20 March 2015
It has been more than a month since Presidents Putin, Poroshenko, Hollande and Chancellor Merkel issued the “Declaration of Minsk in Support of the Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements” and reiterated their belief that there is no alternative to a peaceful solution. The failure to declare an “immediate” cease-fire was not a good sign. President Poroshenko later revealed that the Ukrainian side had proposed this but the separatists insisted on a sixty hour lead-in period. It must have been clear to everyone around the table that what the separatists wanted was a window of opportunity to capture Debaltseve which they accomplished.
As expected the cease-fire was plagued from the very beginning with mutual allegations of violation. Reports from the area only referred to fading hopes. Western leaders raised the possibility of further sanctions against Russia. Some in the US strongly argued for sending military assistance to Ukraine. British Royal Air Force scrambled warplanes to intercept Russian bombers from the southwestern coast of England. The bombers were flying in international air space but in “UK areas of interest”. NATO showed the flag in the Baltics. British military trainers are in Ukraine. Americans are on the way. Russia withdrew from the Joint Consultative Group on the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). Thus on one side there is controlled tension.
But on the other side there seems to be some progress. On 22 February the separatists declared that they were pulling back some heavy weaponry from the front lines. Four days later, Ukraine announced that it would begin withdrawing some heavy artillery from areas bordering separatist-held territory in the country’s southeast. And on 9 March President Poroshenko said that the rebels had withdrawn significant amounts of heavy weaponry from the front lines and Ukraine “the lion’s share of its rocket systems and heavy artillery”.
It is still too early to say that the cease-fire is firmly in place. It maybe that there will never be fully respected cease-fire and the parties would have to live with one that only half holds. But reduction in the level of violence represents some progress and may reduce the risk of further loss of life and lead to a period of quasi stability.
On the first anniversary of the annexation of Crimea President Putin gave an interview to the state-run Rossiya 1 channel. Although the full transcript of the interview is not yet available on the Kremlin website it appears that at the end of an all-night meeting held upon the ouster of President Yanukovych, Mr. Putin told his colleagues that it was time to plan for the return of Crimea to Russia. He also said during the interview that Russia never thought about severing Crimea from Ukraine until the overthrow of the government.
It may be worthwhile to remember in this connection that Russia and Ukraine agreed in 1997 to divide Soviet Union’s Black Sea naval assets and established independent navies. However Russia rented the Sevastopol naval base until 2017 and obtained the possibility to deploy a sizeable force there which proved instrumental in the annexation of Crimea. In April 2010 the base agreement was extended until 2042 with an option for another five year extension. In return Russia made a discount on the price of the natural gas. In other words, Russia never intended give up Crimea but was prepared to live with such arrangements so long as Ukraine did not change course. What President Putin said at a concert organized in Moscow to celebrate the “unification of Crimea and Sevastopol with Russia” is also significant: “The issue at stake here was the sources of our history, our spirituality and our statehood, the things that make us a single people, single united nation.”
Nevertheless, with the cease-fire appearing to hold, President Putin’s remarks on the management of the Ukraine crisis including his mulling over a nuclear alert, may signal an intention to put the most violent chapter of the confrontation behind. If that is the case, Kiev needs to be generous in level of autonomy to be accorded to these regions. Otherwise, there would be more trouble and distraction preventing Kiev from focusing on desperately needed political and economic reforms. The sad reality is that Russia’s shadow over Ukraine will not go away any time soon.
This may also be a good time for the West to review the Ukraine crisis with its past and present and the way it was managed. In view of President Putin’s often-mentioned unpredictability, the EU, U.S. and NATO need to do this to better manage future crises. The report by the European Union Committee of the House of Lords entitled “The EU and Russia: before and beyond the crisis in Ukraine” (*) offers invaluable insight for such an endeavor.
It seems that the best one can expect from Russia-West relationship at this juncture is compartmentalization: confrontation over Ukraine, disagreement over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, search for common ground in Syria, cooperation in P5+1-Iran talks and the fight against ISIL.