A dangerous moment for Ukraine’s fragile ceasefire

January 25, 2016
Ukraininan President Petro Poroshenko (L) looks back, followed by Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) after a meeting in Minsk, February 11, 2015. The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine were due to attend a peace summit on Wednesday, but Ukraine's pro-Moscow separatists diminished the chance of a deal by launching some of the war's worst fighting in an assault on a government garrison.          REUTERS/Grigory Dukor (BELARUS  - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Ukraininan President Petro Poroshenko (L) looks back, followed by Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) after a meeting in Minsk, February 11, 2015. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

Behind the scenes, U.S. diplomats are rediscovering Ukraine as a foreign-policy priority.

On Jan. 15, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met with a key Kremlin adviser at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s beachfront residence on the Baltic Sea. Nuland, the top U.S. diplomat responsible for European affairs, had traveled to Russia’s heavily militarized Kaliningrad region to sit down with Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s lieutenant overseeing the rebel regions in eastern Ukraine. Their six-hour “brainstorming” session, Surkov later told Russian journalists, touched on the thorniest issues of Ukraine’s tenuous peace process and proved both “constructive and useful.”

To call the meeting unusual would be an understatement. Russian state media has consistently portrayed Nuland as the puppet-master of Kiev’s pro-Western Maidan revolution two winters ago, while Surkov, the designer of Putin’s decorative democracy, is viewed in the West as one of the masterminds behind the Crimea annexation. Because of his role, Surkov was blacklisted from entering the United States and the European Union in March 2014.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L), Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko (R), Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel (2nd R) and France's President Francois Hollande attend a meeting on resolving the Ukrainian crisis in Minsk, February 11, 2015. The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine began peace talks in Belarus on Wednesday, while in Ukraine pro-Moscow separatists tightened the pressure on Kiev by launching some of the war's worst fighting. REUTERS/Mykola Lazarenko/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters (BELARUS - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MILITARY CONFLICT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko (R), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (2nd R) and French President Francois Hollande attend a meeting on resolving the Ukrainian crisis in Minsk, February 11, 2015. REUTERS/Mykola Lazarenko/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters

As President Barack Obama starts his last year in the White House, Washington is leading a final effort to defuse the still ticking time bomb that is Ukraine. Key European allies — German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande — have been seriously distracted by the continent’s refugee crisis and newfound terrorism threat.

The Kremlin, chastened by low oil prices and a dim overall economic outlook, has signaled its readiness to implement the so-called Minsk peace agreement. Just as Putin did with eastern Ukraine, he has gone into contortions to be part of both the problem and the solution in Syria. By inserting Russia into the Middle East as a military actor, Putin forced Washington to take notice. On the eve of Nuland’s peace mission, Obama picked up the phone to urge Putin to do his part. After the meeting, Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and declared that Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia could be eased if the Minsk deal gains traction in the coming months.

The Minsk accords consist of two separate documents: the Minsk Protocol, the original cease-fire agreement from September 2014, and the follow-up “package of measures for implementation” hammered out by Putin, Merkel, Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in an all-night negotiating marathon in the Belarusian capital last February. Known as “Minsk 2,” the additional document set out a sequence of measures, starting with a phased-in ceasefire, greater autonomy for the Donbas region, the withdrawal of Russian troops (“foreign armed formations”), local elections and, finally, the restoration of Kiev’s control over the border with Russia.

The deadline was the end of 2015. But because not even a lasting cease-fire is yet in place, all sides agreed to extend the Minsk process into 2016.

The West has accepted Minsk 2 as the only game in town, and there is no serious discussion of a Plan B or, say, a Minsk 3. Europe and its wider neighborhood are facing enough turmoil the way things are. For U.S. and EU diplomats, failure is not an option. The fighting in Ukraine has already cost more than 9,000 lives since April 2014, when armed Russian operatives infiltrated eastern Ukraine and seized government buildings.

The new urgency for a resolution stems from a fear in Western capitals that Poroshenko may now play for time, which would turn Minsk into an endless blame game between Kiev and Moscow. The Kremlin, for its part, is jumping on an opportunity to repair relations with the West at a moment when the European Union is preoccupied with other challenges.

If it starts to seem like Putin is cooperating and Poroshenko stalling, Brussels will likely find it difficult to maintain unanimity on renewing economic sanctions against Russia this summer.

Powerful lobbies in Germany, France and Italy are now pushing for sanctions relief. The successive economic restrictions adopted by the European Union and the United States during 2014 significantly curbed Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine. The threat of new sanctions, combined with a drop in global commodity prices, caused Russia’s economy to grind to a halt.

Though Western sanctions were “smart” in targeting individuals (like Surkov) and state companies, Putin retaliated with a blanket ban on EU and U.S. food imports, ultimately hurting ordinary Russians more than his enemies du jour.

Ukrainians, who face economic collapse themselves, view the continuation of sanctions against Russia as crucial to their own national survival. The hope in Kiev is that as the Russian economy contracts, so will Putin’s ability to wreak havoc on Ukraine. Conversely, should the West decide Russia is fulfilling the Minsk agreement and relax sanctions, Poroshenko faces the prospect of being left alone to deal with Putin.

Poroshenko’s dilemma is that he has a legal deadline this week to pass a constitutional change that paves the way for giving the breakaway regions “special status” as foreseen by Minsk 2. Currently, the Ukrainian president doesn’t have the necessary 300 votes in parliament to pass the amendment. Whether he loses or delays the vote, Poroshenko will end up looking like he’s not holding up his end of the deal.

“Minsk” has become a bad word in Ukraine. People are increasingly frustrated by the West’s focus on a constitutional amendment when more basic conditions of the peace process — a complete ceasefire, aggressive international monitoring, prisoner exchanges — haven’t been achieved. Many Ukrainians increasingly feel their country’s fate is being decided abroad. At the same time, they are afraid that Ukraine will be forgotten by the West, as yet another struggling state on Europe’s borders.

Merkel was driven to negotiate Minsk 2 by her panicked realization that Ukraine’s war could turn into a European conflagration. That’s how Putin managed to plant booby traps in the deal that are practically impossible to avoid: concessions to the rebel regions are highly unpopular in Ukraine, and holding local elections in accordance with national law is infeasible. The worst-case scenario in the German foreign ministry is that if Poroshenko fails to make the necessary legal changes, the separatists will go ahead with their own “elections,” which would bury the Minsk agreement and revive calls in Washington to arm Ukraine.

At the same time, there are indications that the Kremlin is serious about de-escalation. Separatist field commanders who have resisted even nominal rapprochement with Ukraine are reportedly dying violent deaths or otherwise being put out of commission. There’s talk that the Kremlin is now ready to give up its proxies in Donetsk and Luhansk — Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, respectively — in return for Kiev recognizing local elections.

Rebel fighters who fought for Novorossiya — a 19th-century Russian designation for most of present-day Ukraine — feel let down by the Kremlin. Igor Girkin, a retired Russian special ops officer who started the Donetsk rebellion in the town of Slovyansk, voiced his anger in a recent radio interview.

“While we were active in Slovyansk and Donetsk,” Girkin said, “at a minimum we were talking about the creation of an independent Novorossiya. Now we’re talking about the return of certain regions to Ukraine. … How long are we going to dance to the tune of our so-called respected Western friends who baited us into the war in Ukraine but didn’t let us win?”

Girkin, a die-hard Russian nationalist who has fought in five wars, doesn’t mince words. “The fate of the DNR and LNR is decided in Moscow,” he said, referring to the Russian abbreviations for the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics.

After the Kremlin recalled Girkin in August 2014, he lashed out against officials such as Surkov for abandoning the project of Novorossiya. The two men represent opposite poles of Russia’s ruling class: the cynics and the nationalists. While Surkov manages politics as a shifting game of deceit and manipulation, Girkin is unerringly committed to fighting for Russia.

“There’s a very difficult historical period ahead of us,” Girkin told his followers over the radio. “Believe in our country and our people — and that we’ll still get the chance to continue what we started in 2014.”

Even if Putin wants to put them back now, the genies he summoned to make war on Ukraine are out of the bottle.


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Oh! Politicians do not want peace! To reopen the crisis of Ukraine means again to see signs of world war through clouds. Same old story of killings of hundreds of innocent people and properties for no fault of theirs.Obama would have left the legacy as the best president but for his actions regarding Ukraine.
Both Obama and Putin would have helped Ukraine to compensate the loss of small peace of land in many other ways for sake of peace…but who wants pece?!
To for get and forgive the by gone is the only solution any where in the world when two countries collide.Lingering leads no where except wars.
Look at how India and Pakistan are trying to avoid war all so far.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Here goes Lucian Kim predicting the fall of Putin again.
I think you need to take an objective look at what Putin is doing and you will realize that he is defending Russia’s interests, which is what a good leader does…………….

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

The issue of Ukraine is more explosive and dangerous than the issue of immigration and refugees.There people are suffering but here people would die like ants under a roller of a new world war.
Leaders must act wisely,not politically.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Ukraine is just another senseless US orchestrated regime change that was met with the fiasco of loss of land (Crimea) and life, that was brought to some meaningful conclusion by Putin. The price was paid heavily by locals, that suffered the most followed by EU and US tax payers. Rest is US defense’s PR much to the amusement of the uninformed.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

I am pretty sure the US isn’t walking away from Guantanamo Bay soon. So why expect Russia to walk away from the Crimea?
Both are gateway bases to their respective homelands. But this is really more about a certain US president’s ego and a perceived slight.

Posted by SR37212 | Report as abusive

I am pretty sure the US isn’t walking away from Guantanamo Bay soon. So why expect Russia to walk away from the Crimea?
Both are gateway bases to their respective homelands. But this is really more about a certain US president’s ego and a perceived slight.

Posted by SR37212 | Report as abusive

Putin : We’ll pretend to negotiate.
US and Europe : We’ll pretend to offer sanctions relief during your pretend negotiations.
Ukraine : One Ukraine.

Posted by tribeUS | Report as abusive

European migrants crisis has been caused by Putin’s support of Assad. European Ukraine crisis has been caused by Putin’s support of Yanukovych.
Why the West is afraid to take Putin off SWIFT? Have the alternatives turned out to be cheaper?..

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Very biased article, full of populist statements. US foreign policy does not care about Ukraine or its historical ties with Russia. When Soviet Union collapsed nobody asked people in Eastern Ukraine or Crimea, where they want to live, they just drew a border on the map while sitting in a hot tub.

Posted by free_man | Report as abusive

Putin indeed wants to give us back the occupied parts of the Donetsk & Luhansk oblasts in order to make Ukraine, instead of Russia, pay for ukrainophobia, neostalinism & antidemocratic (often “smartly” called there anti-european, anti-west) propaganda massively organised on those lands (as well as in Crimea &, slightly less intensively, in the whole RF) by the separatist power & (pro)Russian mass media. All these things should be done through “appropriate” amendments to our Constitution & through the “elections” (completely “equal & free”, as we can easily guess) on the mentioned lands. A “splendid”, “brilliant”, “astounding” Vovan’s scheme, I should say!
(Basil, Ukraine)

Posted by Basilbilo | Report as abusive