It appears that the Ukraine crisis has come full circle. Ukrainian parliamentary elections in October gave Ukraine and the world community a brief respite from the images of revolution, war, annexation, and invasion. However, the successful Ukrainian parliamentary elections were followed by illegal separatist elections in Donetsk and Luhansk, which subsequently led to increasing violence in the east of the country.

Despite the nominal cease-fire, clashes have broke out again, throwing the freshly signed ceasefire agreement between government troops and Russian-backed separatists into further doubt. The sources in Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) report that large convoys with large-scale military hardware have been crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border.  Additionally, European monitors have reported sightings of heavy artillery and rocket launchers near the centre of Donetsk city.

These allegations of sending in troops and military equipment to help the rebels have repeatedly been denied by the government in Moscow. But as the death toll mounts and the economy continues to shrink, Russian aggression is casting a shadow on the peace process and denying Ukraine the ability to make decisions regarding its own future.

After the rebel elections were held on November 2nd, in defiance of the official government in Kiev, both sides accused each other of violating the peace agreement.

It appears that the Ukraine crisis has come full circle. Ukrainian parliamentary elections in October gave Ukraine and the world community a brief respite from the images of revolution, war, annexation, and invasion. However, the successful Ukrainian parliamentary elections were followed by illegal separatist elections in Donetsk and Luhansk, which subsequently led to increasing violence in the east of the country.

Despite the nominal cease-fire, clashes have broke out again, throwing the freshly signed ceasefire agreement between government troops and Russian-backed separatists into further doubt. The sources in Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) report that large convoys with large-scale military hardware have been crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border.  Additionally, European monitors have reported sightings of heavy artillery and rocket launchers near the centre of Donetsk city.

These allegations of sending in troops and military equipment to help the rebels have repeatedly been denied by the government in Moscow. But as the death toll mounts and the economy continues to shrink, Russian aggression is casting a shadow on the peace process and denying Ukraine the ability to make decisions regarding its own future.

After the rebel elections were held on November 2nd, in defiance of the official government in Kiev, both sides accused each other of violating the peace agreement. According the Minsk agreement, the local elections were to be held in early December. In public comments Mr. Putin said that the Minsk agreement did not specify that voting had to take place “in accordance with” Ukrainian law, but only “in coordination with” it.

In response, Ukraine’s President Poroshenko said a key plank of the ceasefire deal – the promised partial autonomy and special status granted to the rebel-held areas – should be put on hold. Poroshenko has upped his rhetoric as well, warning that Ukrainian forces should prepare to defend against separatist attack in the cities of Mariupol and Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov as well as the north-eastern city of Kharkiv. It remains unclear whether Russia will go for a land corridor to Crimea: costly infrastructure connections and a bridge are due to be built from the mainland across the Kerch Strait to the peninsula, but if the separatists captured Mariupol, that would provide them further access to the west along the coast to Crimea.

The separatists vote resulted in no surprises. Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko, a 38-year-old former mining electrician, easily won election as head of the “Donetsk People's Republic”, the armed rebels’ self-declared entity. In a similar vote in Luhansk, a smaller self-proclaimed pro-Russian entity, led by Igor Plotnisky, won more than 63 percent of the vote. No international elections monitors were present for the vote, and no minimum turnout was set by the organizers, reflecting the uncertainty over how many voters would participate in elections.

The rebels argued that, as independent states, they are under no obligation to observe Ukrainian law, and they did not take part in Ukrainian presidential and parliamentary elections earlier in October. While Russia has recognized the result and called the poll an important step in legitimizing the rebel republic’s authority, Ukraine’s western allies joined Kiev in condemning the vote – which took place under the control of armed men and without proper electoral procedure – as farcical.

The future role of NATO is also a sticking point in the renewed tensions. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has argued that Russia needs a guarantee that Ukraine will never be invited to join NATO. In response, Mark Stroh, a spokesman for the US National Security Council, argued that decisions regarding NATO membership should be free from any outside interference. Apparently, the circumstantial guarantees already offered that Ukraine will not join NATO in any foreseeable future are insufficient for Russia.

Meanwhile, US policymakers are debating the appropriate response to Russia’s ongoing aggression. Tony Blinken, President Obama’s nominee for a top State Department position, has argued that the United States should consider providing military equipment to Ukraine in order to deter Russia from further action. So far, the US has offered only non-lethal aid.  

This is a tense time for Ukraine. The country has been plagued by corruption and its economy is in terrible shape. The Ukrainian currency has lost almost half of its value against the dollar, the industrial centers of Donetsk and Luhansk are controlled by separatists, and coal mines in the east of Ukraine are shut down.

Unfortunately, the ambiguity created in the ongoing conflict indicates that the cease fire agreement never resolved key differences, and the threat of renewed hostilities has only been increased. Though the election of the Ukrainian Parliament on October 26th brought a new, pro-Western legislature, Kiev is still far from forming institutions or producing viable reforms. Resolving this crisis on the eastern flanks will be critical for Ukraine, which desperately needs to be able to begin rebuilding its economy and improving its governance.