Monday, February 16, 2015

The Ukraine Crisis and The Challenges Ahead

Dr Harinder Sekhon, 
Senior Fellow, VIF

A ceasefire deal to end the fighting in Eastern Ukraine was reached in Minsk after a marathon session of negotiations running into almost seventeen hours amongst the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France. This seeks to end a year of bitter fighting that has seen many thousands killed and millions uprooted from their homes. The main points of the peace agreement are:
  • Ceasefire to begin at 00.00am local time on 15 February
  • Heavy weapons to be withdrawn in a two week period starting from 17 February
  • Amnesty for prisoners involved in fighting
  • Withdrawal of all foreign militias from Ukrainian territory and the disarmament of all illegal groups
  • Lifting of restrictions in rebel areas of Ukraine
  • Decentralisation for rebel regions by the end of 2015
  • Ukrainian control of the border with Russia by the end of 20151
This is still a tenuous agreement as the more hardcore element among the rebels is not satisfied with the deal but was forced to agree to the truce due to pressure from Russian President Vladmir Putin, who was the first to announce the breakthrough in negotiations. Putin too took his time to accept the negotiated settlement and at one stage it seemed that the talks would flounder due to certain conditions put by Russia that the Ukrainian President Poroshenko found unacceptable – apparently over the control of the crucial city of Debaltseve, important due to its strategic network of roads and rail links, and whose control seems to have become a matter of prestige for both the Ukrainian forces and the separatists who consider Debaltsve an integral part of its territory. When the ceasefire was announced, Ukrainian forces were holding out against heavy odds - surrounded by Russia backed rebels from three sides and their supply route from Artemivsk under imminent danger of coming under rebel fire. After the ceasefire was announced, the rebels launched an offensive by shelling the town of Artemivsk in an attempt to gain control of Debaltsve before the ceasefire came into effect, thereby raising an alarm whether the ceasefire would hold at all. The West has stepped up its diplomatic pressure on Russia in a bid to ensure some semblance of calm to eastern Ukraine.

The deal in Minsk follows hectic parleys by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French President Fran├žois Hollande. It also took US President Obama’s personal intervention a day before the scheduled talks to get Putin to assume a more reasonable posture at the talks. In a phone call to the Russian President, Obama emphasised "the importance of ... seizing the opportunity presented by the ongoing discussions between Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine to reach a peaceful resolution" to the violence in Eastern Ukraine.2

This seemed to be a last ditch effort by the European leaders to bring peace to Ukraine. The Ukraine Crisis that dominated the proceedings of the 51st Munich Security Conference last week saw a widening gulf between the US and the EU over what needed to be done to control the fast deteriorating situation. While the Americans were harsh in their criticism of Russia and explored the possibility of bolstering Ukrainian effort to fight off Russia backed rebels by supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine, the EU pushed for a diplomatic effort to control the crisis. The EU seemed determined to ensure that no further military escalation takes place on European soil and push Europe further towards a “New Cold War.” Economically too, sanctions against Russia have hit the EU and have had no effect on the US.

At the Munich Security Conference, the Russian Foreign Minister, Lavrov, was strident in his criticism of the USA and said, “Through every step, as the crisis has developed, our American colleagues and the EU under their influence have tried to escalate the situation.”3 According to a Facebook statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry, Lavrov also warned US Secretary of State, John Kerry that any US plans to supply Ukraine with military equipment would have “unpredictable consequences”, including “disrupting the efforts to resolve the crisis in southeastern Ukraine.”4

A day before the Munich Conference, the German and French leaders made a dash to Moscow for a closed-door meeting with Putin. It is this meeting that seems to have broken the impasse and resulted in a positive outcome at Minsk whereby some of the stringent economic sanctions against Russia would be eased if the latter agreed in principle to the September 2014 Minsk agreement that called for Russia ceasing direct military support to the rebels. That the issue of Russia’s seizure of Crimea would not be brought up was the other concession the West has given to Russia.

All the stakeholders would need to display tremendous tolerance in ensuring that this tentative peace holds and leads to a permanent political settlement. According to Putin, “The first thing is constitutional reform that should take into consideration the legitimate rights of people who live in Donbass. There are also border issues. Finally there are a whole range of economic and humanitarian issues.”5 While the deal has covered all contentious issues like border control, decentralization and the resumption of economic relations, it is a fragile agreement and the slightest provocation by any of the players could scuttle this initiative. The next part of the Minsk plan that seeks to ensure Ukraine’s existence as an independent and economically stable country would need sustained European attention and adequate funds. As a start, the IMF has announced a $17.5 billion rescue and rehabilitation package for Ukraine to be spread over the next four years. But the EU would need to bolster this initial effort through its own funding sources as well.

Politically too, Ukrainian President Poroshenko has to show sagacity by adopting an inclusive policy to overcome the divisions that have come to the fore within Ukraine. According to Angus Roxburgh of the Guardian, “It would be a disaster if the current situation—self-declared 'people’s republics' based around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk—were allowed to ossify into a 'frozen conflict,' establishing de facto a separate rebel-run state and partitioning Ukraine, perhaps for ever."6 Poroshenko has a difficult task of ensuring that Ukraine does not become a pawn of big power rivalry between the US and Russia and would have to show great political sagacity as he walks a difficult tightrope to ensure the survival of his country.

"Though the deal doesn't grant Putin his ultimate wish—to keep Ukraine within Russia's orbit economically and politically—he couldn't have hoped for that without a decisive military victory. The optics are good for him domestically, though, and Putin can hope to cut the costs of war, including those imposed by the Western economic sanctions," writes Leonid Bershidsky at Bloomberg View.7 While Putin may have not got what he wanted, he has achieved three things through the Ukrainian offensive – (1) a stranglehold on Ukraine, (2) successfully demonstrated to the West that he will not accept any strategic encirclement of Russia, and, (3) he has been able to create dissension among the Europeans and between Europe and the United States.

Having achieved his objective, Putin should adopt a conciliatory posture and end the war in the Donbass so that the West can focus on the economic re building of Ukraine that would be beneficial to Russia’s own economic well being as well. Escalating tensions will not help anyone and the United States and Europe must reciprocate by promoting a Ukraine strategy that is “part of a larger Russia strategy whose goal has to be a strong and friendly Russia."8

While the crisis in Ukraine is largely a European problem, in an increasingly globalised world, there can be grave consequences for all and more so for an emerging player like India that has close historical ties with Russia and now an emerging partnership with the United States. Any military standoff between the two adversaries of the Cold war era has the potential to polarize the world once again on the same lines as the Cold war period. Another spin off has been the hasty signing of a 400 billion dollar Russia-China gas deal that had not seen fruition for over a decade. India needs to be watchful of any China-Russia rapprochement as it could be an impediment for India. This has been the first major face-off between the two traditional adversaries since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and as India draws strategically and economically closer to the United States, it could face increased demands from both Russia and the United States to make hard choices.

India has so far maintained a nuanced stance on the Ukraine crisis and in a statement issued on March 6, 2014, soon after hostilities broke out, it was stated “India hopes that a solution to Ukraine’s internal differences is found in a manner that meets the aspirations of all sections of Ukraine’s population. It would be important, in this context, for a legitimate democratic process to find full expression through free and fair elections that provide for an inclusive society. India calls for sincere and sustained diplomatic efforts to ensure that issues between Ukraine and its neighboring countries are resolved through constructive dialogue.”9

However, later the same day, an informal interaction between India’s former National Security Advisor and the media was blown out of proportion. While the former NSA was careful in his choice of words and said, “We hope that whatever internal issues there are within Ukraine are settled peacefully and that the broader issues of reconciling the various interests involved, and there are after all legitimate Russian and other interests involved, are discussed and negotiated,” 10 the West picked up only “legitimate Russian interests” and not the rest of his statement where he talked of “reconciling the various interests,” thereby drawing criticism in the West and praise from Putin.

Though India has strong views on the territorial integrity of nations and may be uneasy about the annexation of Crimea despite its civilizational linkages with Russia, India could explore the viability of using its good relations with both Russia and the US to make a positive contribution in diffusing the crisis. Russia will not revoke the annexation of Crimea and neither can one entirely absolve the West of anti-Russia activities on its periphery. But the need is to end the game of one-upmanship, prevent the international isolation of Russia which will push it closer to China, and for all stakeholders to work sincerely towards the establishment of an economically and politically stable Ukraine.

Endnotes
  1. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/12/ukraine-crisis-reports-emer...
  2. Ibid
  3. http://rt.com/news/230219-lavrov-munich-speech-ukraine/
  4. Ibid.
  5. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/12/ukraine-crisis-reports-emer...
  6. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/12/vladimir-putin-russ...
  7. http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-02-12/the-ticking-time-bomb-i...
  8. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/143056/alexander-j-motyl/the-west...
  9. Ranjit Gupta, Russia and the Ukraine Crisis: an Indian Perspective, available at
  10. Varun Sahni, Indian perspective on the Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, available at http://www.peacebuilding.no/var/ezflow_site/storage/original/application...

Published Date: 16th February 2015, Image source: http://www.socioplanet.com

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