The ceasefire in Ukraine’s civil war agreed in Minsk on Thursday, due to take effect at midnight tonight, has much to recommend it.
Any slackening of the military onslaught in this cruel civil war – any relief for the civilians trapped in the crossfire – is a precious achievement, for which Angela Merkel in particular deserves the gratitude of everyone in Europe.
Yet nobody is deluding themselves that peace, real peace, is now at hand. At the meeting of EU government heads in Brussels which Ms Merkel, President Hollande and Ukraine’s President Poroshenko addressed immediately after the conclusion of their arduous negotiations, there was no euphoria, only a grim awareness that the tanks could be rumbling again before long. There was “a glimmer of hope”, as Ms Merkel put it, but “no illusion”.
The cards President Putin holds are far too strong for optimism. Economically he has Ukraine’s fate in the palm of his hand, thanks to its dependence on Russian gas.
At home his pose as the righteous defender of Russian integrity bolsters his domestic approval ratings, and is a most welcome distraction from the nation’s steadily worsening economic plight, which he is pleased to blame on Western sanctions. And his brazen mendacity in continuing to deny what all observers know beyond a shadow of a doubt – that Russian forces are playing a dominating role in the conflict and have been doing so for a long time – encourages very little confidence in him as a negotiating partner.
Given the strength of Mr Putin’s position, why did he agree to this new round of talks in the first place? And why has he agreed to a Minsk II ceasefire? One reason advanced by Western hawks is the intense debate that has been under way in recent weeks between the US and its allies over whether the Ukrainian forces should be provided with defensive weapons, and the indication by the US of its willingness to send unarmed surveillance drones, anti-tank missiles and other heavy battlefield weapons to the Ukrainian forces if the Russian-backed rebel aggression continues. While it is true that the West cannot be seen to crumple before Russian aggression, the risks entailed by adding more fuel to this fire are clear.
Sitting at the heart of Europe, Angela Merkel is keenly aware of the terrifying dangers of the war running out of control. And President Obama has shown maturity in seeking to dampen American war-mongering tendencies, this week underlining his hope for a diplomatic outcome in Ukraine and emphasising his appreciation of the fact that the war has not prevented Russia from continuing to play a constructive role in nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
Mr Putin likes to be both the great Russian patriot at home and the wise diplomat on the international stage. Ms Merkel has enabled him to play both roles. A pause in open hostilities suits the Russian President. He maintains a hold over the government in Kiev and much of Ukraine’s territory. There is no need to rush.
The fragility of the latest ceasefire agreement makes it all the more important that Europe and the US now sit down and agree a common position, making it clear that existing sanctions will not be eased until the provisions of Minsk II are satisfied in full. In particular, Russia must be made aware that failure to hand back control of Ukraine’s eastern border will come at a heavy cost, with further sanctions ready to go.
Mr Putin has won a lot from his second marathon at Minsk. He needs to understand that if he cynically allows this ceasefire, too, to be shattered, the consequences will be unpleasant.
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