As Pope Francis appeals for peace in eastern Ukraine, rising tensions between Kiev and Moscow are triggered by growing violations of a ceasefire agreed between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists. It comes while a massive Russian military buildup is underway near Ukraine’s borders and British warships preparing to sail for the Black Sea next month in support of Ukraine.
By Stefan J. Bos
Russia has warned Ukraine against using force to reclaim territory controlled by Russian-backed rebels in the east. That’s not all. Russia also accused a Ukrainian diplomat on Saturday of trying to obtain classified information. It ordered him to leave the country by April 22, prompting a like-for-like response from Ukraine.
Moscow is backing up its rhetoric by stationing thousands of troops along its borders with Ukraine. That worries the NATO military alliance explains its secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg. “Russia has moved thousands of combat troops to Ukraine’s borders, the largest massing of Russian troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014,” he said.
Also, two Russian warships were en route to the Black Sea on Saturday. Besides, 15 smaller Russian vessels completed a transfer to the sea as Moscow beefs up its naval presence because of tense relations with the West and Ukraine.
Amid the turmoil, British warships will reportedly sail for the Black Sea as well. Citing senior naval sources, the Sunday Times newspaper reported the deployment is aimed at showing solidarity with Ukraine and Britain’s NATO allies.
But back on the frontline in Ukraine’s east, battle-weary soldiers are skeptical. They do not believe NATO actions or even United States sanctions against Moscow will deter Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.
“Of course, it could become a huge conflict,” a soldier said. The young woman added: “We know that Russia has mobilized lots of troops. We’re preparing ourselves, we’re ready.”
No outside help?
She and other troops are in the trenches where landmines litter the landscape. One of them says they are not relying on outside help. “I don’t know if we should be counting on help from countries that support us like the United States and others,” a soldier exclaimed. “We must learn to fend for ourselves.” And he wondered: “Which country wants to send its people to their death?.”
Faced with the largest deployment of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders in years, President Volodymyr Zelensky has requested more tangible help from the West.
The Ukrainian leader, who also visited his frontline troops, fears more bloodshed in a conflict where more than 14,000 people have died in seven years of fighting. Around 30 Ukrainian soldiers were reportedly killed since the start of the year, compared to 50 last year. Most of them were victims of sniper fire.
The separatist conflict in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, known as the Donbas, short for Donetsk Basin, has been ongoing since April 2014. It erupted a few weeks after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula after the ouster of a Moscow-friendly president by a popular uprising in the capital of Kyiv. Russia has granted its citizenship to more than 600,000 people in the rebel-controlled regions.
Ukraine’s current president has now suggested a summit with Russia, France, and Germany to discuss ways to revive a shaky ceasefire. But for now, Ukrainian troops say they know they are on their own.
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