Ukraine Crisis Update: July 9, 2015

Russian-backed separatists continued to launch indirect fire and small probing attacks along the front line in eastern Ukraine against the backdrop of a restart in ceasefire negotiations in Minsk, Belarus on July 7. Fighting quieted around Shyrokyne, a long-contested village east of the strategic port city of Mariupol. Separatists withdrew from Shyrokyne on July 2 to a hillside immediately outside the village and have called for the demilitarization of the village. The deputy commander of Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) claimed that the separatists withdrew from the village to cast themselves as supporters of the ceasefire ahead of a resumption of peace talks. The head of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) admitted that the withdrawal was a political decision related to the ceasefire talks and that separatist forces could still trap Ukrainian troops in Shyrokyne if Kyiv  did not agree to demilitarize the village. Separatists appear to have redirected artillery fire on Ukrainian positions north of the village along the Pavlopilske reservoir, suggesting that the Russian-backed forces are maintaining an offensive posture east of Mariupol despite their withdrawal from Shryokyne. Ukrainian activists and members of volunteer units gathered for a press conference in Mariupol to protest rumored plans of a Ukrainian withdrawal from the villageto create a demilitarized zone, which they said would invite the separatists to attack the strategically important city of Mariupol. Separatist forces meanwhile continue to heavily target Ukrainian-held villages east of the Donetsk-Mariupol highway. The highway remains a priority target in the event that separatists launch a new phase of offensive maneuvers because it is necessary for any attempt to outflank Ukrainian forces around Mariupol. Taken in conjunction with continued attacks in areas east of Mariupol and the Donetsk-Mariupol highway, recent separatist calls for the demilitarization of Shyrokyne and other frontline areas appear to focus on bolstering their propaganda narrative that Kyiv is the principle instigator behind the collapse of the ceasefire rather than a concerted effort to abide by the ceasefire.