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Ukraine crisis: Deals brokered in a distant land are not going to satisfy protesters


In crossfire of cross words over Ukraine, we should be careful what we read in to statements from all sides as Russian, Ukrainian and American foreign ministers, together with EU representatives, arrive in Geneva for talks on Thursday. Neither side has a good track record with accuracy or the truth.

From the Russian side, the untruths are more starkly visible and more reminiscent of the barefaced lies of the past. Brezhnev is fit and well, we assure you. Explosion at Chernobyl? Absolutely not.

Despite protestations to the contrary there is overwhelming evidence of Russia’s involvement in the violence in eastern Ukrainian cities. Russian intelligence agents and spetsnaz special forces have been identified, and the assaults on government buildings were clearly organised by Russian intelligence and the uniforms and equipment are of Russian origin. The numbers are not large, but, make no mistake, the Russians are already in.

Western liberties with the truth are more subtle… and more expedient. If the talks do not bring agreement, watch out for statements about “frank discussions” and “honest exchanges of opinion”. Deciphered, that means a wasted Easter for John Kerry, Catherine Ashton, Sergei Lavrov and Andriy Deshchytsia of Ukraine.


Or does it?

Diplomacy sounds good but it only really works if opposing sides are after the same thing. And yet perhaps they are. Russia wants consolidation and acceptance of its position on and in Ukraine – essentially a veto over Ukraine’s foreign policy decisions. The West, meanwhile, desperately wants the whole thing to go away. Crimea is already quietly accepted as lost. So too, perhaps, is the foreign policy element of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Acceptable collateral damage in exchange for a quiet and financially undisturbed life.

Fertile ground, then, for “diplomacy”, but also for appeasement.

In fact, there is little chance of success at any level. Brokered solutions in faraway cities may not mean much with events unfolding at a pace politicians cannot keep up with. As Russia frequently complains, the internationally overseen 21 February agreement on power-sharing between the then Ukrainian government and the opposition was not adhered to. What Russia has not understood – not surprisingly for a non-democracy – is that this is because it was conducted over and above the heads of ordinary Ukrainians and the Maidan Square protesters. The same could well happen in Geneva. There are signed pieces of paper and there are facts on the ground.

But again, “success”, if it is claimed, is not necessarily desirable. Breakthroughs will not mean meeting half-way; they will signify quiescence by the West.

Russia will not back down on its demands because it’s not really about Ukraine. It’s a more fundamental and conceptual problem – like asking an atheist to believe in God (or a Christian not to).

The West will either capitulate or the talks will collapse. Collapse may be preferable to success. Either way, an unappetising weekend lies ahead in Geneva.

James Nixey is the head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House