Can Europe’s new Iron Lady do it?

The ingredients were all there for a rapid escalation in the crisis. Bloody battles in the Debaltseve region, a new front in the southern city of Mariupol forming a land bridge between Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, a January declaration from rebel leaders for the mobilization of one hundred thousand fighters, and claims of Russian troops and equipment in the zone of conflict.
 
War between Russia and Ukraine appeared imminent. Ukraine’s Hryvnia, had already plunged nearly 50% against the dollar in 2014, but in one day of trading on February 6 it fell another 25% as a result of market panic, surrounded by rumors of full scale war.
 
Heightening tensions, Secretary of State John Kerry signalled that America was prepared to arm Ukraine with lethal weapons. With the possibility of a proxy war between Russia and the USA on their doorstep, Europe’s leaders reacted quickly to prevent the crisis from getting out of control. In rapid succession,  Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande first met with Ukraine leader, Poroshenko in Kiev on Thursday of last week and moved on to Moscow to confer with Putin. Merkel then returned to Munich to join Secretary of State Kerry, Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov and Poroshenko in a major security conference on February 7. Hollande, Poroshenko, Merkel and Putin are set to meet again in Minsk on February 11.
 
Kerry is not party to these negotiations. With hard line pressure from the Republicans committed to confrontation with Russia, the US has worked itself into a corner. The Europeans are now in charge. Further, if the Americans are going to be sincere about bringing peace and stability to Ukraine, they will need to support the European initiative rather than undermine it by escalating the conflict.
 
Any claims that this outcome has divided western allies are mistaken. Germany as well as a host of other countries including Canada had already stated they have no interest in shipping lethal weapons to Ukraine.
 
Merkel also made it clear she is engaging Russia not as an impartial mediator but as a representative of Europe which, above all, means bringing peace and stability to Ukraine as a member of the nations of Europe.  For Merkel, this means Ukraine’s territorial integrity remains paramount.
 
Although Merkel did not return from Moscow with a signed written agreement, her insistence that talks continue until the situation in Eastern Ukraine is settled, has borne fruit.  On Sunday, Poroshenko declared he was open to an unconditional ceasefire. A clear sign his people have grown weary of a war that is draining their economy and their morale. He and Putin appear prepared to hammer out a deal in Minsk this week. Where they clearly disagree is who should be brought into supervise the implementation of the peace agreement and who should be responsible for the welfare of the people of Eastern Ukraine.
 
At stake is the Minsk agreement signed by all parties last fall and which upholds Ukraine’s territorial integrity on the one hand while allowing Eastern Ukraine to become an autonomous entity within a federated Ukraine on the other. That agreement would also see Ukraine eventually tighten up its relations with the EU.  No doubt, the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement will be on Poroshenko’s mind when he sits down with Putin to discuss a special status for the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions.
 
Unfortunately for both Putin and Poroshenko the most urgent matter is the one over which neither have complete control. The Donbass with its ongoing humanitarian crisis, and infighting between Cossacks and local military leaders is moving quickly towards chaos. As the situation there deteriorates, no reliable leaders are to be found and the question of who will take responsibility for rebuilding Eastern Ukraine remains. Apart from attacking rebel strongholds it’s clear that Kiev has no long term strategy for the region or for that matter Crimea which now appears to be a lost cause. For example, one year after the Russian annexation, a survey of Crimeans funded by the Canadian government found 82 percent expressing full support and another 11 percent partial support for Russian control of Crimea.
 
An ideal situation would see a ceasefire imposed on all parties to the conflict, a neutral buffer zone between the two and the withdrawal of forces to their lines of control established by the Minsk agreement.  Whether this would stick depends on who might be tasked with overseeing the ceasefire and whether humanitarian aid is allowed to flow in unimpeded. Both the UN and the OSCE have an opportunity here. It would not be the first time the OSCE has been involved but it lacks the clout needed to go it alone.
 
Merkel’s ultimate goal must be to persuade Putin to play a constructive role in bringing stability to Ukraine with western support and guidance. Continued confrontation with Russia remains counterproductive. At least from  the perspective of Europe’s leaders who have a far greater stake in this conflict than do Secretary of State Kerry or President Obama.

 
By David Carment and Milana Nikolko.
 
 
David Carment is Editor of Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, CDFAI Fellow and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research. Milana Nikolko is an Adjunct Professor at EURUS, Carleton University.
 
Featured Photo by the European Peoples Party.

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