Left to right : President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France’s President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk, on February 11, 2015, during a meeting aimed at ending 10 months of fighting in Ukraine. PHOTO: AFP
Seven days ago, when Russian, German and French leaders, accompanied by the Ukrainian and Belorussian president, met in Minsk,a deal was signedto provide Eastern Ukraine with a glimmer of hope for peace.
Eastern Ukraine, soon after the pro-Russian rebel uprising last year, had started circling an orbit that was destined for chaos and failure. Even with last year’s Western sanctions, aimed at constraining Russia from supporting rebels, things were not improving in the region as the rebels were marching towards government held territories.
But with this recent deal, coming on the back of last year’s failed accord, can there be hope for peace in Eastern Ukraine?
Not an easy question to answer.
The Minsk deal provides a clear roadmap for gradual conflict resolution, autonomy and constitutional reforms. The deal, even with all its positives, apparently is not doing much to change the situation on ground, especially for the Ukrainian troops stationed in Debaltseve – a small town of 25,000 providing a junction between the Luhansk (or Lugansk) and Donetsk regions.
As per latest reports, Debaltseve, with 8,000 Ukrainian troops, has been captured by the rebels with the government forces retreating after allegedly suffering heavy casualties. Debaltseve, as seen from its strategic location, provides an important vantage point, and even with the ceasefire in place, the rebels would surely refuse to surrender the town.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is using Debaltseve’s retreat against Russia, blaming Putin of violating the peace accords. But as of now, both the warring parties have failed to adhere to the ceasefire deadline of disarming the territories of heavy weaponry. Moreover, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observers have also been denied access to the conflict regions by rebel fighters.
Russian President Putin has also been blamed for delaying the deal to provide rebels with enough time to capture Debaltseve. A Ukrainian MP went as far as calling for Putin to be tried at The Hague for his gamesmanship in delaying the peace accord, thus causing Ukrainian military defeat in Debaltseve.
But several Ukrainian leaders, including Semen Semenchenko MP, have also blamed the incompetence of the civil military leadership in mismanagement of this critical situation.
Putin, in his latest statement, has again blamed the West of providing arms and support to Ukraine, and thus adding to the spiral of on-going conflict. Yet, he hoped that the Minsk accords would bring long lasting peace in the region. In terms of political gains, the Minsk deal was apparently seen as Putin’s success. The United Nations Security Council also unanimously voted to approve a Russia-drafted resolution floored to support Minsk accords.
But a political victory on Ukrainian crisis has also cost Moscow in economic terms. A cash-stricken Russian economy, primarily dependent on energy exports, can no longer afford to fight a proxy war in Ukraine in the wake of global oil prices falling and EU sanctions. Sharp fluctuations in the energy market have also forced Russia to limit its gas imports from Central Asian partners such as Turkmenistan. Russia would also be closely monitoring the EU and its sanctions against Moscow which are due to expire in July. Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, has already called on the EU to extend these sanctions if Putin violates the ceasefire agreement, meaning that Moscow needs to make sure the ceasefire goes through.
The West, on the other hand, is also walking a fine line by taking on Russia in Ukraine. As long as it keeps on providing strategic and material support to Ukraine, Russia will never back out – as it already demonstrated in the Crimean annexation. The end result will add to further deaths of innocent Ukrainian civilians.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, soon after the Minsk Summit, has been criticised by the German media for appeasing Putin in order to avoid any further Russia-EU confrontation and provide concessions to the Russian leader. Western analysts see it as a deal signed in haste, whereas Russian experts call it a nifty manoeuvre by Putin.
The fragile Minsk deal, possibly forced by Munich, Paris and Washington, could only see the face of success if all the parties involved adhere to it and guarantee its implementation. Because if this effort fails, peace in Eastern Ukraine could be off the tables once and for all.
Whether all the stakeholders respect the Minsk deal or not, what currently holds paramount importance is the access of humanitarian aid agencies in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Innocent civilians are, and have been, caught up and suffering since day one, and thus any lull in conflict or even a partial implementation of the ceasefire could provide them with much needed relief.
A research analyst, programme consultant and content editor at the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad, along with pursuing his Research Studies in Public Policy from Germany. He tweets as @faruqyusaf (twitter.com/faruqyusaf)