Ceasefire and Talks in Ukraine: a Chance for Peace, Or Just an Opportunity for More Confrontation?

June 25, 2014
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

The unilateral ceasefire declared on June 20 by Petro Poroshenko, installed as president in Kiev earlier this month, initially was rejected as a mere ultimatum by leaders of the independent republics declared in Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts. Eastern fighters were particularly disparaging of Poroshenko’s demand that they disarm. As reported by The Guardian: “Mikhail Verin, commander of the Russian Orthodox army, one of the most powerful militias in Donetsk, said Poroshenko was ‘deceiving Russia and the European Union’ and playing for time to reposition his forces for further attacks.’”

But upon Kiev’s grudging acceptance of the need to negotiate with the easterners’ representatives – albeit through the mediation of former President Leonid Kuchma as a face-saving buffer to allow Poroshenko to claim his administration was not talking directly to “terrorists” and those with “blood on their hands” – the ceasefire is now acknowledged, at least in principle, by both sides. The question is, does the will and ability exist to negotiate a political solution, or is this just a time-out before a new round of fighting in Ukraine and of stepped up geopolitical confrontation?

Yesterday, June 23, an initial meeting conducted by Kuchma was held in Donetsk. Also participating were Viktor Medvedchuk, head of a pro-Russian NGO (and close acquaintance of Russian President Vladimir Putin); Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov; representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and chairman-in-office Heidi Tagliavini; Prime Minister of the contested Donetsk People’s Republic Aleksandr Borodai; and southeast movement leader and former candidate for Ukraine’s presidency Oleg Tsariov, representing the Lugansk People’s Republic. Media reported no substantive progress, other than the fact of the meeting itself and the participants’ commitment to meet again. “Both sides will respect this, God willing,” Kuchma told reporters after the meeting, saying that he hoped to get a peace process on track during the break in hostilities.

Not that fighting has ceased entirely. In the initial days of the truce – which is only scheduled to last until June 27, not coincidentally the date when Poroshenko expects to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union – each side has blamed the other for continuing hostilities. Today, pro-Kiev forces reportedly shelled the village of Semyonovka near the town of Sloviansk. Not far away, a MI-8 helicopter was shot down by a missile fired from a man-portable air defense system, killing nine Ukrainian fighters.

If the shaky ceasefire continues, at least for now, three factors will be crucial to whether it leads to a broader peace settlement or to further bloodshed:

First, it is critical whether progress can be made on the substance of the negotiations themselves, specifically on the status of the eastern oblasts. As initially formulated in Poroshenko’s plan, concessions fall far short of easterners’ demands for local self-rule, much less of federalization. Offers of local autonomy would be limited to the creation of regional executive committees, with Kiev still retaining the right to overrule governors. Use of the Russian language would be similarly revocable by Kiev. It is difficult to see how easterners could accept such terms as sufficient incentive to abolish their independent republics declared in Lugansk and Donetsk.

Second, it remains to be seen how much control Poroshenko actually has over “his side” of the negotiations. Even assuming he does control the official Ukrainian armed forces, the same cannot necessarily be said for groups like the “Azov battalion,” which is manned largely by recruits (including non-Ukrainians) adhering to extremist ideologies and funded by Dnepropetrovsk oligarch Igor Kolomoisky. If Kiev were to agree to terms acceptable to the east, it’s not clear Poroshenko would be able to implement them in the face of anticipated opposition from extreme nationalists, who are still active in Kiev. Perhaps Poroshenko’s threatened “Plan B” of resumed attacks if the ceasefire fails indicates his limited expectations.

Third, it is still unclear whether western governments will urge restraint on both sides and genuine negotiations for a peaceful solution, or whether a policy of sanctions threats and tough rhetoric will prevail to further agendas not directly relating to Ukraine. Continuing to exonerate Kiev of all responsibility for bloodshed in the east while placing all the blame on local militias – and on Moscow – is not likely to help produce a solution both sides can live with. As noted by Ted Carpenter, a longtime analyst with Washington’s CATO Institute:

There is a disturbing pattern over the decades in Washington’s negotiations with countries deemed to be adversaries. It is a tendency to adopt a rigid stance marked by unrealistic demands that make achieving a settlement virtually impossible. Often, harsh economic sanctions against the target country reinforce the provocative diplomatic posture.

An illustration of what Carpenter means is the extent to which other voices in Washington see the Ukraine crisis an opportunity to give NATO a “new narrative”: agreement on a “common threat,” permanent deployment of NATO (i.e., American) forces to Poland and the Baltic States, potential membership of Finland and Sweden, and “reforming” the North Atlantic Council to put more authority into the hands of the (U.S.-compliant) Secretary General instead of member states’ ambassadors. As they say: never let a good crisis go to waste.