By Doug Klain

Nov. 6, 2021

Ukraine Alert, Atlantic Council

After witnessing nearly eight years of the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine, one would think the international community would be clear-eyed about what kind of a war is being waged in the Donbas region and who is responsible for it. France and Germany’s recent strange attempts at whataboutism, spurred by a Ukrainian drone strike last week, unfairly let Moscow off the hook for the conflict it keeps alive and kicking.

For years now, the Kremlin has been waging a hybrid war against the United States and its partners — ranging from election interference and assassinating dissidents living in the West to fueling secessionist movements and the recent energy crisis in Europe. Russia’s war on Ukraine is the spearpoint of this campaign, and Washington’s efforts to counteract Moscow will be seriously weakened if its partners aren’t on the same page.

On Oct. 26, Russian-backed fighters used artillery to fire on Ukrainian military positions near Hranitne, one of many violations of the Minsk II ceasefire, killing one soldier and wounding another. In accordance with protocol established by the peace process, Ukrainian forces used diplomatic channels to call for a ceasefire.

When the guns continued to barrage Kyiv’s forces, Ukraine deployed a recently purchased Turkish-made Bayraktar unmanned aerial combat vehicle on the Ukrainian side of the frontlines, launching a drone strike on one of the artillery positions — it worked, and the shelling ended with no further casualties. The Ukrainian forces even quickly posted footage of the attack on Facebook and explained the operation.

France condemned the drone strike, saying that it was “concerned” by the Bayraktar’s deployment and by the “increasingly frequent use of heavy weaponry” in violation of the ceasefire. Germany criticized that “all sides are using drones, which, according to the Minsk agreement, is reserved for the OSCE alone.” Germany also cited the 2014 Minsk Memorandum in which all sides agreed not to use “foreign drones.”

Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andrij Melnyk expressed outrage and called on Germany to — instead of being “concerned” — redouble its efforts as a mediator and “put Moscow in its place.”

Ukrainian troops were wounded and killed, followed protocol by using mandated channels to demand an end to the attack, and finally hit back with their own weapons when the Russian-backed forces refused to cease fire. It is deeply strange that France and Germany reacted the way they did, especially given the serious disparity and restraint Ukrainian forces show when provoked by those on the other side of the trenches.

Generally, the Russian side attacks twice as much as the Ukrainian side. In September, Russian forces and Russian-backed militants attacked 207 times while Kyiv’s forces fired back 107 times. According to Nolan Peterson, who was recently embedded along the frontlines, the Ukrainian forces are hesitant to respond to these provocations for two main reasons: firing would expose their positions, and would give Moscow ammunition to keep falsely painting them as the aggressors in this conflict that Russia started in 2014. As Peterson reports, Ukrainian troops are often wary of gathering in close groups for risk of inviting a Russian drone strike.

The unfortunate reality on the ground is that all ceasefires have not held and the international peace process to de-escalate the conflict has continued to fail. This is not because Ukrainians are war-hungry — it’s because the Kremlin has intentionally kept the conflict alive, deploying its officers to direct forces in Donbas, supplying and funding them, and all the while using the frontlines as a “finishing school” for its operators — especially snipers — to gain combat experience.

Moscow does this because every day the conflict continues, it believes Ukraine will be barred from joining NATO and integrating closer with the rest of Europe. It gives Vladimir Putin the chance to continue asserting that what was once known as the “Near Abroad” is Russia’s sphere of influence, and that Ukrainians only have the right to determine their own path so long as it leads back to Moscow. In a recent polemic, Putin threatened to further partition their country.

Despite the thoroughly documented situation on Ukraine’s frontlines, that shows how one-sided Moscow’s aggression is against Kyiv, France and Germany responded to the Bayraktar incident by saying that both sides were at fault. There are few ways to justify these kinds of statements while acknowledging the same reality on the ground witnessed by those experiencing it firsthand.

Thankfully the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv brought some sanity to the table, saying in a statement that it urges “Let’s be clear — The Russia-led side has repeatedly deployed howitzer artillery and drones against Ukrainian forces … Official Russian rhetoric suggesting Ukraine is aggravating the situation is not only misleading, it serves to escalate tensions.”

The reality is that for all of Ukraine’s impressive advancements in recent years — especially the continuing modernization of a decayed Soviet-era military out of necessity — Russian forces can still overwhelm it should Putin choose to. Shows of solid support from international partners are essential, as when the U.S. stood by Ukraine when the Kremlin massed forces on its border this spring.

Whether France and Germany are making these missteps because Paris may still hope for an entente with Moscow or because Berlin is waking up to the threat of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline remains to be seen. Ukrainians know that when Russian artillery is killing its troops, great power politics take a backseat to getting the shooting to stop.

Doug Klain is a program assistant with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Follow him on Twitter @DougKlain