Until words match deeds, there is little hope that a lasting peace will result in Eastern Ukraine. The crisis in Ukraine may have stabilized over the past week, but for how long?
A pro-Russian rebel in a military base in Debaltseve, Ukraine. Photo: RIA Novosti
The new cease-fire signed in Minsk by the leaders of Ukraine, France, Germany and Russia was expected to be the first step in the de-escalation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in the Donbas region. While intense fighting in the strategically important town of Debaltseve initially threatened to sink the peace agreement just days after it went into effect on Feb. 15, fighting has now eased in many areas.
The meeting of the “Normandy Four” foreign ministers in Paris on Feb. 24 gives further hope that peace might actually have a chance in Ukraine. The foreign ministers are expected to discuss recommendations for carrying out the cease-fire and preventing another flare-up of the type of fighting that was seen in Debaltseve. However, the key question still remains: Does this new cease-fire have any real potential to de-escalate the crisis and lead to peace in Ukraine?
Tallying up Ukraine’s wins and losses after the Minsk negotiations
Taking into account the high possibility of the failure of the “Minsk II” talks, the Kiev delegation still received a positive result due to the fact that an agreement was at least signed. For Ukraine, the most significant issue remains the protection of the lives of its citizens who have been victims of pro-Russian separatists for nine months. Furthermore, the fact that Russia was so unwilling to sign the protocol confirms prominently that it’s not Putin’s draft in full.
Recalling the Ukrainian position before the Minsk negotiations, it can be stated that Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko has been successful regarding the protocol’s points on the withdrawal of military equipment and heavy weapons. What is more, the provisions of the first Minsk agreement are valid as well. It should be mentioned that, in case of changing the original Minsk peace protocol by a new one, all the existing European institutions decisions demanding the fulfilment of “Minsk I” provisions would be recognized as invalid automatically.
Kiev was mainly prepared to grant far-reaching autonomy to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and Russian-language rights in response to a bilateral cease-fire. However, Ukraine’s concessions did not stop at this point.
“Pardon and amnesty by banning any prosecution of figures involved in the Donetsk and Luhansk conflict as well as a release of all hostages and other illegally detained people” can partially be regarded as a loss for the Ukrainian side. President Poroshenko often used to claim that it’s impossible and terrorists would not be granted amnesty.
In addition, the provisions regarding the control of the Ukraine-Russia border and the creation of a buffer zone leave more questions than answers. This is because it is a field for Moscow’s provocations in case it intends to blame Kiev of violating the peace deal.
Another contradictory provision is related to the issue of constitutional reform in Ukraine. This point is not in favor of Ukraine as a unitary state because the competing sides have completely different visions of the decentralization process. As a result, Russia will demand a Crimea-like autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Such kind of local power management will definitely legalize the so-called “republics” to provide pro-Russian policy in the framework of the Ukrainian legislation.
Poroshenko was forced to make the concessions using those negotiations as a final step in the diplomatic way of solving the Russia-Ukraine conflict. After the encirclement of Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve, pro-Moscow separatists said they would start to withdraw heavy weapons from the front line in Eastern Ukraine on Feb. 21, but the government in Kiev said armored columns had crossed the border from Russia to reinforce the separatists.
Moreover, Ukraine’s Security and Defence Council said it would call on the UN and EU to deploy a peacekeeping mission. The council's head, Aleksandr Turchinov, said the peacekeepers should be stationed not only along the disengagement line separating Kiev's troops and the anti-government forces, but also along the part of the Russian-Ukrainian border, which is now controlled by the self-proclaimed republics.
Poroshenko’s announcement of a peacekeeping mission comes as a surprise for Putin. But the peacekeeping mission could be delivered to Eastern Ukraine only in case of reaching a complete cease-fire. In addition, the Ukrainian president called on U.S. for the supply of military weapons. So, it seems that Ukraine does not believe any more in the fulfilment of the Minsk II agreement by the Russian side. It is looking for alternative solutions of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Is it time for the West to use hard power?
The prestige of EU foreign policy was on the line in this new draft deal on Ukraine. EU leaders gave a “cautious” welcome to the Ukraine cease-fire deal, but they warned of further sanctions if it isn’t implemented.
Council Chief Donald Tusk claimed on Feb. 21 that the EU “has to face the reality that almost one week later there have been more than 300 violations of the ceasefire. People are still dying. We are clearly reaching a point when further diplomatic efforts will be fruitless unless credibly backed up by further action.” Tusk is now consulting European Union leaders on the next steps.
“Only words matched with deeds will in the end bring real hopes of a political solution to this conflict,” he added.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, after the marathon talks concluded, stated that "we hold open the possibility, if these new agreements are not implemented, that we must take further measures." In addition, German leader added that existing sanctions could only be lifted when the grounds that led to the conflict are removed.
In Minsk, EU leaders confronted the reality that Putin is ready to use military force to get what he wants in diplomacy. The EU has started taking an active part in the peace process, in order to neutralize the American influence on Kiev and thwart Poroshenko’s appeals to the U.S. for military assistance. Having extremely high hopes for the talks in Minsk, Germany and France officials realized that if the peace talks fail, Europeans would lose their ability to significantly influence the situation.
It is plausible that no one in Brussels any longer believes in Kiev’s ability to reinstate control over lost territories in the east. As a result, the European proposal was most likely an attempt to curb the separatists’ advances further west and stipulate an autonomous status of the self-proclaimed republics within the Ukraine with a demilitarized zone along the border extending as long as 100 kilometers (approximately 60 miles).
In general, the EU won a tentative peace in its talks with Russia and Ukraine, thereby preventing the situation in the country from deteriorating any further at the present stage. But the European diplomats are conscious of the scope of problems left to solve.
Taking into consideration the fact that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in London on Feb. 21 for meetings with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, where they discussed possible penalties that could be imposed against Russia if violence in Eastern Ukraine continues, some additional steps could be taken in response to the breaches of the cease-fire in a few days.
Furthermore, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has said it is considering harsher sanctions against Moscow and is weighing the possibility of arming Ukraine's military to defend itself.
"We are not going to sit back and allow this kind of cynical, craven behavior to continue at the expensive of the sovereignty of another nation," stated Kerry.
As regards the U.S. position, it is more decisive than the EU position. And making further predictions, it is highly likely that the United States will start shipping more serious weapons to Ukraine. It should be remembered that more than a week ago Obama said that “sending weapons is not based on the idea that Ukraine could defeat a Russian army. The American goal is for Ukraine ‘simply to defend itself.’”
“We start talking about a military response, and Putin starts talking about diplomacy,” said Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. Such statement statements could be regarded as a clear message from the U.S. of it being ready for a hard power response.
Russia’s position on Ukraine
For Russia, a federalized Ukraine is the most preferred outcome, as Moscow considers it the only way of saving the Ukrainian state from its otherwise inevitable collapse. It is also the fastest way - but not the only way - for Russia to end military confrontation as well as secure Ukraine’s neutral status with regard to EU and NATO integration. It is a well-known fact that Moscow views Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration process as a threat to Russia’s strategic interests in its backyard.
It is possible that Russia is not interested in any territorial expansion in the east. However, it could be interested in creating a frozen conflict and a so-called “grey zone.” As a result, after the Minsk negotiations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the new peace deal including the truce must be implemented "unconditionally." But he made no mention of whether or not Moscow believed the truce applied to Debaltseve.
So, there will be a lot of different interpretations of the compromise, particularly with regard to two sensitive issues - the control of the border and the special status of some Donbas areas. And Putin for sure will manipulate these issues because the new Minsk agreement gives him a chance to do that.
Nevertheless, the Russian side suffered a defeat as well. The so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics were not mentioned by any of the protocol’s provisions. Due to that fact, the primary responsibility for the conflict falls on Moscow being a guarantor of the fulfilment of the Minsk II agreement. No one among European and American officials can hesitate to say who is guilty of the Donbas conflict.
But moves towards pulling back heavy weapons, together with the exchange of dozens of prisoners with Ukrainian government forces on Feb. 21, could indicate the rebels and Russia as well intend (or just pretend) to observe the truce more fully, having achieved a military objective by seizing Debaltseve. And the reason is closely related to the Kremlin’s goal of preventing the imposition of further U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia.
It is worth noting that on Feb. 21, Ukrainian government forces and rebels exchanged nearly 200 prisoners, a move that could be considered as one of the first moves to implement the peace deal. Regardless, both sides continue to accuse each other of violating the cease-fire. As a result, further de-escalation (or, more likely, escalation) of the Russia-Ukraine conflict will depend on the coming Paris “Normandy Four” negotiations.