowing for him to still deliver on his promises to protect the interests and well-being of Russian speaking Ukrainians in the East. ***
*** Coming on the heels of Friday’s well timed personnel changes on the rebel side in Donetsk and on the military side in Kiev – namely the resignations of Alexander Borodai and Andriy Parubiy – we see this is as another encouraging development and a cautiously positive response from the US and Kiev to Moscow’s shift in tone and extended feelers (see SGH 8/8/14, “Ukraine: Opening a Line of Communication”). That shift had subsequently also extended to a public announcement later that day of an end to Russia’s military exercises on the Ukrainian border – ignoring the fact that ostensibly those war exercises should have been following on a pre-set schedule already ***
As a reminder, here are the key relevant excerpts regarding the humanitarian convoy negotiations from SGH 8/6/2014, “Ukraine: An Outreach, with an Implicit Threat”:
…. that meeting [of the UNSC called by Russia for humanitarian assistance] … [is] significant in representing a first step towards creating a framework for a potential de-escalation of tensions and face-saving managed withdrawal of Russia from the quagmire it is finding itself in Eastern Ukraine.
*** People familiar with Moscow’s thinking are concerned that if there is no positive response at all to this call for a humanitarian corridor (even if that excludes a Russian contribution to a peacekeeping force), with the implicit understanding that it may even provide a certain political and physical escape outlet to Russia’s embattled President Vladimir Putin, there is a real likelihood that Moscow could respond with air strikes. ***
The window for a negotiated settlement continues to remain open even as the fighting escalates in Eastern Ukraine, but Washington, or more likely the European Union, will need to press Kiev in the next few days at the latest to provide for some concession on the corridor… Moscow has… enlisted … the Red Cross as an intermediary, alongside the United Nations.