Much has happened over the past few months in Ukraine. One of the main events was the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight (MH17) from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur over Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine in July. This incident affected the relationship of the West with Russia, leading to additional sanctions imposed by the EU and the US on Russia to weaken its economy. US sanctions banned US citizens from banking with three Russian banks and also focused on the energy, finance and armament sectors. EU sanctions limited the access of Russian institutions to its markets and imposed a trade embargo on armaments, as well as restricting access sensitive technologies. Russia responded by limiting the importation of Western produce and meat.
On the 5th of September 2014 there was hope that the fighting in Eastern Ukraine would reach an end as the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian fighters signed a truce agreement in Minsk, Belarus. The rebels, who had been pushed back to their strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, had tried to make advances towards Mariupol, a coastal city located in the South of the Donetsk region.
In October, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin gave the order for thousands of Russian troops stationed in Rostov, near Ukraine’s border, to return to their bases. Russia claims that these troops were taking part in drills but the West and Ukraine have continuously accused Russia of fueling the crisis by supporting the rebels with manpower, weapons and expertise. This is not the first time that Russia has retreated its troops only to deploy them again afterwards. Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S (GMF) stated that “we’ve seen this before with Putin withdrawing and then sending back forces”.
Indeed, it did not take long before Russian troops and military equipment were spotted by NATO once again crossing the border into Eastern Ukraine in November, a move denied by Russia’s defence ministry. Despite the September cease-fire, the number of affected, displaced and killed people continues to increase. Approximately 4,300 people have lost their lives in the Ukrainian crisis as the conflict intensified. A report published by the UN in November 2014 revealed that approximately 454,000 people have left the conflict zone, with some moving to other states in Ukraine and around 387,000 people immigrating to Russia.
Hopes of an end to the conflict were crushed in January 2015 as the fighting has once again begun to escalate and move ever further from resolution.
On the 22th of January, the Ukrainian army retreated from parts of Donetsk airport, a strategic location which has acquired symbolic value for both the rebels and Ukrainian army forces although it is now little more than rubble. The retreat represented a significant blow to the Ukrainian forces and will have political repercussions in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital.
The 24th of January marked the day that pro-Russian fighters attacked Mariupol, the same city previously attacked by the rebels before the ceasefire agreement. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko vowed to protect Ukraine’s territory and stated “we are for peace, but we accept the challenge of the enemy. We will protect our motherland”. Mariupol is an important city for Eastern Ukraine as it is used for the export of steel and grain. President Putin blames this recent escalation of the conflict on Ukraine.
US President Barack Obama condemned the attack in Mariupol and said that he was ready to impose additional sanctions against Russia as the rebels had clearly received Russian support in terms of manpower, training, equipment and financing.
Obama said that the aim is not to destroy Russia’s economy and stated that “we have a profound interest, as I believe every country does, in promoting a core principle, which is: large countries don’t bully smaller countries, they don’t encroach on their territorial integrity, they don’t encroach on their sovereignty. And that’s what’s at stake in Ukraine.”
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini also condemned the attack and called “upon Russia to use its considerable influence over separatist leaders and to stop any form of military, political or financial support”. On the 29th of January the EU held an emergency meeting on the situation in Eastern Ukraine organized by the EU Council. After the meeting EU leaders decided to extend the sanctions on Russia. An additional number of individuals received EU travel bans and had their assets frozen, but no economic sanctions were added.
Russia’s economy has been struggling due to the economic sanctions imposed by the West. They have made Russia very dependent on its oil exports and, since oil prices are falling, their economy is stagnating. What’s more, with the increase of inflation in Russia, the value of the Ruble has decreased by over 40%. Additional sanctions could push Russia into recession as its economy shrunk for the first time since 2009. However, it is important to remember that sanctions imposed on Russia also affect the economy of the West as business transactions and exports are inevitably reduced. Ironically, further sanctions could potentially begin to have a negative impact on those imposing them.
Only time will tell if further sanctions will lead to any results, despite their clear economic effect, they have done little to de-escalate the crisis in Eastern Ukraine.
*Cover image ‘IMG_5939′ by Sasha Maksymenko