Ceasefire Gives Rise to More Questions Than Answers

September 7, 2014
Anthony T. Salvia
Director, American Institute in Ukraine

The Ukrainian saga – which began 10 months ago with V. F. Yanukovich’s decision not to sign the EU Association Agreement in Vilnius -- has reached a major turning point with the achievement of a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. Whether or not it holds, whether or not it leads to serious talks to put a definitive end to the crisis, it should be noted that in jointly signing the agreement with representatives of the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics, Kiev has accorded them de facto recognition by that very act.

Who would have thought that the Evromaidan would lead to such a state of affairs? It is hardly what the most militant Maidanchiki had in mind. Had they adhered to the February 21 agreement, nationwide elections would have taken place, Crimea would still be part of the Ukrainian Republic, and there would have been no war in Donbass (much less Kiev’s de facto recognition of its autonomy.) As we say in English – be careful what you ask for, you might get it.

Will the deal hold? Iffy. Ceasefires usually are and this one is particularly fraught. One would like to see the ceasefire as the prelude to serious talks for a definitive settlement of the conflict. But it could just as well serve as an occasion for the Ukrainian Army to regroup and rearm, and for the insurgents to consolidate their recent gains and plan their next moves.

On a positive note, the ceasefire will relieve the hard-pressed people of Donbass. It will facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid, and the restoration of services such as gas, water and electricity.

If is also leads to negotiations to put an end to the crisis, that would be good. A settlement entailing broad regional autonomy, an amendment to the constitution mandating non-aligned status for Ukraine, and legal recognition of Russian as one of Ukraine’s two official languages would go a long way towards fostering Ukrainian reconciliation and reconstruction.

But it would not please the radical nationalists in Poroshenko’s entourage. We are already hearing accusations of “sell-out” just on the basis of the ceasefire. And if the western Ukraine refuses to negotiation fundamental constitutional reforms, the pro-Russian insurgents in the east may feel impelled to abandon autonomy as a political goal, and aim instead for full independence.

Kiev's uncertain political dynamic mirrors evident divisions among its Western allies. Meeting recently in Wales, the NATO heads of state and government announced the creation of a rapid reaction force of 5,000 troops that presumably could carry out a Blitzkrieg in the east. This is not a large number, and it is not the same thing as the permanent basing of NATO forces in Poland and the Baltic States, which some US war hawks have called for (apparently because some European nations understood that such a move would be seen in Moscow as deliberately provocative). It seems the Europeans – not anxious for a new Cold War, let alone a Third World War – are putting the brakes on Washington’s more bellicose impulses (which does not mean it has abandoned its penchant for bellicose rhetoric.)

The same applies to sanctions. The NATO summiteers announced new sanctions on oil-exploration technology, banks, and the armaments industry. But these will not go into effect straight away; indeed they will be held in reserve pending the results of negotiations over East Ukraine.

It is clear Germany has no interest in the sanctions already in place, let alone new ones. Other countries – Finland, Slovakia, Hungary, the Netherlands and others -- have expressed misgivings over sanctions due to their clear boomerang effect.

If the recent events on the ground in Donbass have any larger meaning, it is that the US policy since independence in 1991 of dragooning united Ukraine into an anti-Russian alliance is a complete non-starter. This can only be achieved by forcibly Ukrainianizing the large swathes of the country that are not Ukrainian; that is to say, by violently driving large numbers of Donbass residents into exile, killing large numbers of those who choose to fight, and imposing punitive terms on those who survive.

This has been tried. It does not work. Even if it did, it is immoral as it amounts to ethnic cleansing, an atrocity we have opposed in other countries. If Washington had the slightest concern for the welfare of the Ukrainian people, it would drop its bellicose rhetoric and stratagems, and seek a negotiated settlement that revolves around regional autonomy within the Ukrainian Republic – but do not hold your breath: dreams of global strategic predominance are tough to give up.