Truce faltering as eastern Ukraine fighting spikes

Intense clashes this week between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia rebels are jeopardizing a fragile peace agreement and renewing concerns of a possible summer offensive.

Ukrainian officials say it is the worst fighting since a cease-fire deal six months ago and may signal the start of a Russia-backed offensive by rebels in eastern Ukraine.

A Ukrainian military spokesman said Tuesday at least one serviceman was killed and another 13 wounded.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a defense analyst and columnist with Novaya Gazeta newspaper in Moscow, says the cease-fire is beginning to disintegrate and there is a high possibility the situation could quickly escalate.  “Since there’s not really that much time left, it’s summer weather,” he says, “if somebody wants to do something, it’s high time to do it.”

Ukraine military spokesman Colonel Andriy Lysenko said Monday rebels attacked their positions with armor and troop numbers not seen since February. “Around 400 fighters supported by 10 tanks, 10 military infantry vehicles and other weaponry launched the offensive.”

Rebel spokesman Eduard Basurin denied launching an offensive and claimed Ukrainian forces stepped-up shelling along the line of control.

Lysenko says Ukrainian forces repelled the Russia-backed rebels and launched a counter-attack, taking back some high ground.

Felgenhauer says the rare advance by Ukrainian troops should not be blown out of proportion.  “This fighting is happening south of Donetsk in the open steppes … where there is no cover,” he says.  “So, control of a hilltop is not decisive.”

As fighting escalated, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called for urgent talks with the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Russia.  Ukraine’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying Russia has to take immediate steps to stop actions that bring destruction and death to Ukraine, and threaten the security and stability in Europe.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday warned Ukraine not to deploy heavy weapons.  The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) routinely reports violations of a deal to withdraw heavy weapons by both sides.

The OSCE on Tuesday reported an increase in ceasefire violations east and north of the strategic port city of Mariupol where the intense fighting occurred near Starohnativka.

Ukrainian officials say the last peak in fighting was when separatist rebels encircled the strategic transport hub of Debaltseve during the February cease-fire negotiation.

The cease-fire deal reached in Minsk has never fully held, but is believed to be the best effort so far for peace in Ukraine.

Moscow has consistently denied accusations of military support for the rebels, despite mounting evidence.

Felgenhauer says rebel-sparked skirmishes in Ukraine are not the result of trigger-happy fighters, but are due to the Kremlin’s strategic objective.  “Russia doesn’t want new sanctions,” he says, “but at the same time doesn’t want Ukraine to drift away from Russian control.”

Western governments hit Russia with economic and diplomatic sanctions after it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and began in March of last year and launched what is widely seen as a campaign to destabilize Ukraine’s east.