Ukraine analysis: Russia may prefer an extended 'frozen conflict' but freezing conditions loom for all

Some assume that a frozen conflict – to be switched on and off at Moscow’s behest – is the Kremlin’s preferred outcome for the region

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.

 

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.

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