In late August the presidents of Ukraine and Russia, Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin, met in Minsk. Donald N. Jensen, resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Studies, overviews the issues that were left on the table as peace was whispered about in the capital of Belarus.

 

Presidents of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine (left to right): Vladimir Putin, Alexander Lukashenko and Petro Poroshenko are about to talk peace in Minsk on August 26, 2014. Photo: AP.

 

Occurring alongside increased fighting in eastern Ukraine and a deepening humanitarian crisis, it was the first time in two months the two leaders had stood face to face. The talks took place on the margins of the Customs Union summit and also included European Union officials, who are broadly sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause.

Following peace talks between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents in Minsk in late August, much was left unsettled. During the peace talks, Russian president Vladimir Putin pressed for a ceasefire, while Kiev indicated it wished to pursue its anti-terrorist operations. On 5 September, a ceasefire was nevertheless agreed upon between former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma and separatist leaders. The truce remained intact for a day.

The separatists were quick to point out that the détente did not deter their ambitions to become independent from Kiev. On the Ukrainian side, Andriy Biletskiy, commander of the far-right Azov battalion, told the Guardian: “What talk can there be of a ceasefire when the enemy is on our land?” It was thus unsurprising when, on 6 September, shelling was again reported from Mariupol and Lugansk. Too many issues remain unresolved.

Leading up to the Minsk talks, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said on August 21 that he would call on Putin to rein in pro-Russian separatists and noted that he had “a strong country, a strong army” behind him.

During her visit to Kiev on August 23, the day before Ukrainian Independence Day, German chancellor Angela Merkel sought to show her support for Ukraine in its standoff with Russia. She offered a €500 million loan from Germany to rebuild Ukraine’s infrastructure and a further €25 million to help refugees. While Merkel urged Poroshenko to be open to peace talks, the Kremlin announced Putin’s intention to attend with little comment. “No one could have thought that among the most close and kindred peoples there could be such a mess,” authoritarian Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, a key driver behind the summit, stated recently.

Russia dramatically escalated tensions on August 22 by moving a truck convoy carrying humanitarian aid supplies to the war-torn city of Lugansk with neither the permission of the Ukrainian government nor the participation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Authorities in Kiev described the move as a “direct invasion,” a claim that Russia wholeheartedly denies. In any case, NATO reported that, following the convoy’s arrival, Ukrainian troops came under Russian artillery fire from inside their border. The United States demanded that Moscow withdraw the convoy or face additional sanctions. Moscow began withdrawing trucks from the aid convoy the next day.

There were four motives behind this hastily dispatched convoy. First, a Ukrainian attack on the convoy would have provided Moscow with justification for a broader military intervention. Second, moving the vehicles into Ukrainian territory demonstrated that Ukraine was not as independent as Kiev liked to think. Third, dispatching the convoy enabled Putin to show the Russian public, among whom support for the separatists is high, that he was coming to the aid of the rebel forces. Finally, the column created provided a de facto ceasefire that enabled the hard-pressed separatists to catch their breath. (In addition, Kiev security officials stated on August 23 that the trucks returned to Russia loaded with Ukrainian-made ammunition for small arms, and equipment used to produce an advanced aircraft tracking system, that Russia hoped would not fall into Ukrainian hands).

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s military successes since May appear to have surprised both the Kremlin and Putin’s admirers in the West, some of whom share the Russian president’s view that Ukraine is an artificial state. This turnaround, and not Western sanctions, has driven the latest phase of the crisis. After their profound disorientation following Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea—and despite the enervating effect of years of Russian penetration into Ukraine’s security and law enforcement bodies—the new authorities in Kiev replenished their armed forces with new personnel, reorganized the military’s training regimen, and re-established effective command and control.

Key to turning the tide was the formation of effective private forces funded and equipped by Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who is emerging as a rival to President Poroshenko. The Ukrainian government’s resolve has been strengthened by the vitality of the country’s civil society, its national unity (including both Ukrainian and Russian speakers), and the messy but so-far successful consolidation of the post-revolutionary government. These factors demonstrate that, despite shared cultural, historical, linguistic, and familial ties with Russia, Ukraine has a unique sense of statehood.

Russia’s strategic goal regarding Ukraine remains unchanged: the permanent subordination of the country by gaining decisive influence over direction of its foreign, domestic, security, and economic policies.

Ukraine’s stakes in the crisis are fundamental: its survival as a sovereign state; its political and economic arrangements; even its very identity. Despite their public calls for negotiations, some Ukrainian politicians and leaders seem wary of agreeing to a truce now, since doing so could give the rebels a chance to consolidate their hold on the remaining, though diminishing, chunks of territory they still occupy. A hasty deal might also grant Moscow long-term influence over the county’s east. Kiev, therefore, insists that the separatists should lay down their weapons before any talks, which have foundered in part because of Moscow’s refusal to halt or even acknowledge its provision of fighters and military supplies to the insurgency, despite much evidence that this is taking place.

In addition, Kiev’s authorities are dissatisfied with the reluctance of some of its European partners to rally to its side. But domestic factors are also driving Poroshenko’s calculations. He hopes to use the increased momentum that a successful military campaign would provide to build a pro-presidential parliamentary majority in the fall elections. Poroshenko also needs to consolidate his administration before significant fissures appear on the home front. Kolomoyskyi and returning veterans, in particular, could pose a political challenge.

The window for a possible military victory for Kiev is closing, however, making it important to press its advantage on the battlefield now. Civilian casualties increased in the days before the Minsk talks—a result of the Ukrainian military’s outdated weaponry, substandard coordination in combined arms missions, and the separatists’ willingness to put civilian Ukrainians at risk. The death toll could rise even further in a protracted conflict, and create a backlash at home. It is not clear whether Kiev has enough force to close out the fighting completely: Russia may be able to increase military aid to the separatists enough to prevent their collapse and keep the insurgency going indefinitely.

Even more ominously, the war has weighed heavily on Ukraine’s already weak economy. Economy minister Pavlo Sheremet resigned this week because he was unhappy with the pace of reforms and the appointment of a trade minister without his approval. The International Monetary Fund is likely to have to step in with more loans soon to help the government close its deficit. At worst, the $17 billion IMF program signed in April could fall apart, forcing Ukraine to restructure its debts.

Russia’s strategic goal regarding Ukraine remains unchanged: the permanent subordination of the country by gaining decisive influence over direction of its foreign, domestic, security, and economic policies. Fostering instability in Ukraine’s east is thus an instrument intended to give Moscow control over Kiev. For Putin, negotiations, like the insurgency, are weapons in an arsenal he can employ in a long-term game. (Take, for instance, Russian control over Ukraine’s natural gas supply: disagreements over gas pricing remain, while winter approaches.) The events in Ukraine are also relevant to Russia’s domestic politics. For the Kremlin, they are a tool to strengthen the legitimacy of Putin’s rule. Having released a wave of nationalist fervor, Putin cannot afford to lose or be seen losing.

The difficulties of dealing with a prickly, self-deluded Russia are additional impediments to a settlement. From the beginning, the Kremlin’s miscalculation has fueled the crisis. It took too lightly the strength of the Maidan movement that toppled Yanukovych, underestimated the resilience of the Poroshenko government, misjudged the problems involved in incorporating Crimea, and exaggerated popular support for the separatists in Ukraine’s south and southwest. Despite outward appearances, as commentator Vladimir Frolov has noted, the Kremlin’s policy-making process appears to be breaking down under the strain of Putin’s one-man rule. What looks to many like Putin’s audacity and forcefulness are more often merely the byproducts of improvisation and knee-jerk reactions unchecked by the process of normal foreign policy decision-making. Moreover, bullying has it limits. Kremlin mendacity and cynicism, important tools of governing at home, have hurt the credibility of Russian diplomacy badly. Participants in any peace process are unlikely to trust the assurances of a side that uses a “humanitarian aid” convoy as a tool to protect marauding separatist forces, carry out a provocation, or invent a “fascist” threat.

Although there are signs that Moscow and Kiev are looking for a diplomatic way out of the crisis, it is doubtful for now that a grand bargain will be reached that would be acceptable to both sides. The Kremlin hopes that, if it can keep Ukraine in a state of perpetual crisis, Kiev will eventually be forced to end the war on the Kremlin’s terms, ultimately surrendering completely and turning Ukraine into a failed state. At this time, Moscow seems to be calculating that this can be accomplished without a large-scale Russian invasion.

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