As the ground finishes thawing and the flowers bloom again, the guns of Donetsk are barking once more. A large and abrupt Russian-backed separatist offensive in the east of Ukraine was narrowly repulsed at the beginning of the month.
The rebel thrust was not unexpected. Satellite imagery and intelligence suggested the groups had been preparing a strike for weeks. Although the “Minsk II” ceasefire demands the rebels and Kiev stop shelling, remove heavy artillery and disband all foreign armed groups, none of this has happened. The two sides (or three if we’re counting Russia) have rearmed for a resumption of combat operations in the warmer weather.
From Kiev’s perspective, repulsing the recent assault buys Ukraine time, but it doesn’t change the reality in the east. There is a growing and implicit understanding that Donetsk and Luhansk will emerge autonomous and Russia-oriented.
Russian President Vladimir Putin knows he does not possess the necessary military forces to push for greater territory in Ukraine or directly consolidate the captured separatist lands.
This has resulted in a stalemate where Ukraine is broken and split in important ways, unable to fully orient in either direction – to the EU or Russia. Essentially, if Russia can’t have Ukraine, then its logic is that no one can have it.
The Europeans are surely insecure about Ukraine, but at this point what Berlin or Warsaw thinks is largely irrelevant. The Europeans aren’t the central Western players in these borderlands, the United States is.
Checking Russian expansion into Ukraine is an American priority, but ensuring Russia doesn’t stir up antagonism in the Baltics or other Eastern European countries is of greater concern. And by looking at troop movements it is easy to see who holds the upper hand in the region.
Russia continues to send troops and armour to some regions neighbouring Ukraine. It has also upgraded its surface warship fleets in the Black Sea and begun military surveillance flights over European airspace. But Moscow isn’t displaying the capability to do much more.
Yet this week the US says it may preposition stocks of heavy weapons including tanks and infantry fighting vehicles in Eastern Europe sufficient to equip a brigade of 3000 to 5000 troops. It would be the first time such weapons deployments have been made since the end of the Cold War.
The US is also conducting a rolling programme of military exercises with allied nations in the region employing the full strength of US troops in Europe. The US will continue to conduct such exercises for the foreseeable future to send a message of readiness to Moscow.
These actions speak volumes for who owns the initiative in Eastern Europe. The US can extend its forces halfway across the world to run a defensive line from the top of the Baltics down through Romania. Washington might appear to be holding back in the Ukraine, but those troops and heavy weapons firmly say to Moscow, “here, and no farther”.
Mr Putin is not unintelligent, and he will be interpreting the manoeuvres in the desired direction. The question is whether escalating the tension in the region is worth the high costs on Russia. The answer depends on what Mr Putin wants to achieve in his gamble, and right now, that’s unclear.