Ukraine Crisis Update: July 2, 2015

The rapid deterioration of political negotiations between the separatist “republics” and Kyiv may trigger a military escalation by the Russian-backed forces, which continue to conduct heavy indirect fire strikes against frontline Ukrainian positions. On July 1, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko submitted a draft constitutional amendment to parliament that aims to devolve certain fiscal powers to the regional and local governments. Poroshenko put forward the legislation in an effort to demonstrate Kyiv’s compliance with the February “Minsk II” ceasefire agreement, which requires the Ukrainian government to reform the constitution around the principle of “decentralization” with special provisions for the autonomy of the separatist-held territories of Donbas. Both the Kremlin and the separatists have condemned the proposed amendment as a violation of the ceasefire terms because the legislation specifically avoids the issue of autonomy in Donbas and was not drafted in consultation with the separatist leadership. On July 2, “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) head Aleksandr Zakharchenko accused Kyiv of abandoning the ceasefire agreement with this reform effort and announced that the separatists would hold local elections on October 18. He said that the DNR needs to begin unilaterally implementing ceasefire terms, such as the local elections, in order to “save” the “Minsk II” agreement. Zakharchenko’s announcement of elections without the consent of Kyiv suggests that the separatists are no longer attempting to negotiate political terms and instead are making efforts to cast Ukraine as the chief instigator behind the “Minsk II” ceasefire collapse.

Continued Ukrainian military reports of heavy shelling in Donbas suggest that the separatists are concentrating forces in key positions ahead of a possible offensive maneuver and simultaneously fostering a narrative that portrays Ukrainian forces as the principle violator of the ceasefire. Ukrainian military reports suggest that the separatists have been massing forces around the DNR stronghold of Horlivka and east of the strategic Donetsk-Mariupol, where a new separatist forward operating base was recorded on June 30. The intensification of fighting in these two areas corroborates reports of a separatist buildup and suggests that the Russian-backed forces may launch an offensive maneuver from one of these staging posts.  On July 1, the DNR announced a local demilitarized zone around the long-contested village of Shyrokyne as an “act of good will and a demonstration of the peaceful intentions of the leadership” of the separatist group.  Ukrainian volunteer forces continue to report heavy indirect fire despite this announcement and a July 2 DNR statement that all separatist forces had been withdrawn from the village. In tandem with their abandonment of political negotiations, the separatists appear to be accelerating their rhetorical line that they are the peacemakers and that Kyiv is unilaterally violating the ceasefire. As in January 2015, the separatists are likely to use a more aggressive propaganda narrative to justify the launch of offensive maneuvers.