The leaders of Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine will meet in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, tomorrow to discuss a Ukrainian peace plan being championed by Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel. The session follows a conference call on Sunday between the four.
Wednesday’s meeting comes at a moment of significant escalation in the crisis with some, including Hollande, warning of “total war”. While the Hollande-Merkel plan has now been discussed with multiple other world leaders, including Friday in Moscow with Vladimir Putin and Monday in Washington with Barack Obama, there is no clear sign yet of a genuine breakthrough.
The peace plan is believed to be based upon last year’s Minsk agreement which called for a ceasefire, withdraw of artillery, prisoner exchanges and other concessions that were never fully implemented. It reportedly offers separatists significant autonomy in the areas under their control under a calculation that many rebels might be willing to remain part of a more decentralised country.
The plan also reportedly includes a proposed demilitarised zone of 50-70 kilometres around the present front line. The emphasis on the current front line has alarmed Ukraine which asserts that the demarcation lines from Minsk (which came before recent separatist gains) are the ones that should be respected.
With the conflict now at a potential tipping point, more than a million people have fled their homes, and an estimated 5,400 lives have been lost since April, when separatists seized significant portions of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions (which Putin has called “New Russia”), following the annexation of Crimea. With rebels having captured more territory since, there are fears that the Ukrainian state could become unviable if separatist gains continue apace.
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
Moreover, the country’s economy faces collapse with the country’s foreign exchange reserves currently less than 8 billion dollars. The conflict is costing Kiev roughly 5-7 million dollars a day.
Moscow appears to be calculating that intensification of economic, military and political pressure will lead to loss of support within Ukraine for the Kiev government’s pro-Western orientation. This, and the possibility that the conflict may spiral out of control, reflects the urgency of diplomatic activity recently, and the growing debate in Washington about providing greater US military support to Kiev.
Last week, US secretary of defence-designate, Ashton Carter, announced his preference to provide greater military support for Ukraine, but Obama reaffirmed on Monday that he has not made a final decision. This was a key topic of conversation on Monday with Merkel, who is strongly opposed to such a move.
Merkel fears that, given current mistrust with Moscow, arming the Ukrainian rebels will only intensify the conflict which risks becoming a proxy war between Russia and the United States and wider West. Citing her own experience of growing up in East Berlin during the Cold War, she has repeatedly said that there is no military solution to the conflict.
NATO already estimates that up to 1,000 Russian military intelligence personnel are assisting the separatists. Putin is unlikely to want to be perceived to capitulate to any additional western pressure, and may double down on his support for the rebels.
His calculus appears to be that, as troubling as the economic problems are that are now facing the Russian economy, they are worse in Ukraine. Moreover, Moscow sees more upside than disadvantage in separatists expanding territory under their control (a key objective is believed to be creating a corridor to the Black Sea port of Mariupol, thus opening a potential land bridge to Crimea), as this may give greater traction in any post-conflict negotiations.
In response to the escalating conflict, the EU is tightening its sanctions regime and on Monday a new round of measures were agreed to target a list of around 19 Ukrainian separatists and Russian officials and nine organisations, with sanctions including travel bans to EU states. Moreover, the EU’s leaders meet on Thursday to discuss wider measures, including Russia’s exclusion from the SWIFT payments system.
Welcome as this will be in Washington, if the Merkel-Hollande peace initiative yields no significant dividends, there is likely to be growing support in the United States for boosting military support, especially as it has been repeatedly requested by Kiev itself. Republican Senator John McCain, the Chair of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, has called Merkel’s opposition as “horribly wrong” and “unacceptable”, and reportedly compared her peace plan to the 1938 Munich agreement which appeased Adolf Hitler. And fuelling this debate, a report last week by eight former US officials called for Washington to give some 3 billion dollars of military equipment over the next three years.
In the unpredictability and tension of the current moment, careful decision-making is now needed by Obama as he thinks through his array of options. On the financial aid front, he is pushing for increased international assistance and encouraging European support for a new IMF multi-billion dollar financial package for Kiev.
The president is also reviewing a range of military assistance options, including so-called ‘non-lethal’ equipment such as reconnaissance drones and radar screens. Aware of the very strong concerns in much of Europe about provision of ‘lethal’ equipment, such as anti-tank weapons, Obama would seek to pitch any assistance that is ultimately provided here as defensive in nature. In other words, a way for Ukraine to establish military balance with separatist and Russia forces, rather than a means to achieve more ambitious, and potentially risky, offensive military goals.
Taken overall, the fate of the Merkel-Hollande initiative will shape the US decision on whether to provide further military assistance to Ukraine. Given the escalation in the crisis, Obama faces a very difficult balancing act between responding to domestic US pressure, and fomenting division in Western strategy toward Ukraine which may only benefit Russia and the separatists.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics, and a former UK Government Special AdviserReuse content