Time for Russia to Demonstrate Her Peacemaking Capacity

9 September 2015

Article 11 of the Minsk Agreement of February 12, 2015 reads as follows: “Carrying out constitutional reform in Ukraine with a new constitution entering into force by the end of 2015 providing for decentralization as a key element (including a reference to the specificities of certain areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, agreed with the representatives of these areas), as well as adopting permanent legislation on the special status of certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions … until the end of 2015.”

The Ukrainian Parliament is currently debating constitutional changes with a view to recognizing more autonomy to these two separatist regions. The move is opposed by some, in particular the rightist parties. There has been violence and accusations of provocation. A policeman has lost his life. The coalition government is under strain. The autonomy measure requires approval by 300 members of the 450 seat Parliament.

Andrew E. Kramer of the New York Times reported on September 2, 2015 that while the Parliament debates a greater degree of self-rule for the secessionist regions the rebel areas have already achieved an autonomy surpassing what is envisaged in the measure. He further said that these areas, with a population of 3.5 million, have already slipped under Moscow’s control, not only militarily and politically but also economically.

While uncertainty, frustration and tension reign in Kiev this is what President Putin told Russian journalists on September, 4 in Vladivostok:
“… in accordance with the Minsk Agreements, amendments were to be made to Ukraine’s Constitution, but this would be done through discussion, dialogue and coordination with the Donbass region and the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic. Unfortunately, the authorities in Kiev are not taking any such steps today and there is no dialogue and coordination on the amendments to Ukraine’s Constitution… everything proposed today as amendments is purely declarative in nature and essentially changes nothing in the way state power in Ukraine is organized… Ukraine has been placed under outside governance and foreigners hold all the key posts in the Government and now in key regions too … an insult to the Ukrainian people.”

The foregoing reminds me once again of Professor Anatol Lieven’s article of September 3, 2014 in which he said:
“To separate the Donbass in this way while preserving the principle of Ukrainian territorial integrity would allow the West to help in developing and consolidating the rest of Ukraine without constant disturbances in the East. This would open the possibility — albeit a long way in the future — of Ukraine joining the European Union; and if the people of the Donbass region at that point choose to secede and lose the benefits of European Union membership — well, so much the worse for them… The choice is between a Ukraine with an autonomous Donbass region, along with a real chance of developing the country’s democracy and economy in a Western direction, or a Ukraine which will be mired in a half-frozen conflict that will undermine all hopes of progress…”(*)

In Vladivostok President Putin also addressed problems in the Middle East and North Africa. He referred to misguided policies of the West which he defined as imposing Western standards without taking into consideration the history, religion, culture or national characteristics of these regions. He went on to say that this was primarily the policy of the US blindly followed by Europe now bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis. He then highlighted the importance of joining efforts in effectively combating terrorism and extremism. He said, “If today it is impossible to organize joint work directly ‘on the battlefield’, so to speak, involving all the countries interested in combating terrorism, we should at least achieve certain coordination between them. We are trying and making certain efforts in this direction. Our first steps show that overall this seems possible…”

On Syria Mr. Putin pointed out that people were not fleeing from the Assad regime but from the Islamic State. However, he admitted that political change is also required. He added that “There is an overall understanding that such joint efforts to combat terrorism should go side by side with certain political processes inside Syria…”

In response to a question on the possibility of Russia taking part in military operations if a coalition were to take shape, he said that US air strikes against ISIL had not been very effective but it was too early to say whether Russia would join in or not. He added that Russia was providing Syria with significant support both in equipment and armaments and in personnel training in full compliance with contracts signed some 5-7 years ago. The next day Secretary Kerry called his Russian counterpart Minister Lavrov to express concern about reports suggesting an imminent enhanced Russian military build-up there. The two agreed that discussions on the Syrian conflict would continue in New York later this month.

In view of the complicated historical background of Russia-Ukraine relations, Kiev’s difficulties in presenting the world with united, strong, reformist leadership and continuing Russia-West tensions, bringing stability to Ukraine appears to remain a long-term project. But, with more than 200,000 lives lost, millions displaced and the Islamic State holding its ground there the Syrian conflict constitutes a more imminent threat to global peace and security.

Russia has the liberty to criticize other countries for their foreign policy mistakes. This may yield some political/diplomatic benefit. But it does not change world’s perception of Russian foreign policy. What would change that perception, if that’s of any value to Moscow, is concrete contribution to the resolution of a conflict, be it in Syria, Iraq or Yemen if not Ukraine. What really matters for any country in the long-term is having an internal and international peacemaking capacity and putting it to good use. The peoples of the Middle East are desperate for solutions and this presents Russia with a historic opportunity.
(*) Anatol Lieven, “A Way Out for Ukraine and Russia”, New York Times, 3 September 2014.

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