With German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande paying a joint visit to Kiev and then to Moscow to prevent the conflict from turning into a full-fledged war, there is still hope for a peaceful end to the crisis.


French President Francois Hollande embraces German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, hope to prevent the Ukrainian crisis from a more dangerous escalation. Photo: AP

On Feb. 5 French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel made an unprecedented diplomatic statement by embarking on a joint emergency visit to Kiev, and then Moscow, in an effort to bring the war in the Donbas region to an end. This suggests that the situation in Eastern Ukraine has reached a critical moment.

To date, the conflict in the Donbas region has been a war of attrition. Each side has been seeking to extract the most favorable conditions for peace from the negotiations. The problem is that the very concept of “peace” can be interpreted according to where one stands on the Ukraine crisis.

The pro-Russian separatists want a frozen conflict in Ukraine (or on its borders if the independence of the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk republics is ever recognized) in order to have constant leverage over Kiev and sow doubt in Europe as to the advisability of rapprochement with Ukraine.

Kiev, on the other hand, needs a real peace that will permit the gradual introduction of reforms, without which rapprochement with the EU is a forlorn prospect and the political leadership would lose public trust.

Moscow’s objectives for Ukraine

The tripartite meeting in Minsk on Jan. 31 showed that the separatists are operating from a position of strength, which could only be possible with Moscow’s support.

The key matter relates to the rejection of previously signed agreements fixing the demarcation line as of Sept. 19, 2014. This line has since changed in some areas in favor of the rebels, suggesting that the separatists are not interested in complying with banal diplomatic principles and are even making direct threats part of their negotiating strategy. It is worth emphasizing that, without the tacit consent of Russia, such actions would be out of the question.

Given the reality on the front line, such an approach could be a bluff by the separatists, who do feel they are under some pressure from the Ukrainian army. Moreover, Moscow, very much squeezed by economic sanctions, is most likely seeking to minimize the loss of face in what is an extremely unfortunate situation. At the same time, Moscow is trying to achieve at least some of the goals set at the start of the “Novorossiya project.”

A key objective of this project is to force Ukraine to abandon its intention of joining NATO, whereupon it is interesting to note that the alliance itself does not have a clear roadmap for Ukraine membership.

Another objective for Moscow is to hinder Ukraine’s drift into the European orbit, where it would be far less susceptible to the pitfalls of post-Soviet corruption. After all, any positive shifts in Ukraine would demonstrate the falsity of the “Russian way of development” as proposed by the Kremlin but yet to have any real positive effect on Russia’s own population. That in turn would provoke consternation on the part of Russian society.

In crisis conditions, which both the Ukrainian and Russian economies are experiencing, each side is trying to hold out for as long as possible, waiting for the other to fall.

Whereas Russia is surviving on its depleted reserves, Ukraine is clinging to support from the West. What is more, Russia’s development opportunities have been stymied for the foreseeable future. Even two years before the war and throughout the whole of 2013, economists were adamant that Russia’s development hinged upon three key factors: cutting dependence on energy, increasing foreign investments, and developing infrastructure projects.

Moscow’s strategy is not paying off

As things stand, there is no hope of implementing any of them. Export proceeds from the sale of oil and gas remain a key source of income, the conditions for foreign investment are lacking, the war has effectively closed off all openings for foreign business (confirmation of which is Standard & Poor’s downgrading of Russia’s credit rating to non-investment grade for the first time in a decade), and major infrastructure projects have been limited to the mega-development of Sochi, while suburban trains in the most developed part of Russia have stopped running.

As a result, it is clear that Moscow needs to abandon its policy on Ukraine; otherwise, the deteriorating economic conditions could cause a serious social outburst inside RussiaThe constant stream of data on the deployment of Russian military equipment and troops in the Donbas region mean that Europe cannot weaken the sanctions, while the West continues to show political support for Ukraine.

Cartoon by Khalil Rahman

There is no doubt that the resolution passed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) depriving the Russian delegation of its voting rights until April 2015 and Moscow’s reaction, namely its refusal to participate in the Assembly until the end of the year, are “demonstrations of intent.” Moreover, Russia has signaled that further action on Europe may be taken, showing resoluteness in the face of tighter sanctions.

The Russian delegation’s decision to “slam the door” was directed primarily at strengthening its image back home. After all, the defiant steps that Russia is taking in the international arena, including the demonstrative withdrawal from any negotiations, is essentially aimed at the domestic audience.

For Ukraine, although the PACE decision will have no significant direct impact on the situation in the Donbas region, it is nevertheless is an expression of European support, which means that Kiev can count on further assistance from the EU and Western financial institutions in the confrontation with Russia, which, to reiterate, is a war of attrition.

The role of the United States

Do not forget about the role of the United States in the conflict. Washington is supporting Kiev through financial aid, expert military advice and supplies of non-lethal gear. And of no small importance is its role in encouraging Europe to impose economic sanctions against Russia.

Information has begun to appear on Washington’s intent to deliver lethal weapons to Ukraine, with no mention of exactly what weapons - or when. Certain types of weaponry could indeed influence the course of military operations in the Donbas region, but the impact would hardly be decisive.

The Ukrainian military-industrial complex (MIC) produces the range of weapons that the country’s armed forces need. Therefore, it would be more expedient to allocate financial aid for the purchase of arms from the Ukrainian MIC, and as direct assistance deliver only what Ukrainian enterprises cannot produce in sufficient quantities.

Moscow tries to win favor with Europe

Moscow, for its part, is trying to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe — and inside the EU itself in order to reduce its assistance to Ukraine. In certain areas, the policy is working. For instance, the political forces supported by Moscow are becoming stronger in some European countries, notably France, Greece and Spain.

According to some sources, the “corruption aspect” is playing a role in relations between Moscow and certain current and former European leaders, as well as the media and business. However, overall, Europe’s position on Ukraine can be said to be one of unanimity.

All hopes pinned on Russia’s political pragmatists

In addition, there is still a reliance on Russian political pragmatism in the current conflict. This pragmatism should not allow the personal interests of individuals to expose their own country to the risk of economic decline and political isolation, or to jeopardize the security of the region - if not the world.

Thus, the efforts of world leaders should be focused on securing a diplomatic solution to the problem using the tools of economic pressure, which, unlike brute military aggression, does not entail causalities. In this context, Hollande and Merkel’s urgent visit to Kiev and Moscow is a positive sign. A strong leader who feels a sense of responsibility for his own nation can still withdraw from the game simultaneously achieving some initial goals and without compromising the future of the Russian people or those of neighboring Ukraine.

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