There was good news for Ukraine last week, when a meeting in Minsk between the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine itself produced agreement for a new ceasefire. But like its predecessor last September (also signed in Minsk), its observation on the ground has been imperfect, to say the least.
The rebels continued their offensive against the key road and rail junction of Debaltseve, on the border between the two disputed provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. It fell on Wednesday. Reports yesterday suggest that fighting has continued in some other locations as well. It’s also said, however, that the ceasefire has been “broadly observed elsewhere in eastern Ukraine”, and “some heavy weaponry is said to have been withdrawn by both sides.”
The big problem with both ceasefires is that they’ve been negotiated without the participation of the rebels themselves. Kiev, understandably enough, prefers to talk to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, believing no doubt correctly that without his support there can never be a solution to the conflict, and that Russia could quickly bring the rebels into line if it so chose.
But it just doesn’t follow that the rebels can be ignored. It’s perfectly plausible to think that Putin would like a ceasefire to take hold – if only to relieve some of the pressure of western sanctions – but that he’s not willing to coerce the rebels in order to achieve that. He’s repeatedly said that he thinks Kiev should talk directly to the rebels, and there’s no real reason to disbelieve him.
From the rebel point of view, of course, things look rather different. With the assistance of Russian manpower and matériel they’ve been doing quite well lately; what they want is to pursue their advantage without going so far as to jeopardise Russian aid. Talking to the Ukrainian government would be at best an unnecessary diversion, so it’s not surprising that they’ve shown no enthusiasm for it.
I’ve been saying for some months now that I think Putin’s war aims are a lot less clear and coherent than western pundits tend to give him credit for. His long term goal is reasonably plain: he would like a functioning, friendly Ukraine. But he has no idea how to achieve that by military means, and it’s not at all obvious what his next best option is.
If Putin is really willing to rein in the rebels, the outlines of a deal are discernible, as they have been for some time: Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the east is restored, in return for guarantees of regional autonomy and the recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea (a move that already has widespread western acceptance). But he seems unwilling to commit to that wholeheartedly.
The obvious alternative is to keep the eastern Ukrainian conflict “frozen”, along the lines of the long-standing stalemate in Transnistria. But Putin’s signature on both Minsk agreements, committing to a (re)united Ukraine, makes that difficult. And in any case, Ukraine is not Moldova; it’s hard to imagine it being willing to tolerate a Transnistrian solution for long. Persistent talk in the west of supplying arms to Ukraine also suggests that western patience may be limited.
Perhaps the best outcome at this point would be a quiet word from Putin in the rebels’ ears to say that their recent successes make this the best time to try to cut a deal with Kiev. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko is probably as receptive as they are likely to get: any future Ukrainian government will be more rather than less hardline. Both sides have an obvious interest in talking rather than killing.
But if wars were that easy to stop, the world’s history would look a lot different.