It may never be known who fired the first shot that has rekindled the conflict in eastern Ukraine. But the focus now must be on stopping the renewed fighting between separatists and Ukrainian troops in Avdiivka from spreading into a wider and more devastating battle. This is a small town that has maybe 22,000 inhabitants who find themselves on the frontline between the Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian army. The greater part of the town is still in government hands. Kiev says that the separatists began the firefight in which at least seven of its soldiers have been killed. The rebels say Ukrainian forces attacked them and they retaliated.
Whatever the truth, in the midst of ferociously cold winter weather the town’s electricity and water supply has been knocked out and, as ever, it is the civilians who are bearing the brunt of the suffering. The government says it is sending 10 tons of food and blankets as emergency aid, but this would hardly seem sufficient to assist an imperiled population.
What is significant is that the Russians did not use their veto to block a UN Security Council statement warning of a dangerous deterioration in Ukraine and calling for an immediate halt to the battle. Moscow may have a problem with the separatists, some of whom have been highly critical of what they see as a lack of support from Russia. Originally, there were high hopes among the rebels that Vladimir Putin would repeat his coup de main in the Crimea and carve out an autonomous region in Russian-speaking Ukraine. That indeed may have been the Kremlin’s original plan. But international sanctions have certainly hurt Russia, even though it has mounted an adroit campaign to circumvent them.