A dangerous moment for Ukraine’s fragile ceasefire

Lucian Kim
Published : 26 Jan 2016, 11:15 AM
Updated : 26 Jan 2016, 11:15 AM

Behind the scenes, U.S. diplomats are rediscovering Ukraine as a foreign-policy priority.

On Jan. 15, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met with a key Kremlin adviser at Russian President Vladimir Putin's beachfront residence on the Baltic Sea. Nuland, the top U.S. diplomat responsible for European affairs, had traveled to Russia's heavily militarized Kaliningrad region to sit down with Vladislav Surkov, Putin's lieutenant overseeing the rebel regions in eastern Ukraine. Their six-hour "brainstorming" session, Surkov later told Russian journalists, touched on the thorniest issues of Ukraine's tenuous peace process and proved both "constructive and useful."

To call the meeting unusual would be an understatement. Russian state media has consistently portrayed Nuland as the puppet-master of Kiev's pro-Western Maidan revolution two winters ago, while Surkov, the designer of Putin's decorative democracy, is viewed in the West as one of the masterminds behind the Crimea annexation. Because of his role, Surkov was blacklisted from entering the United States and the European Union in March 2014.

As President Barack Obama starts his last year in the White House, Washington is leading a final effort to defuse the still ticking time bomb that is Ukraine. Key European allies — German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande — have been seriously distracted by the continent's refugee crisis and newfound terrorism threat.

The Kremlin, chastened by low oil prices and a dim overall economic outlook, has signaled its readiness to implement the so-called Minsk peace agreement. Just as Putin did with eastern Ukraine, he has gone into contortions to be part of both the problem and the solution in Syria. By inserting Russia into the Middle East as a military actor, Putin forced Washington to take notice. On the eve of Nuland's peace mission, Obama picked up the phone to urge Putin to do his part. After the meeting, Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and declared that Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia could be eased if the Minsk deal gains traction in the coming months.

The Minsk accords consist of two separate documents: the Minsk Protocol, the original cease-fire agreement from September 2014, and the follow-up "package of measures for implementation" hammered out by Putin, Merkel, Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in an all-night negotiating marathon in the Belarusian capital last February. Known as "Minsk 2," the additional document set out a sequence of measures, starting with a phased-in ceasefire, greater autonomy for the Donbas region, the withdrawal of Russian troops ("foreign armed formations"), local elections and, finally, the restoration of Kiev's control over the border with Russia.

The deadline was the end of 2015. But because not even a lasting cease-fire is yet in place, all sides agreed to extend the Minsk process into 2016.

The West has accepted Minsk 2 as the only game in town, and there is no serious discussion of a Plan B or, say, a Minsk 3. Europe and its wider neighborhood are facing enough turmoil the way things are. For U.S. and EU diplomats, failure is not an option. The fighting in Ukraine has already cost more than 9,000 lives since April 2014, when armed Russian operatives infiltrated eastern Ukraine and seized government buildings.

The new urgency for a resolution stems from a fear in Western capitals that Poroshenko may now play for time, which would turn Minsk into an endless blame game between Kiev and Moscow. The Kremlin, for its part, is jumping on an opportunity to repair relations with the West at a moment when the European Union is preoccupied with other challenges.

If it starts to seem like Putin is cooperating and Poroshenko stalling, Brussels will likely find it difficult to maintain unanimity on renewing economic sanctions against Russia this summer.

Powerful lobbies in Germany, France and Italy are now pushing for sanctions relief. The successive economic restrictions adopted by the European Union and the United States during 2014 significantly curbed Putin's ambitions in Ukraine. The threat of new sanctions, combined with a drop in global commodity prices, caused Russia's economy to grind to a halt.

Though Western sanctions were "smart" in targeting individuals (like Surkov) and state companies, Putin retaliated with a blanket ban on EU and U.S. food imports, ultimately hurting ordinary Russians more than his enemies du jour.

Ukrainians, who face economic collapse themselves, view the continuation of sanctions against Russia as crucial to their own national survival. The hope in Kiev is that as the Russian economy contracts, so will Putin's ability to wreak havoc on Ukraine. Conversely, should the West decide Russia is fulfilling the Minsk agreement and relax sanctions, Poroshenko faces the prospect of being left alone to deal with Putin.

Poroshenko's dilemma is that he has a legal deadline this week to pass a constitutional change that paves the way for giving the breakaway regions "special status" as foreseen by Minsk 2. Currently, the Ukrainian president doesn't have the necessary 300 votes in parliament to pass the amendment. Whether he loses or delays the vote, Poroshenko will end up looking like he's not holding up his end of the deal.

"Minsk" has become a bad word in Ukraine. People are increasingly frustrated by the West's focus on a constitutional amendment when more basic conditions of the peace process — a complete ceasefire, aggressive international monitoring, prisoner exchanges — haven't been achieved. Many Ukrainians increasingly feel their country's fate is being decided abroad. At the same time, they are afraid that Ukraine will be forgotten by the West, as yet another struggling state on Europe's borders.

Merkel was driven to negotiate Minsk 2 by her panicked realization that Ukraine's war could turn into a European conflagration. That's how Putin managed to plant booby traps in the deal that are practically impossible to avoid: concessions to the rebel regions are highly unpopular in Ukraine, and holding local elections in accordance with national law is infeasible. The worst-case scenario in the German foreign ministry is that if Poroshenko fails to make the necessary legal changes, the separatists will go ahead with their own "elections," which would bury the Minsk agreement and revive calls in Washington to arm Ukraine.

At the same time, there are indications that the Kremlin is serious about de-escalation. Separatist field commanders who have resisted even nominal rapprochement with Ukraine arereportedly dying violent deaths or otherwise being put out of commission. There's talk that theKremlin is now ready to give up its proxies in Donetsk and Luhansk — Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, respectively — in return for Kiev recognizing local elections.

Rebel fighters who fought for Novorossiya — a 19th-century Russian designation for most of present-day Ukraine — feel let down by the Kremlin. Igor Girkin, a retired Russian special ops officer who started the Donetsk rebellion in the town of Slovyansk, voiced his anger in a recent radio interview.

"While we were active in Slovyansk and Donetsk," Girkin said, "at a minimum we were talking about the creation of an independent Novorossiya. Now we're talking about the return of certain regions to Ukraine. … How long are we going to dance to the tune of our so-called respected Western friends who baited us into the war in Ukraine but didn't let us win?"

Girkin, a die-hard Russian nationalist who has fought in five wars, doesn't mince words. "The fate of the DNR and LNR is decided in Moscow," he said, referring to the Russian abbreviations for the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics.

After the Kremlin recalled Girkin in August 2014, he lashed out against officials such as Surkov for abandoning the project of Novorossiya. The two men represent opposite poles of Russia's ruling class: the cynics and the nationalists. While Surkov manages politics as a shifting game of deceit and manipulation, Girkin is unerringly committed to fighting for Russia.

"There's a very difficult historical period ahead of us," Girkin told his followers over the radio. "Believe in our country and our people — and that we'll still get the chance to continue what we started in 2014."

Even if Putin wants to put them back now, the genies he summoned to make war on Ukraine are out of the bottle.