Ukraine crisis: Deal that does not remove distrust but on which a political settlement depends

It is not just Russia’s good faith that will be tested but Poroshenko’s too

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The Independent Online

It is tempting to respond to the news of the latest Minsk ceasefire agreement for Ukraine with a dismissive shrug and the words – in any of the several languages presumably used during the nearly 24 hours of talks – “here we go again”. This is now the third formal ceasefire deal in six months, with several less official and comprehensive arrangements reached before and in between.

Each time, I have been more optimistic than most, on the grounds that all the parties involved have at every stage had a clear interest in bringing hostilities to an end. The Kiev government was (and remains) on the verge of bankruptcy and its forces have failed to recover lost ground. The rebel forces were failing to make significant advances; casualties on both sides had mounted, and winter was drawing on.

Russia, for its part, seemed to lack the desire or the capacity, or both, to clinch victory for the rebels. For all the Western talk about a “frozen” conflict being Russia’s preferred solution, for Moscow to take on new financial and territorial responsibilities that would only perpetuate Western sanctions, at a time when low oil prices are weakening the Russian economy, makes little sense.

In my view, President Vladimir Putin’s priority in Ukraine has always been Russia’s national security interests, as he perceives them, and a sense of obligation towards the mostly Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east who fear they will be forced into a west Ukrainian mould. (If you want a parallel, think Britain, the unionists of Northern Ireland, and the awkward residue of empire, rather than support for a fifth column to undermine a westward-looking Ukraine with a view to restoring something akin to the Soviet Union or the Russian empire.)

 

The agreement differs somewhat in detail from its predecessors but little in spirit. It is the obvious compromise solution, waiting to happen. It provides for Ukraine to remain a single state within its current borders, which has been a central demand of Kiev. It enshrines a measure of constitutional autonomy for the territory held by the anti-Kiev rebels in the east, which has been a central demand of theirs – not independence, not secession to Russia, but devolved government within Ukraine.

This has always been the outcome that Moscow has insisted it would accept. But each time the ceasefire has broken down, largely because the rebels rejected the most basic practical arrangements on the ground. The last ceasefire collapsed in the first instance because some groups of rebels refused to give up certain villages – their home villages – which had been the price for the rebels’ retaining Donetsk airport. This was a turn of events that Russia had neither envisaged nor approved. Yet it could not have enforced compliance without sending in much heavier forces of its own. Moscow’s capacity to control the rebel forces has always been exaggerated.

If the rebels were undisciplined and rejected part of the deal negotiated on their behalf, the Kiev government was not entirely blameless either. President Poroshenko has been adamant that Ukraine should remain a unitary state, fearing that moves towards a more federal system could precipitate its break-up. If Kiev had been able to get its political writ to run in the east, or – failing that – to conquer the territory by force, then a unitary state would have been the unambiguous result.

But the conflict of the past year has shown that it is unable to do either, at least not without outside military help that most European governments, at least, are not prepared to give. Decentralisation is the only way that Ukraine can now remain one state. If Poroshenko has now been persuaded to accept this, then that offers the latest peace plan a chance.

Even to reach the negotiation of a political settlement, however, the ceasefire has to hold. And the distrust that contributed to the failure of previous truces remains. If anything, it has increased, as the fighting has spread and the number of civilian casualties and refugees has mounted. International forces, from the OSCE, will have to patrol the demarcation line, if there is to be any hope of a cessation of hostilities. Even six months ago, the majority of those living in the rebel region would probably have accepted local autonomy within a single Ukrainian state, but it is not at all clear that this is still so.

Russia’s good faith will be tested in coming days: will it assist the withdrawal of military hardware, as stipulated, and will it – as Putin and others have said they will – accept devolution within Ukraine, rather than separation of the east? There will also be those in Russia who regard such a compromise as a betrayal of their “compatriots”, which could be more of a problem for Putin than many outside Russia appreciate.

But it is not just Russia’s good faith that will be tested. Poroshenko has to set in train the constitutional changes for federalisation, without which this deal is bound to unravel. And his first task will be to halt the fighting and withdraw Kiev’s heavy weapons.

Paradoxically, perhaps, the best chance for this ceasefire – and the so-called “roadmap” that should follow – is the desperate and dangerous situation now pertaining not just in Ukraine, but potentially for peace in Europe. The initiative launched by Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande was a recognition of that. It must be hoped that Petro Poroshenko, his armed opponents in the east, and Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, all share that understanding.

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