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Mainstream, VOL LII No 28, July 5, 2014

Poroshenko Declares Ceasefire: Ray of Hope to End Ukrainian Crisis

Saturday 5 July 2014

by R.G. Gidadhubli

The declaration of unilateral ceasefire by Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, on June 20, 2014 could turn out to be a wise policy decision to de-escalate the crisis condition in the eastern regions of the country. Poroshenko has been candid in stating that this short ceasefire will be the first step to ease the conflict. The Presidents of the Western countries—Barack Obama, Hollande and Merkel—have welcomed Poroshenko’s ceasefire. There is also positive response from the Russian side as its President, Vladimir Putin, welcomed this decision and is expecting Poroshenko to offer peace proposals. Equally important is that pro-Russian separatist leaders of the eastern regions, who were skeptical initially, have expressed support to this decision.

In fact while declaring the ceasefire, Poroshenko also proposed a plan that envisions guarantees of security for all parties to negotiations, an exemption from criminal liability for those who did not commit serious crimes and who lay down their arms, and the freeing of hostages. At the same time, not to be taken by his opponents that he was speaking from a position of weakness, Poroshenko has reiterated that combat action will only be of retaliatory character if ‘rebels attacked the Ukrainian forces’. Be that as it may, this unilateral declaration has been an unexpected but a diplomatic move necessitated for various reasons.

Worsening Crisis

Firstly, the situation got aggravated on June 14 when 49 Ukrainian Army personnel were killed as their transport aircraft was struck by protestors using surface-to-air missile as it approached Luhansk airport, where heavily armed separatists control much of the area. Prior to that in the second week of June separatists claimed that they also shot down a Ukrainian Air Force bomber after it hit a target in the rebel-held town of Horlivka in the Donetsk region. Apart from these incidents, Poroshenko had reasons to be concerned with reports that on June 16 pro-Russian protestors seized the Central Bank building in Donetsk which meant that Ukrainian Government had virtually lost control over this vital eastern industrial region. At any rate these actions seemed to justify allegations by the United States, despite Russia’s denials, that separatists in eastern Ukraine had acquired heavy weapons and military equipment from Russia, including Russian tanks and multiple rocket launchers.

The fact remained that these acts were in retaliation by pro-Russian protestors for brutal attacks by the Ukrainian military forces in which many of them were killed. Hence the initial response of several leaders of the eastern regions was not positive about the ceasefire. Actually there was heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine on June 20 when Ukrainian officials admitted that seven of their troops had been killed and that rebels were operating tanks. Thus there has been worsening of the situation in the eastern regions of Ukraine as more than 200 people have been killed during the last two months.

Secondly, there is growing threat to Ukraine’s survival and stability since leaders of Donetsk, Luhansk and a few other eastern regional republics are bent on their independence. Adding to the concern for Poroshenko, on June 19 Georgia’s breakaway republic of South Ossetia announced its recognition of the ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’, which might not be without the knowledge of Russian leaders. Hence Poroshenko’s initiative of unilateral cease-fire is intended to pre-empt what Georgia suffered in 2008 by losing its two regions bordering on Russia.

Thirdly, even as Ukraine has been facing the worst economic scenario during the last couple of years, it has now become a victim of a ‘gas war’ with Russia since Moscow threatened to cut gas supplies if Kiev missed the deadline for payment of debt amounting to $ 1.95 billion and advance payment for future gas supplies to Ukraine. In fact since Ukraine could not meet the deadline for payment, on June 16 Andriy Kobolev, the head of Ukraine’s state company Naftohaz, confirmed that Russia had stopped delivering gas to Ukraine. To aggravate the problem for Ukraine, Russia’s energy giant Gazprom also said it had filed a lawsuit against Ukraine in a Stockholm arbitration court to recover $ 4.5 billion in debt. In retaliation Ukraine has threatened to take the matter to the arbitration court against Russia.

Even as the gas war is going on, Russia has tried to safeguard its own interest so far by the supply of natural gas to the West European countries concerned. Gazprom official Kupriya-nov has also insisted that Ukraine has a duty to ensure that the gas intended for European customers flows unimpeded, thus ensuring that West European customers are not affected since they are getting natural gas from Russia which is supplied by pipelines passing through Ukraine for which Russia pays for the use of the pipeline.

 Price is another factor causing conflict between the two countries. On June 15 at the trilateral talk between Ukraine, the European Union and Russia, the gas price was proposed at $ 326 for 1000 cubic metres, but Putin insisted that Russia’s price offer of $ 385 was final and that he has already reduced the price from $ 485. Looking back, till recently Ukraine being a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States was getting the benefit of concessional rates for gas supplied by Russia. But after the popular uprising in Kiev and toppling of former President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014, the dispute flared up between Russia and Ukraine and Moscow raised its gas from $ 268 to $ 485. Subsequently, Gazprom claims that it is applying international market price for gas being supplied to Ukraine. While there could be justification for arguments on each side, it is evident that political interests play an important role on economic issues.

There are strong views on the question of gas on either side. The Ukrainian Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, has accused Russia’s policy of gas price as part of “a general plan for the destruction of Ukraine”. In retaliation on June 16 Gazprom head Aleksei Miller accused Yatsenyuk of spearheading Ukrainian efforts to describe the row as a “gas war”. Poroshenko has realised that improved relations with Russia would be the only way to solve this problem of gas war.

Poroshenko-Putin can End Crisis

From what is stated above, it is evident that taking over the presidency of Ukraine, Poro-shenko has been concerned with the worsening crisis in the eastern part of Ukraine. Notwith-standing his pronouncement that Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine, there has been a genuine growing realisation of the fact that apart from the threat to Ukraine’s unity and survival, the unending and escalating crisis condition could bring Europe to the edge of an all-out war. Thus there can be no denying the fact that Poroshenko’s decision of ceasefire proposal is a proactive policy measure which is a qualitative shift from Ukraine’s earlier position and at the same time a keen desire on his part to bring about peace and a change to the unending crisis.

At any rate Poroshenko has reasons to take comfort for his achievement. First of all this is evident from Poroshenko’s efforts to directly deal with Putin. He met Putin in France a few weeks back on the occasion of celebration of the end of the Second World War. Subsequently both the leaders have been talking to each other including on June 22 when both called for a dialogue to end the crisis.

Secondly, Poroshenko has brought about changes in his team of Ministers and presidential administration. The role of the new team of Poroshenko is likely to be important. For instance, on June 19 Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s 47-year-old envoy to Germany since 2012 was confirmed as the Foreign Minister of Ukraine replacing Andriy Deshchytsya who was highly critical of Russia and had created controversy concerning Putin.

There is also a strong Russian nuance in the biography of Klimkin who was born in Kirov in Russia and graduated from Moscow’s Institute of Physics and Technology in 1991 and began his diplomatic career two years later. His role is likely to be important since he has a reputation as a skilled negotiator and consummate diplomat capable of deftly navigating Ukraine’s integration with Europe as well as its tattered ties with Moscow. In fact in 2008 he became Ukraine’s lead negotiator on the Association Agreement with the EU. As opined by Kostyantyn Bondarenko, a political analyst with the Institute for Ukrainian Policy, Klimkin is a choice whom Moscow finds palatable and he is capable of being an effective negotiator with Russia, the EU, and United States.

Another addition in the new team is Boris Lozhkin, a 42-year-old born in Kharkov, eastern region of Ukraine. Poroshenko has brought this close associate, media mogul as his chief of staff on June 10. He has decades-long role as a media baron in the Russian language in the eastern parts of Ukraine. Being a political insider as well as his longstanding ties to Russia might be to the advantage of Poroshenko to bring about change in the opinion among the ethnic Russians towards the Ukrainian Government. Hence both Klimkin and Lozhkin are likely to play an important part in de-escalating the situation in the country even as Poroshenko will have the final authority in dealing with all these issues.

Russian leaders have their own concern and interest in ending the crisis. The exclusion of Russia in the meeting of G-8 when the leaders of G-7 met in the first week of June has a damaging impact for its status in global affairs. Moreover, G-7 leaders were united in their assertion of increasing threats of economic sanctions on Russia accusing it for the persisting crisis in Ukraine. Hence US Vice-President Joe Biden’s warning on June 19 to ‘impose further costs on Russia” was not in Russia’s long-term interest. Similarly, in the first week of June Russia got a cold response at the UN Security Council meeting for its draft resolution on Ukraine.

Hence not to lose this opportunity of enhancing Russia’s role and interest, while Putin supports Poroshenko he has insisted that Poroshenko should start detailed and substantial dialogue with the leaders of eastern Ukraine to solve the issues. In essence Russia expects that the political and economic interests of the eastern regions need to be safeguarded in terms of due role for the Russian language, autonomy etc. to ensure the long term interests of ethnic Russians. At the same time from Putin’s perspective Russia should be an equal partner in any solution of the problem as other Western countries. By far the most critical factor for Russia is that it does not want Ukraine to be part of the NATO and hence Putin’s support to Poroshenko. Thus his success in de-escalating crisis would depend much on how far he will comply with these expectations.

Dr R.G. Gidadhubli is a Professor and a former Director, Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.