The dramatic announcement that the French President and the German Chancellor were on their way to Kiev with a new diplomatic initiative which they intend to take on to Moscow today was at once positive and negative.
It was positive, because it was the first evidence for some time of a serious European effort to address the intensified fighting in eastern Ukraine. It was negative, because it illustrated how bad the situation must have become to prompt a mission that bears all the hallmarks of desperation. Once the Hollande-Merkel card has been played, it has been played. It is hard to know where anyone goes from there, should this gambit fail.
There may be several reasons why this move is being risked now. The most obvious is the renewed spread of fighting to the port of Mariupol, the threat of shelling and street-fighting engulfing all of Donetsk, and the alarming deterioration in conditions there even as winter hardens its grip.
A second would be the stated intention of both Kiev and the rebels to increase their fighting capacity, with appeals for volunteers and extended conscription – hardly a sign that either side envisages peace. But the third, and the one that renders diplomacy so urgent, is the ever more frequent talk in some Western capitals about supplying the Kiev government with weapons.
It should perhaps be noted that – despite the great certainty with which some Nato representatives, but especially the Kiev government, accuse Russia of supplying manpower and weapons to the rebels - the position remains unclear. Nor is it as one-sided as these reports suggest. Eastern Ukraine is where many Soviet-era armaments factories were sited. There was weaponry aplenty in the region already without Russia necessarily supplying more.
If Russia has regular troops in eastern Ukraine, which it has denied, the numbers are not such as to have allowed Nato or Washington to circulate definitive satellite photos to prove it. As President Putin pointed out months ago to the outgoing President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, Russia could reach Kiev in weeks – if it wanted to. This suggests that whatever its military involvement in eastern Ukraine, it is – thus far – of a supportive/defensive, not expansionist/offensive variety.
As for the Kiev government, Nato – it would appear – is already providing support in matters such as intelligence, satellite surveillance and training. Defensive equipment, such as helmets and other protective gear, is also finding its way to Kiev. Polish officials have claimed widespread popular support in their country for supplying offensive, as well as defensive, equipment to Ukrainian forces; they have noted the slenderness of the line that separates “offensive” from “defensive”, and hinted at more active help should the Kiev government appear to be in danger.
Such talk is disturbing, as are the signals coming from Washington. Ashton Carter, President Obama’s nominee for defence secretary (to succeed Chuck Hagel) told Senators that he was “inclined” to provide the Kiev government with the heavy weapons it had been asking for. It must be hoped that such sentiments reflect the requirements of a confirmation hearing before a majority Republican Congress and not the start of a policy change in Washington. But even words in this context are dangerous. If Russia believes that the US is preparing to supply heavy weapons to Kiev, you do not have to be a strategic genius to forecast what might come next.
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
It would be premature – and irresponsible – to write off the chances of diplomacy, even at this late stage. But the ever-louder discussion of weapons-supplies only reinforces the idea of this conflict as a Cold-War style proxy conflict between East and West, in which all Ukraine is the prize. And this is indeed how much of the West, especially the United States, has understood it almost from the start – with all the European flags on Kiev’s Maidan Square. There is, however, another way of looking at it.
At ground level, this never needed to be an East-West conflict; nor should it have become one. It was – and remains – a struggle between two cultural outlooks and allegiances within Ukraine. The westward orientation has grown – in strength and in geographical spread - in the almost quarter-century since the disintegration collapse of the Soviet Union, but the eastward orientation (represented by the misleadingly description of the forces in the east as “pro-Russian rebels”) remains entrenched, though dominant in an ever smaller space.
The rebels’ initial demand for recognition within a genuinely federal Ukrainian state is still the optimal solution. It was enshrined in the various ceasefire agreements (which were accepted by Moscow) – but it has been consistently rejected by Kiev, which demands nothing short of a centralised state. This is the real sticking point, and this is where the solution should be found: in a degree of federalisation that preserves the unity of Ukraine, while allaying the fears of those in the east that they will be dragooned into a way of life that they do not (yet) see as theirs.
Both sides have a point. The violence in Kiev and Russia’s annexation of Crimea strengthened the pro-western tendency in Ukraine, but it also widened the cultural divide and exacerbated the feeling of vulnerability on the part of many in the east.
It could be argued that this divide and that vulnerability have now reached the point of no return. The loss of largely pro-Russian Crimea has left Ukraine with its westward orientated majority increased as a proportion of the population. If Kiev lacks the will, and the east lacks the trust, to keep Ukraine united, but as a federal state, the only alternative – to stop the fighting - might have to be an agreement to split. Chancellor Merkel, for one, will adamantly oppose any new change of border in Europe; Kiev will resist for reasons of national dignity, but might be persuaded that peace, and an uncontested westward orientation, could be their own reward.
Russia has given no sign whatever that it wants to annex eastern Ukraine (and assume responsibility for rebuilding it), nor have Ukraine’s easterners asked at any point to join Russia. There may come a time, however – if the Merkel-Hollande mission fails – where such an unpalatable option might have to be contemplated. Either that, or the US, Poland and perhaps others start supplying weapons to Kiev, which would be a recipe for all-out war.
Lowell Goddard – and other Commonwealth stars
The Home Secretary’s new choice to chair what will now be a statutory inquiry into historical child sexual abuse has met with almost universal approval, something that looked impossible after her first two nominees were deemed too beholden to the establishment. Mind you, Theresa May had to look far and wide, before finding Lowell Goddard on the opposite side of the world, in New Zealand.
The selection of Goddard, a High Court judge in her home country, however, continues what is becoming something of a trend. Where once Britain sent out some of its brightest and best to rule the colonies, entrusting them with a so-called “civilising” mission, the process is now operating in reverse. The UK is inviting some of the brightest and best from the former colonies to aid the mother country. The new civilising mission is to blow a breath of fresh air into fusty corridors of power, cut through centuries of red tape and show how antiquated institutions could benefit from a bit of modernity.
Mark Carney came from the Canadian Central Bank, rode the Tube, and started sorting out the Bank of England, while Australian Lynton Crosby (think of him what you like) was recruited to run the Conservatives’ election campaign. India- born, but British educated, Suma Chakrabarti, heads the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. Far from coming back to bite us, here is a reverse-benefit of Empire.Reuse content