What's behind the renewed fighting in Ukraine? Over the past week, the country's eastern Donbas region - which has been a hotbed of separatist activity since the start of military hostilities between Russia and Ukraine in early 2014 - has been rocked by new, and intense, clashes between the Ukrainian military and Russian-supported rebels. The violence has already ravaged Avdiivka, a Ukrainian town of some 20,000, and left international observers scrambling to re-impose some sort of ceasefire. The situation, in the words of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, is now "an emergency situation verging on a humanitarian disaster."
Recriminations for the renewed violence abound. Russian officials have pinned the blame on Ukraine for the current bout of unrest, condemning Kiev's "provocative actions" and suggesting that Poroshenko is using the conflict as a way of recapturing the attention of the West. The Ukrainian government, for its part, has called the spike in hostilities "a clear indication of Russia's continued blatant disregard of its commitments under the Minsk agreements" - the troubled ceasefire accord concluded between Kiev and Moscow back in February 2015.
There's ample reason to believe Kiev's version of events, given the extensive, and pervasive, evidence of Russia's meddling in eastern Ukraine. But perhaps the most compelling argument behind the claim that Russia is driving the current cycle of violence is a simple one: It coincides closely with the unfolding thaw in relations between Washington and Moscow.
Indeed, the new offensive came just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin's long-anticipated phone call with President Donald Trump last weekend - one in which, by all indications, the new president signaled that he was willing to give the Russian leader broad latitude in Russia's "near abroad."
Ahead of their conversation, rumors had swirled that Trump might be ready to unilaterally ease sanctions against Russia as a confidence-building measure toward the Kremlin. That didn't happen, but it's not entirely clear what actually did. To date, no detailed readout of the January 28th conversation between the two leaders has been released by the Trump administration. (The White House contented itself with simply issuing a pro forma summary of the call, despite the fact that it lasted almost an hour.)
We do have a good idea of what Putin and other Russian officials think they heard, however. The Kremlin's Russian-language summary is far more extensive than the American one and seems to suggest that the White House used the opportunity of the call to extend a diplomatic olive branch to Moscow. Among other things, notes Russia expert Paul Goble, the Russian summary of the call claims that it included an "implicit recognition of spheres of influence and of Russia and the US as equal 'partners,'" as well as a pledge to end the isolation "that has been in place since [the] invasion of Ukraine."
Against that backdrop, Russian leaders can be forgiven for thinking that their freedom of action in the "post-Soviet space" has expanded significantly, and that belief is currently playing out in Ukraine. "Either Putin is testing Trump's reaction, or he already feels he has the new US President's tacit approval for a fresh escalation in eastern Ukraine," Business Ukraine magazine has suggested. "Either way, the timing of Russia's current offensive is particularly ominous."
That puts the White House on the horns of a serious dilemma. Suspicions already abound that Trump is planning to carve out a much more pacific relationship with Russia. As recent events in the Donbas indicate, Putin and his government have clearly interpreted this desire as a writ for greater freedom of action against Ukraine - and potentially other former Soviet holdings as well.
For now, it's not at all clear that Russia's reading of U.S policy is the correct one. But continued silence from the Trump administration is bound to give Putin, and everyone else, the impression that it is.
Ilan Berman is Senior Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.
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