Ukraine, Russia and the West should not squander the opportunity to settle the conflict. To do so, however, requires a fundamental re-thinking of how international security has changed over the past decade.


Fighters of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic walk past a destroyed Ukrainian army armoured personnel carrier in the town of Vuhlehirsk, about 10 km (6 miles) to the west of Debaltsevo, Feb. 16. Photo: Reuters

Just a few days after the signing of the new Minsk agreements, which stipulated a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weaponry away from the demarcation line in Eastern Ukraine, there have already been concerns that neither side is observing he terms of the agreement. Most notably, for the 72-hour period following the start of the official ceasefire, there has been heavy fighting in and around Debaltseve.

As a result, the United States has prominently accused Russia of violating the Minsk settlement. According to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, “the cost to Russia will rise” if the declared truce in the Donbas continues to be breached. Given the continued fighting around the strategically important town of Debaltseve, where Ukrainian forces were stationed until their withdrawal on Feb. 18, gives Washington cause to doubt the viability of the new Minsk agreements.

At the same time, the Defense Ministry of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic says that since the signing of the agreement, “There have been 12 violations of the peace by the Ukrainian military.” According to the separatists, this includes shelling in the region of Debaltseve, Donetsk Airport and the village of Shirokino.

Ironically, immediately after the marathon talks in Minsk and the unusual (by diplomatic standards) divulgence of the outcome of the talks, all kinds of comments and predictions began springing up like wild flowers in late spring. Their semantic import with respect to the Ukrainian state ranged from cautious optimism to apocalypse now.

Strange as it may sound, all these points of view have a right to exist. And all because the events in Ukraine cannot be considered outside of the context of the pan-European, even worldwide, processes in the area of international relations and international security.

The “Ukrainian question” affects, in varying degrees, directly or indirectly, the interests of all global players with no exceptions. A series of events that started with Russia’s annexation of Crimea has flummoxed the international community by its unprecedented nature. The world was not ready to return to the state from which it emerged after the end of the bipolar era. As a consequence, there was no ready-made solution, or even response, to the issue.

In the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world’s leading nations, including Russia, began to develop relations of an entirely different nature. The acceleration of globalization processes in the 1990s forced economic cooperation to the top of the agenda, where it became firmly established. It replaced the politics and ideology that had prevailed in international relations during the period of bloc confrontation.

Institutions set up to resolve foreign policy issues, such as the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), began to play second fiddle. To the fore came the international economic and financial heavyweights — the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and others. At the same time, institutions such as the G8 and G20 grew in stature.

Gradually, political expediency gave way to pure economic benefit. Thus did the new development paradigm of the globalized world take shape.

The United States, remaining the sole superpower, did not seek to create a new system of international security based on principles other than confrontation.

The question of U.S. involvement or non-involvement in the settlement of conflicts beyond its borders was now uniquely dependent on whether or not American interests were at stake.

Europe, having cast off “American guardianship” and returned former socialist countries to the fold, charted a course of active integration.

For its part, Russia, by that time accepted as an equal member of the international community, initiated reintegration processes in the significantly diminished post-Soviet space.

Thus, the officially recognized doctrine of globalization came into conflict with the real process of regionalization. And it is into the grinder of this globalized regionalization that Ukraine fell when trying to change the civilizational vector of its development.

In response to Ukraine's pro-European approach to integration, Russia annexed Crimea and, by so doing, triggered a military conflict in the east of the country. The West’s tardy response meant that for a long time Ukraine stood virtually alone against the well-armed separatists, which are thought to be supplied with Russian weapons.

The situation changed somewhat on the eve of the 51st Munich Security Conference. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Kiev and the “shuttle diplomacy” of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande reanimated the issue: a meeting of the “Normandy quartet” followed and concluding documents were signed.

But given how hard it was simply to arrange the meeting, one can only imagine how difficult it will be to implement the agreements reached, especially amidst mutual accusations from both sides as to who is at fault.

Therefore, it makes little sense to dwell on any one particular solution to the problem. The goals and interests pursued by the parties to the talks are too diverse, and in most cases diametrically opposed. Only the contours of further collaboration have been outlined so far. On the other hand, we can focus on what was agreed upon and signed — mere words, albeit on paper. The value of signatures on international documents today is clear to see from the fate of the Budapest Memorandum, the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership between Russia and Ukraine, and the previous Minsk agreements signed in September last year.

So we must ready ourselves for a protracted endgame, since the problem will not be solved by cavalry assaults and improvised campaigns. There needs to be an objective and sober assessment of the situation combined with painstaking systemic efforts. Excessive optimism, much less feelings of hopelessness in relation to the negotiation process, should be banished.

For Ukraine and Russia at this stage, the very fact that the meeting was held in such a format is important. It sets a precedent that must be turned first into practice, and then into an effective mechanism of a new European security policy. And Ukraine, for its part, must do everything it can to keep up the momentum.

In addition to holding regular “Normandy format “talks, it is important to devise a system of control over the implementation of the agreements reached, including means of coercion. And that cannot be achieved without the help of other countries, primarily the United States and Britain. Perhaps for this purpose it would be expedient to expand the Geneva format.

An extraordinary situation calls for extraordinary measures. And the more complex it becomes, the more harmonized and coordinated must be the response of those countries involved. The West, Ukraine and Russia have been presented with an opportunity to resolve this issue jointly for the benefit of both Europe and the wider world. Will they squander it? Time will tell.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.