With Russia and the United States as far apart as ever on ways of resolving the crisis in Ukraine’s southeast, its outcome may well be decided on the battlefield.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has not spoken with U.S. President Barack Obama since Kiev launched its “anti-terrorist operation” against anti-government protesters in Russian speaking regions in the east six weeks ago.

Two telephone talks last week between Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry showed just how irreconcilable their positions are.

While Mr. Lavrov urged Washington to pressure Kiev to “immediately cease military operations and begin direct negotiations with the south-eastern regions,” Mr. Kerry called on Moscow “to end all support for separatists, denounce their actions, and call on them to lay down their arms.”

While Moscow denounces the Ukrainian crackdown in the east as a “punitive operation” against the civilian population, Washington maintains that Kiev’s authorities “have every right to take steps to maintain law and order in their own country.”

Expanding U.S. aid

There are signs of a new proxy war warming up between Russia and the U.S. America’s Assistant Secretary of Defence Derek Chollet is coming to Kiev on Monday to discuss expanding U.S. military aid to Ukraine. Over the past three months Washington has doubled its military assistance to Kiev, according to the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. German intelligence sources estimated that some 400 U.S. mercenaries are fighting in Ukraine against pro-Russian separatists.

On the other side of the frontline, there are “several hundred” Russian volunteers, according to Alexander Borodai, Prime Minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.

The Ukrainian border guard service has reported several convoys of trucks with militants and weapons crossing the porous border from Russia in recent weeks.

Russia has refrained from openly supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine and still hopes to persuade Kiev to resolve the conflict by granting broad autonomy to the region.

Jury out of outcome

Even though the Ukrainian army has overwhelming superiority in weapons and manpower, experts say the jury is still out on the outcome of the standoff.

The fighting spirit of the Ukrainian army is low because many servicemen belong to the “old guard” and cannot not see Russia as an enemy, according to Andriy Parubiy, Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council.

Ukraine’s Acting Defence Minister Mykhailo Koval admitted that the army is short of soldiers. Kiev is trying to solve the manpower problem by recruiting volunteers among radical nationalists in western Ukraine who see Russia as the main threat to Ukrainian nationhood.

The conflict in the east is fast morphing into civil war. This was in stark display earlier this month in Odessa, a peaceful multiethnic Ukrainian port city on the Black Sea, where a group of ultranationalists from western Ukraine burnt alive and clubbed to death at least 48 pro-Russian activists.

Lieutenant General (Rtd) Yuri Netkachev thinks the conflict in eastern Ukraine is unfolding along the scenario of Transdienster, a breakaway territory of former Soviet state of Moldova.

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