When talks on Ukraine were convened in Minsk last September, they seemed to have come out of nowhere and the ceasefire agreement they produced was greeted with widespread scepticism.
The same could be said of talks designed to breathe new life into that agreement that could start in the Belarus capital as early as Tuesday of this week – or not. The negotiator for the anti-Kiev rebels in eastern Ukraine, Denis Pushilin, said he could not countenance any meeting before Friday, but the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, suggested talks could begin almost at once.
Whether any serious meeting will actually take place is one doubt. The other is whether any renegotiated ceasefire will hold any better than the last one. The widespread assumption has been that the conflict in eastern Ukraine is fast becoming a so-called “frozen conflict”, on the lines of other post-Soviet disputes. It is also assumed that a frozen conflict – to be switched on and off at Moscow’s behest, so making the east of Ukraine ungovernable from Kiev – is the Kremlin’s preferred outcome.
But there are also reasons why these assumptions could be wrong. One, supported by sections of Western intelligence, is that another frozen conflict is not what Russia is aiming for. According to this view, Russia has neither the inclination nor the means to maintain even that degree of involvement in eastern Ukraine: what it would settle for is what rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine have long said they want: a federal Ukraine in which the region would enjoy sufficient autonomy to retain its eastward orientation. If they want to keep the country together, Mr Poroshenko and the Kiev government have to cede more autonomy than they have so far offered.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
Another reason is that, although the September ceasefire has been deficient, it has probably been better than having no ceasefire. The violence affects a smaller region than it did before the autumn, and at least some of the continued fighting is explained by divisions among the rebels. A key element of the September agreement concerned Donetsk airport, which Kiev forces were supposed to hand to the rebels. This did not happen, it is said, because some rebels refused to hand over certain villages to Kiev forces.
But the most obvious reason why these talks might have a chance of success is the sense of urgency that comes with the inexorable advance of winter. Millions of Ukrainians face acute shortages of fuel and potentially food and temperatures far below zero. Even if the EU-brokered gas agreement between Russia and Ukraine is honoured and the gas continues to flow until March, the eastern part of Ukraine, which is under the tenuous control of anti-Kiev rebels, is little short of a disaster area.
While many residents have left, many of the most vulnerable remain. The situation will only deteriorate unless there is agreement that would facilitate international, including Russian, help. Nor is the rest of Ukraine guaranteed a safe winter. The Kiev government is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, yet it has failed to enact the sort of reforms that would qualify it for more IMF money. Every party to this conflict – Kiev and its Western backers, the rebels in the east, and Moscow – needs some arrangement that will get them through to the spring without a humanitarian or military disaster. That should concentrate negotiators’ minds.Reuse content