Ukraine crisis: If the Merkel-Hollande peace initiative fails, what will Obama do next?

There is likely to be growing support in the United States for boosting military support

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.

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.

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Protesters in Kiev protesting against the rising cost of public transport on Monday (AP)

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 Adviser

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