Russia is withdrawing its military officers assigned to the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination of Ceasefire in Donbas which is tasked with overseeing the brittle truce between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian military forces in the eastern regions of Ukraine. Kiev has labeled the move a ‘provocation’ and warns the action will undermine efforts to impose a permanent ceasefire in the region. The Russian foreign ministry claims the pullout is happening because Russian officers are being prevented by Ukraine from carrying out their duties. This action comes on the heels of a fresh round of fighting in eastern Ukraine that resulted in the deaths of three Ukrainian soldiers yesterday. The Ukrainian military has also announced that while it intends to continue operations at the JCCCC, it is withdrawing its monitors from occupied territory in the east amid concerns for their safety.
With the political crisis currently underway in Kiev, the Ukrainian government is growing increasingly distracted by the Saakashvili affair. Yesterday’s escalation in fighting, and Russia’s decision to withdraw its monitors should not come as a surprise. Moscow has a well-documented history of using Ukrainian political turmoil to gain an advantage in the ongoing conflict. The uptick in fighting, and the withdrawal are likely the first preparatory moves for a future Russian gambit. What’s happening now is akin to Moscow positioning their knights properly on a chessboard.
The next move remains to be seen. Perhaps with Ukrainian monitors departing the east an effort to resupply separatist forces will soon get underway in preparation for an offensive in early 2018. With Europe’s attention fixed on political happenings in Berlin at the moment, and President Trump in no rush to make a decision on supplying the Ukrainians with weapons, Vladimir Putin clearly senses an opportunity here. He is correct in all likelihood and is poised to move swiftly and take proper advantage of it.