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As Russia-U.S. ties strengthen, violence escalates in Ukraine

As Russia-U.S. ties strengthen, violence escalates in Ukraine

The Ukrainian government believes there is a direct link between the Jan. 28 call between Trump and Putin and the surge in fighting between the army and separatists afterward

A relative quiet had reigned for months along the swerving front line between the Ukrainian army and the separatists who control two enclaves along the Russian border. But the day after the Jan. 28 call between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the regular rattle of small weapons in Ukraine’s Donbass region was replaced by the thunder of artillery, tank and rocket fire.

It was six days after the first official phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that a rocket destroyed Nina Zharekova's kitchen.

Nobody was hurt, Ms. Zharekova whispers, peering up through the hole left when a Grad rocket, fired by Russian-backed separatists positioned just a few kilometres away, tore through the roof of the modest home she shares with her daughter and five-year-old grandson. "But it's a miracle we're alive."

A relative quiet had reigned for months along the swerving front line between the Ukrainian army and the separatists who control two enclaves along the Russian border. But the day after the Jan. 28 call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, the regular rattle of small weapons in Ukraine's Donbass region was replaced by the thunder of artillery, tank and rocket fire, all of it in violation of a 2015 ceasefire agreement.

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It's almost as though someone is trying to test the rookie U.S. leader – by roughly tripling the level of violence – to find out where he really stands on the three-year-old war in what used to be Ukraine's industrial heartland.

At least 26 people have been killed and 124 wounded since Jan. 28, on the Ukrainian side alone, compared with eight dead and 46 wounded in the month before the phone call.

The self-declared Donetsk People's Republic says 40 people have been killed on its territory so far in 2017.

In places such as Sartana, a farming village near the strategic Ukrainian-held port of Mariupol, the escalation has felt like a return to the hellish early days of this conflict. The days are tolerable – and reasonably safe – but the fighting rises as the sun goes down. "People were just forgetting how to be frightened by the shelling. But in the last month, it's gotten loud again, even in the centre of the city," said Julia Didenko, a journalist in Mariupol.

Since Mr. Trump's inauguration as U.S. President, thousands of articles – and millions of tweets – have been written about his alleged connections to Russia and Mr. Putin. But it's the rising violence in Ukraine, and a parallel battle for political power in the capital, Kiev, that has also been reignited since the U.S. election, that are the strongest indication of how that new relationship might be working in practice.

In volatile places around the world – from the Middle East to the Balkans to the South China Sea – governments are unsure what the geopolitical rules are now that Mr. Trump and his untested team are in the White House. There's a desire and a need to figure out how the new President will react to different crises in different regions.

The uncertainty is particularly high in Ukraine, which has been badly rattled by statements Mr. Trump made before and since his election about wanting a better relationship with Russia. On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump suggested he might lower Ukraine-related sanctions against Mr. Putin's inner circle. He also mused about possibly recognizing the 2014 Russian annexation of the Crimea Peninsula.

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The Ukrainian government believes there is a direct link between the Jan. 28 call and the surge in fighting afterward.

"I see it as a very good tool for the Russian side, talking to the President on the telephone, and showing you can start [the fighting] at any second," deputy foreign minister Vadym Prystaiko told The Globe and Mail in an interview in his office in the foreign ministry building in Kiev. "Vladimir was talking really kindly to Mr. Trump, while at the same time cranking up some heat and showing he means business."

One of the tombstones damaged by shelling in the cemetery in Sartana, near Mariupol.

But locals recall a different version of events in Sartana, the centre of which was struck by a volley of Grad rockets on Feb. 3. Three residents who spoke to The Globe and Mail, including two whose homes were damaged by separatist rockets, said they heard sustained artillery and tank fire from the Ukrainian side before the separatists returned fire.

"It's was quiet, quiet, quiet, then they started to shell from here to there. Then the other side shot back," said Ms. Zharekova, a 54-year-old cook.

Her neighbour, Yuriy Fyodorov, whose windows were blown in when another rocket landed beside his home, tells a similar tale, as does the caretaker of the local cemetery, who saw several gravestones damaged as the separatist rockets fell on Feb. 3.

"There were 20 or 25 shells outgoing, and eventually [the separatists'] patience broke and they started firing in response," said Anatoliy Ksenofontov, the 60-year-old who lives in a shack amid the Sartana cemetery he works in.

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There have been similar reports from Avdiivka, a Ukrainian-controlled town just north of the separatist capital of Donetsk that has been hardest-hit in the recent fighting. Western governments blamed Russia and its allies as Avdiivka's electricity and water supplies were knocked out and casualty figures rose. But several media reports suggested it was the Ukrainian side that first moved troops into the no-man's land between the two front lines, drawing the ferocious response from the separatists.

Alexander Hug, head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission that monitors violations of a two-year-old ceasefire known as the Minsk Agreements, says it's almost impossible to prove who shot first in an incident such as the shelling of Sartana or the much more violent outbreak around Avdiivka. The locals in Sartana heard what they heard, but they don't know what the Ukrainian army was firing at on Feb. 3, or why. Perhaps the outgoing fire that Ms. Zharekova and her neighbours heard was targeting a separatist unit that was itself violating the ceasefire.

What is clear, Mr. Hug said, is that the number of ceasefire violations in Donbass has risen in the past two months, spiking even more dramatically after Jan. 28.

Mr. Hug, whose job is to provide a dispassionate account of what happens along the front line, won't draw the link himself. But the statistics make it clear that the Minsk deal – always a wobbly pact that both sides resented being pressured to sign – has started to come rapidly unglued since the United States elected a president who has indicated he wants to build better relations with Russia.

"What we clearly see, and have facts to put to it, is the two sides in the past two months regularly disregard their obligations under the Minsk Agreements," Mr. Hug said in a telephone interview from the Belarusian capital, where he was taking part in another round of talks that resulted in a new ceasefire that was supposed to come into effect on Monday, but immediately fell apart.

Both sides have been moving heavy weapons closer to the front line in recent weeks, Mr. Hug said, a step that was moving the conflict toward "an escalation that [would be] hard to control."

Anatoliy Ksenofontov, who lives in a shack amid the Sartana cemetery he works in, saw several gravestones damaged by rockets.

Whoever started the fighting in Avdiivka and Sartana, it had the effect of drawing out the Trump administration's first words about the conflict here.

"I consider it unfortunate that the occasion of my first appearance here is one in which I must condemn the aggressive actions of Russia," Mr. Trump's United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, said on Feb. 2, immediately following the fighting in Avdiivka, and hours before the rockets struck Sartana. "We do want to better our relations with Russia. However, the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions."

Mr. Trump, however, has been far less direct, describing the separatists in a Feb. 6 interview with Fox News vaguely as "pro-forces," implying – as the Kremlin has always claimed – they were not necessarily under Moscow's control.

"We don't know, are they uncontrollable? Are they uncontrolled? That happens also. We're going to find out; I would be surprised, but we'll see."

Perhaps even more tellingly, Mr. Trump has addressed the public via his Twitter account 142 times since violence flared in Donbass on Jan. 28. None of the tweets contained the word "Ukraine."

There are two ways of looking at Ukraine's recent history. This is either a country that has battled hard to win independence from the Kremlin – and drawn the ire of the Russian army in response – or it's a cousin of Moscow, pulled violently away from its relative by meddling Westerners.

Most Western politicians – and a wide majority of Ukrainians – have time for only the first narrative, dismissing the second as outrageous propaganda. The Kremlin, meanwhile, pushes the second telling out through an array of media outlets and Twitter accounts affiliated with the Russian state.

Nina Zharekova walks in her backyard, which was recently shelled, in Sartana.

Which version you believe informs whether you think the 2014 revolution that ousted Ukraine's Moscow-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, was a thrilling example of people power, or a cynical CIA-backed coup to install the Western-oriented Petro Poroshenko as president. From there flow opinions about Russia's seizure of Crimea, the punitive Western sanctions targeting Mr. Putin's inner circle, and the ongoing war in Ukraine's southeast.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump suggested he believed, or at least was willing to listen to, the latter version of events. He surrounded himself with characters known for spouting Moscow's point of view, most famously General Michael Flynn, an outsider in the U.S. intelligence community who developed a controversial relationship with the Kremlin-controlled RT news channel before Mr. Trump briefly made him his national security adviser.

Mr. Flynn was fired Feb. 13 after lying to Vice-President Mike Pence over the nature of his contacts with the Russian ambassador to Washington.

But it was Mr. Trump's hiring last year of Paul Manafort as his campaign manager that first raised eyebrows in Kiev.

Mr. Manafort is infamous in Ukraine as the political mastermind who rescued the career of Mr. Yanukovych, helping a politician disgraced by involvement in a 2004 vote-rigging scheme (and a past as a petty criminal) recover to win the presidency in 2010.

Mr. Yanukovych's improbable rise to the presidency undid the peaceful 2004 "Orange Revolution," and pulled Ukraine back into the Kremlin's orbit – until Mr. Yanukovych's open deference to Moscow prompted the second, more violent, uprising in 2014.

In the aftermath, Mr. Manafort helped pull together the remnants of Ukraine's shattered pro-Russian political forces, rebranding Mr. Yanukovych's Party of Regions as simply the Opposition Bloc in an effort to broaden the party's support base to include all those disappointed with the country's new direction.

"He was sitting right there," Opposition Bloc leader Yuriy Boyko says in an interview, pointing at an empty chair in the boardroom of his party's office in central Kiev. "He was responsible for [the creation of] our party."

Mr. Boyko, a Donetsk-area native who served first as energy minister then vice-prime minister under Mr. Yanukovych, says Mr. Manafort's work with the Opposition Bloc continued into 2015, when he left Ukraine to take over Mr. Trump's campaign. Mr. Boyko smiles when asked whether Mr. Manafort might be advising Mr. Trump about Ukraine and Russia now.

Tombstones were damaged by rockets in the cemetery in Sartana.

"That would be good, because Mr. Manafort knows the realities. He is absolutely positive and practical about Ukraine. He is a good professional. He can see all the picture together."

The Opposition Bloc's hope that their party's fortunes might rise under the Trump administration were made plain when two of the party's MPs were spotted in attendance as Mr. Trump gave a rambling address to the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 2 in Washington. "They had some meetings with representatives of the new administration," Mr. Boyko said, declining to name whom the MPs met with. (Another anti-Poroshenko politician, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, outdid the Opposition Bloc by securing a brief one-on-one conversation with Mr. Trump at the breakfast.)

But Mr. Manafort is seen by most in Ukraine as someone who consistently served the Russian agenda here. His presence on Mr. Trump's campaign convinced Ukrainian authorities that they needed to stage their own intervention into the U.S. election.

While Russia stands publicly accused of hacking e-mails and spreading disinformation to aid Mr. Trump, Ukraine also did all it could – unsuccessfully – to help Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the race.

Someone in the Ukrainian government was presumably behind leaks that threw light on Mr. Manafort's connections to Russia, particularly the release of a ledger detailing $12.7-million in payments that Mr. Manafort allegedly received from the Party of Regions. Ukrainian authorities launched an investigation into the payments last August, a move that contributed to Mr. Manafort's resignation from Mr. Trump's campaign a few days later.

The country's bombastic Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov, made Kiev's position even clearer via Facebook and Twitter posts that referred to Mr. Trump as a "clown" who was "dangerous for Ukraine and the U.S."

Those steps may have lasting implications for the Trump administration's relationship with Ukraine. Mr. Trump's displeasure was made clear in September, when he refused to meet Mr. Poroshenko on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly gathering in New York, blaming scheduling difficulties. (Ms. Clinton had no trouble finding time for the Ukrainian President.)

Mr. Trump's win has dimmed Ukraine's enthusiasm for prosecuting Mr. Manafort. The investigation has gone conveniently quiet just as Mr. Manafort has re-emerged as a potentially key figure in Ukraine's future. A recent New York Times report suggested Mr. Manafort may have helped promote a controversial peace plan circulating among members of Mr. Trump's inner circle.

The peace deal, which proposed that Ukraine lease Crimea to Russia for 50 or 100 years in exchange for a withdrawal of Russian military forces from Donbass, has been roundly denounced in both Kiev, which insists Crimea must be returned, and Moscow, which denies it has any troops in Donbass. But the suggestion that Mr. Manafort was the man screening ideas about Ukraine, and its President, for Mr. Trump did nothing to calm nerves in Kiev.

In places such as Sartana, a farming village near the strategic Ukrainian-held port of Mariupol, the escalation has felt like a return to the hellish early days of this conflict.

(Details of another peace plan – drafted by Mr. Yanukovych himself – emerged on Wednesday. Mr. Yanukovych suggested that Ukraine hold a referendum on giving broad autonomy to the separatist-held regions.)

"The biggest concern is that the United States will simply ignore Ukraine's ambitions and Ukraine's interests, that there will simply be a message from the new U.S. administration to President Putin to 'consider Ukraine your backyard and do what you want there,'" said Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the Institute of World Policy, a Kiev-based think tank that develops foreign-policy recommendations for the Ukrainian government.

None of the peace plans being discussed contain any kind of formula that would be politically acceptable in Kiev, where wartime nationalism remains high. Ms. Getmanchuk said even the Minsk pact is badly flawed because it lacks a road map as to what is supposed to happen first. The Ukrainian side says it's waiting for Russia to end its support for the separatists before it pushes through constitutional changes designed to grant more autonomy to the Donbass region. The separatists, meanwhile, claim they must keep fighting precisely because the government in Kiev hasn't delivered on its side of the deal.

Ms. Getmanchuk said Mr. Poroshenko might quickly find himself out of office if he made a deal that compromised Ukrainian sovereignty over either Crimea or Donbass. "In Ukrainian society, the attitude towards compromise is very negative. It's associated with capitulation to Russia," she said.

With the various attempts at peace seemingly doomed to fail, more war looms on the horizon. Mr. Poroshenko warned last week that the "threat of a full-scale aggression on the part of Russia has not disappeared."

On Feb. 18, Mr. Putin ratcheted up the pressure by declaring Russia would begin accepting passports and other documents issued by the self-declared "people's republics" in Donetsk and Lugansk.

Mr. Prystaiko, Ukraine's deputy foreign minister, said his government was worried that Russia would seize on the incoherence emanating from Washington to push deeper into Ukrainian territory.

"We understand how it works in our part of the world. Putin, the only thing he respects is strength that matches his own," Mr. Prystaiko said, adding that any lowering of U.S. sanctions would be interpreted in Moscow as a sign of American weakness.

"Putin is a guy who is happy to seize opportunities. That's how he seized Crimea."

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