The deadly attack on a bus carrying civilians near Donetsk, killing at least 12 of them and wounding many more, comes in the wake of yet another round of failed talks among the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France. It also follows a pattern of persistent violence between rebels and government forces that has made a mockery of a ceasefire agreement brokered between the two sides back in September 2014.
Alongside this continuing violence, tensions between Russia and Ukraine and between Russia and the West have also increased.
As a result of the general deterioration in the situation, and triggered by a new squall of violence that included serious clashes at Donetsk airport, a planned summit in Astana between the leaders of the Ukraine contact group countries has been cancelled. This was foreshadowed in remarks by German chancellor Angela Merkel, who warned Vladimir Putin that the summit would not go ahead if there was no substantial progress on the implementation of the September ceasefire agreement.
As always, the battle for control of territory, set within the context of fierce great power competition over influence in areas deemed to be strategically significant, is carried out on the backs of civilians.
The lives lost in the attack on the bus are the tip of the iceberg as far as civilian suffering goes.
Kiev has cut off rebel-held areas from any kind of services and increased controls at checkpoints. Rebels, despite support from Moscow, have been unable to breach the gap left behind. In addition, Ukraine and Russia have both had to cope with 1m people who fled the rebel-held areas, and who were ill-prepared to do so.
All this is further exacerbated by the fact that the government in Kiev and the rebels have failed to agree on terms for delivering humanitarian aid. The deteriorating humanitarian situation and the uncertainty about the future, compounded by the latest escalation in violence and the apparent futility of negotiations, is likely to increase the number of people fleeing the rebel areas even more.
The fronts in and beyond Ukraine have considerably hardened between Russia and its proxies, on the one hand, and Kiev and its allies on the other. Just as Russia has announced it will increase its military capabilities in Crimea and Kaliningrad, NATO has announced similar moves in its Baltic member states.
This is not the first step beyond the point of no return in Mikhail Gorbachev’s doomsday scenario of nuclear war between Russia and the West. But it does mark a serious escalation and yet another not-so-symbolic drawing of red lines.
This all increases the risk of local provocations getting out of hand, particularly in the Baltic states (with their considerable ethnic Russian populations) and Kaliningrad.
So the outlook for Ukraine at the beginning of 2015 is not good. In fact, it is considerably worse than a year ago before President Yanukovich (now on an Interpol wanted list) was forced out of office, before Russia annexed Crimea, and before a full-blown civil war started in the east of Ukraine, costing some 4,700 lives to date – more than a thousand of them having died since the farcical ceasefire was signed on September 5 2014, the most recent in a series of agreements hardly ever worth the paper they were written on, let alone the hopes people vested in them.
The prospects for Ukraine are further worsened by the fact that its major Western allies have other concerns, too, ranging from the ongoing crisis in Syria and Iraq, to the escalation in Nigeria’s war with Boko Haram, from new cyber security fears to the threats posed by terrorist attacks in major Western cities.
The crowded international security agenda means Ukraine is simply one among several crises. And without any tangible prospects of progress, Kiev’s Western allies are more likely to try to freeze and contain the situation than to invest political, human and financial capital into most likely futile efforts at resolving it.
This obviously plays into Moscow’s hands, too. the Russian economy is in a serious crisis, hamstrung by Western sanctions and low oil prices, and the Kremlin’s appetite for further escalation is weak. The intractability of the current situation offers Moscow breathing space to consolidate its gains so far, of which the annexation of Crimea is the jewel in the crown.
This does not preclude more of the kind of violence that eastern Ukraine has experienced in recent weeks, but it is at least unlikely that things will get much worse. And as the humanitarian crisis takes its toll, some de-escalation on both sides, however temporary and inconclusive, should not be ruled out.
At the same time, this does not mean either Kiev or its allies have given up on winning a political settlement on their terms. The geopolitical game over Ukraine is far from over – but we may well have to endure a long interlude before its conclusion.