The tragedy involving the downed Malaysia Airlines flight shows it’s time for Russia and Ukraine to honor a binding ceasefire and begin a period of intense negotiations and real diplomacy.
A message of condolence is left among candles and flowers near the Dutch embassy in Kiev, July 17, 2014. Photo: Reuters
After months of being locked in a battle to win the hearts and minds of the world, the Ukrainian government and the separatists of Eastern Ukraine no longer have any option other than to meet each other halfway at the negotiating table. The loss of nearly 300 innocent lives aboard Flight MH17 shows that events have escalated beyond anyone's imagination, turning a regional tragedy into a truly global tragedy. It's time to pause and take a look back at the steps that brought us to this point.
Up until now, the Ukrainian army has been hailed as conquering heroes in the Western media for defeating the insurgents in Sloviansk. According to several reports, the Ukrainian army has finally gained the upper hand, and victory in the “Ukrainian Civil War” is imminent. Kiev has already started to plan for handling relations with Russia following its civil war, threatening to cut diplomatic and trade ties with Russia and relying on the European Union to survive.
Ukraine has already convinced the United States to enact unilateral sanctions against Russia, yet has been fairly ineffective (even with help from the U.S.) in convincing the Europeans to enact further economic sanctions against Russia. However, it is working very hard to convince both the United States and the European Union to further isolate Russia while turning a blind eye to the violence and high casualty rates among civilians in Eastern Ukraine.
The problem with this strategy is that the Ukrainian government hasn't yet won its civil war. While the Ukrainian army had been able to put aside many of its difficulties during the siege of Sloviansk, it still has to defeat the insurgents in Donetsk and Luhansk, which are much more difficult tasks than defeating the insurgents in Sloviansk.
Donetsk and Luhansk are both large urban areas, with large populations. Despite the fact that many civilians have left these cities, many civilians have decided to stay. This means that if the Ukrainian army continues to wage war against the insurgents using heavy artillery and air munitions, that civilian casualties will only increase.
Russian media has been quick to show the devastation waged on Sloviansk, showing burned houses as well as highlighting the plight of refugees affected by the continued anti-insurgency campaign. The Western media has been careful not to show such images, instead reporting on the gains by the Ukrainian army.
However, as the Ukrainian offensive might bring about even more civilian casualties, Western media will begin to show the effects of the anti-insurgency campaign. A high rate of civilian casualties will begin to drive a wedge between the original EU member states (specifically Germany and France) and the newer member states such as Poland and the Baltic States.
The government in Kiev feels forced to continue its anti-insurgency campaign not because of Russian actions, but rather, because the public in Western Ukraine supports it. The government is concerned that if it does not resolve the insurgency and resoundingly defeat the insurgents, that the government of Ukraine will be short-lived, and that either they will be replaced by more radical elements, or that Ukraine will basically dissolve into chaos. Despite pressure from the West, they have increased their efforts at forcefully ending the insurgency.
The irony for the Ukrainian government is that as they continue their campaign, they are winning supporters in Western Ukraine, yet are starting to cause dissension among their allies in Western Europe.
More importantly, the rough tactics employed by the Ukrainian military are preventing the possibility of reconciliation with the citizens in Eastern Ukraine, specifically those people who are not the separatists, but live in the separatist regions.
Even if they win the civil war, which will not be easy, the Ukrainian government must be careful not to further alienate those who live in Eastern Ukraine, or there will be very little chance to create a united Ukraine.
Despite the fact that the Ukrainian government is not winning the hearts and minds of the Eastern Ukrainians, neither is the separatist government. The separatist government has been also ruthless in keeping order, often using capital punishment for crimes like stealing. They have argued that such tactics are necessary to retain order in an otherwise chaotic war, yet these tactics have not precisely endeared them to the common populace.
Perhaps most confusing in the Ukrainian civil war is the preponderance of suspect information. Some reputable newspapers and media sources have published damning photographs claiming that they have proven Russian involvement and aid to the separatists. Yet, each time, the information has proven to be suspect. This week, photos have supposedly surfaced that prove that rockets are being fired from Russian territory into Ukraine.
The problem with these photographs is that they are extremely difficult to authenticate, and none of them have been proven to be accurate. That is not to say that Russian aid is not crossing the border into Ukraine, merely that the evidence has not proven it.
However, the more that the Ukrainian army presses on with its campaign against the separatists, the more likely it is that Russia will feel the need to intervene in some capacity. Already volunteers have assembled to join the front and help the separatists fight off the Ukrainian army. Bloodshed will only increase. Increased bloodshed will lengthen the conflict.
Further, the longer and bloodier the conflict, the more pressure there will be for the United States, Russia and the EU to resolve the crisis. In all likelihood, a resolution involving those three countries would not favor Ukraine's current government. Further, the alienation of the Eastern Ukrainians will ensure that Ukraine will be further split and become two distinct countries.
It is time for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to call a real ceasefire and call for a new constitutional assembly. Let the Ukrainians vote on a new constitution that better reflects their own interests. A new federal Ukraine would allow minority ethnic groups to feel better represented, while allowing for local rule.
It is time that the crisis is resolved. The crash of Flight MH17 was a price too high to pay for anyone.The humanitarian disasters of the military offensives in Luhansk and Donetsk will be tragic. Further, by not reaching a deal with Russia over natural gas, the Ukrainian government is facing another humanitarian disaster by not having enough natural gas to last through the winter. People will freeze. It is time for action and a de-escalation of the conflict. Only through intense negotiations and diplomacy can the Ukrainian government hope to win over the hearts and minds of its citizens.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.