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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 9, February 21, 2015

Ukraine: Will the Second Minsk Summit Succeed in Ending Conflict?

Monday 23 February 2015

by R.G. GIDADHUBLI

The fighting between the Ukrainian armed forces and pro-Russian rebels, despite a few skirmishes, largely subsided on Sunday, February 15, giving rise to hopes that the ceasefire agreement, signed on February 11 in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, might hold.

The first such agreement was reached in September 2014 in Minsk but this was violated and conflict between the Ukrainian Army and pro-Russian rebels (separatists) has resulted in the killing of over 5500 soldiers and civilians during the last over 10 months. Hence the question is legitimate as to whether the February 11, 2015 Minsk summit would succeed.

There are expectations that the summit meeting, held in Minsk on February 11, 2015 and attended by the four leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Peter Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollnade—who spent 16 hours in negotiations—might end the conflict and bring about durable peace in Ukraine. For the likely positive outcome, Angela Merkel and Hollande should be complimented not only for ensuring that the summit was held but also for making sincere efforts in preparing the roadmap by meeting the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in Kremlin on February 6, followed by Merkel’s meeting with the US President, Barack Obama, in the White House on February 9.

Firstly, even as Putin was non-committal during the meeting, Merkel was persuasive in her efforts which seems to have made a positive effect on Putin with the latter softening his stand at the summit. Equally important was her assurance to Putin that the West was not in favour of the isolation of Russia. It should be noted that Russia and Germany have close political and economic relations and both are the largest trading partners with Russia accounting for about one-third of Germany’s hydrocarbon imports.

Secondly, Merkel’s meeting with Obama was equally significant, since the USA had warned that lethal and non-lethal weapons could be supplied to Ukraine to strengthen Ukraine’s military capability and overpower the ethnic pro-Russian rebels (separatists). Furthermore, Obama has been bent on enhancing the political and economic sanctions on Russia to increase the cost for Russia’s support to the rebels in Ukraine. Under such conditions Merkel’s diplomacy prevailed as she insisted that Obama should hold on and wait for the outcome of the Minsk summit. Moreover, she has been candid in stating that sanctions are no solution to end the crisis.

Thirdly, for bringing a positive impact on the Minsk summit, personal talks by Obama with the Ukrainian President, Peter Poroshenko, and also with Vladimir Putin prior to the summit have played some part to effect de-escalation of the conflict and his strong support to peace and security in Ukraine.

Challenges Ahead

 Merkel is aware that there are many challenges ahead in implementing the ceasefire agreement. Both Merkel and Hollande are also aware that bringing about peace in Ukraine would not be feasible in the short term.

Firstly, this is evident from the fact though not totally unexpected, as per reports on February 14, fierce fighting raged in eastern Ukraine by the pro-Russian rebels to grab territory before the deadline for truce leading to the killing of dozens of soldiers and civilians.

Secondly, as opined by some analysts, there is no mention in the agreement with regard to the ‘buffer zone’ that the rebels have occupied and expanded during the last few weeks which was evident from the fact that the Ukrainian Army was not able to overpower the separatists. There were reports that in three days after signing the agreement, pro-Russian rebels managed to expand and consolidate the area under their control near Deletseve and Mariuopol, and this has been widely criticised by Poroshenko and the Western leaders.

Thirdly, Putin has claimed that the agreement has ensured that a ‘special status’ is given to parts of the ‘breakaway’ regions of Donetsk and Luhansk held by the pro-Russian rebels. According to some analysts, Poroshenko is not in agreement with this contention. Hence it is argued that the content of the agreement seems to have been distorted. Putin was keen that these regions, which are contiguous with Russia, be given ‘total autonomy’ so that they can be close to Russia both politically and economically. Moreover, these regions might provide easy access to Crimea. Hence Putin has reasons to be content with the Minsk agreement.

Fourthly, Merkel has cleverly avoided mentio-ning the issue of Crimea in the agreement since it is highly contentious and she was aware that Putin would have totally boycotted the summit had that been part of the agreement.

Russia on the Backfoot

There is a growing pressure on Putin to de-escalate the crisis and reduce support to the pro-Russian rebels in the ongoing conflict. Despite Putin’s denial mode, Western powers have credible evidence of Russia’s supply of heavy arms and military personnel in the form of volunteers to the rebels who have been able to grab territory in the frontline and attack the Ukrainian armed forces causing heavy damage to the civilians.

Equally significant is the fact that Poroshenko has already moved closer to the West by signing the Association Agreement with the European Union which the former President, Viktor Yanukovich, did not sign and hence had to flee to Russia as he was unable to contain protests in Euromaidan in Kiev last year. Moreover, after his address to the US Congress in December 2014, Poroshenko has succeeded in getting the assurance of total support of Obama and other American leaders.

 Poroshenko’s announcement, made prior to the Minsk summit, of declaring Martial Law if the situation worsened, could have been with the knowledge and support of the Western leaders who might have given their consent to it if the conflict persisted in the country. Subsequent to the signing of the agreement Poroshenko has demanded unconditional ceasefire and withdrawal of ‘foreign troops’ from the Ukrainian territory.

The concern at the international level about the Ukrainian situation is evident from the fact that to shore up the ceasefire deal, an emergency session of the UN Security Council took place on Sunday, February 15. If the Minsk agreement is violated and fighting persists, then the matter could be taken up there. There is the presence of the OSCE to supervise that the ceasefire agreement is adhered to by the rebels as also the Ukrainian armed forces. There is also the agreement reached between the two sides with regard to withdrawal of heavy weapons in eastern Ukraine now under pro-Russian rebel control. This is going to be crucial for durable peace in Ukraine.

Under these circumstances, if the Franko-German initiative to bring about the peace process does not succeed, then the concern of Merkel and Hollande about the worst case scenario of war might become a reality.

The Russian leaders, having managed to strengthen the position of the ethnic Russians in Ukraine, would be interested in taking credit so that the second Minsk agreement does not fail.

Dr R.g. gidadhubli is a Professor and the former Director, Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University Of Mumbai.