In Background, Ukraine

By Alexander Mercouris, Russia Insider, April 27, 2015

The Financial Times has disclosed the first attempt by Germany to put pressure on Kiev to implement the Minsk 2.0 peace agreement for East Ukraine. This could be immense if it is a sign of things to come, but the pressure so far has been nowhere near enough and is guaranteed to fail.

Foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France met in Berlin Jan 13, 2015

Foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France met in Berlin Jan 13, 2015

Followers of my writing for Russia Insider on the Ukrainian conflict will know that my constant refrain has been that the nature of the current Ukrainian government makes a negotiated peace impossible (see for example “Ukraine Goes to War – and Always Will as Long as Maidan Holds Power”, Russia Insider, 20th January 2015).

I have also always said that the only way round this is if the European powers, Germany especially, put overwhelming pressure on the Ukrainian government to settle the conflict. Going back to my 20th January 2015 article, I said:

“What this means is that there cannot be peace in Ukraine whilst the present government survives there and whilst Ukraine retains its existing borders unless overwhelming pressure is brought to bear on the government by its Western backers to compromise in a way that left to itself it will never do.”

The absence to date of “overwhelming pressure” on the government in Kiev from its Western backers explains why the war has continued and why its resumption is inevitable.

The article from the Financial Times I cite below suggests that for the first time some glimmer of understanding of this has started to flicker in Europe and that this situation might be starting to change.

It seems that for the first time since the start of the conflict some Western states, including most importantly Germany, are at last starting to exert some pressure on Kiev.

The pressure the article talks about is, however, nowhere near enough, and is of the sort that is guaranteed to fail.

It seems that the Germans have warned the Ukrainians that unless they fulfill the key political part of the Minsk Memorandum (something the Ukrainians have no intention of doing, as their failure to implement any part of it up to now shows) they will “give Russia excuses for renewed aggression”, which will cause the war to begin again.

Such warnings are, however, hardly going to impress or deter Kiev if war is precisely what Kiev wants.

As I discussed in my 20th January 2015 article and as I have also discussed in many other places, given the highly factionalised nature of the Kiev regime, war is the only thing that gives it coherence and holds it together. For that reason if no other the Ukrainians will always choose war over negotiation if left to themselves. They will anyway resist negotiations or any talk of compromise, since that would mean giving up the goal they set themselves when they launched the Maidan revolution, of a unitary, monolingual, monocultural and monoethnic Ukraine distanced as far as possible from Russia. That also is a factor that impels them towards war.

What makes the Ukrainian government even less likely to be impressed by this pressure is that at the same time as the Germans are telling Kiev to compromise, the U.S. and Canada are sending military training missions to Ukraine.

In my detailed analysis of the talks that took place in February in Minsk (“Merkel in Moscow and Minsk – Der Spiegel Says Putin Has Won”, Russia Insider, 18th February 2015) I explained why sending US training missions or weapons to Ukraine is a really bad idea since “it fails to change the situation on the ground in Kiev’s favour whilst committing the U.S. to send military advisers to Kiev in a way that would be seen as a commitment to Kiev by the U.S. that would turn the Ukrainian conflict into a U.S.-Russian proxy war.”

That is precisely what is now happening. Though, as this analysis by The Saker correctly says, the presence of U.S. and Canadian training missions in Ukraine will not change the military balance of the ground, the hardliners in Kiev are bound to see them as a sign of US military support in a way that can only encourage a resumption of the war.

If the Germans and the Europeans really want to see Minsk 2.0 succeed then they have to put far more pressure on Kiev than the article in the Financial Times suggests they are doing or are prepared to do. As I discussed recently (Minsk Peace Deal for Ukraine is Falling Apart, Russia Insider, 19th March 2015) what the situation calls for is for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to go to Kiev and “bang the table and tell Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk in public and to their face that they will get no more help from Europe unless they scrap the amendments they have just made to the law of special status and unless they immediately enter into constitutional negotiations with the eastern leaders as Poroshenko promised they would do in Minsk.”

Polite expressions of concern made behind the scenes that are then leaked to the Financial Times, by contrast, will get precisely nowhere, and will achieve precisely nothing.

The Financial Times article does however reinforce the impression that Europe is tiring of the Ukraine conflict and is becoming quietly fed up with the maximalist ambitions and intransigence of the Maidan leaders and of their US neocon supporters.

Even if Merkel (whose decision it ultimately is) is still not prepared to risk a major row with the hardliners in Washington, the Financial Times article does reinforce the sense that the peak of the international dimension of this crisis has passed and that we will see emerging from Germany a serious bridge-building exercise with Moscow before long.

At that point, with its US sponsor far away, Kiev will find itself effectively cast adrift and on its own.

From the Financial Times:

Germany and key European partners are pressing Ukraine to speed up implementing the Minsk ceasefire agreement — for fear of giving Russia excuses for renewed aggression.

The warnings from Berlin, Paris and London come as EU officials led by Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, are due on Monday to start their first EU-Ukraine summit in Kiev since the Ukraine crisis broke out a year ago.

They coincide with renewed tensions between Russia and the US over Ukraine, with Washington and Moscow trading allegations of increased military involvement in conflict zones.

The latest European comments highlight EU desires to ease tensions with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, even at the cost of irritating Kiev.

EU diplomats readily admit the separatists violate the Minsk ceasefire far more often than Kiev. But they urge president Petro Poroshenko to stick to the accord and implement its political clauses.

The word among German diplomats is that Kiev needs to be “more co-operative”. Stefan Meister, of Berlin’s DGAP foreign policy think-tank, said: “German officials are talking to both sides, but especially to the Ukrainians because if they don’t do what’s necessary, the Russians will always have the possibility of renewing the conflict.”

In France, President François Hollande said during a visit by Mr Poroshenko last week: “The only line of conduct is the full implementation of the Minsk accord.”

In the UK, which has followed the US in taking a tougher line against Moscow, an official said Ukraine should fulfil its side of the Minsk deal and “not give Russia the space to criticise them”.

The latest Minsk accord, agreed in February under pressure from Germany and France, has reduced fighting and led to the withdrawal of some heavy weapons from front lines, though soldiers and civilians still die almost daily.

But Berlin is worried that Kiev is dragging its feet over other parts of the fragile deal, notably in trying to postpone political decentralisation until after local elections are staged in separatist-held territory.

For Ukraine this is critical because it does not want to hand over power to separatist leaders in the Donbas region, who are not recognised by the international community. EU diplomats say, however, that while local elections are indeed envisaged under Minsk, the accord does not insist that they take place before decentralisation.

Dmytro Kuleba, a senior Ukrainian foreign ministry official, dismissed charges of delaying tactics as “perfect hypocrisy”, saying Russia was encouraging this perception while continuing its aggression.

Kiev has, however, acted on another EU concern. Last week, lawmakers softened recent legislation banning Soviet and Nazi symbols. The planned law had raised fears in Russia of a campaign to remove monuments and rename streets dating from the Soviet era. Now such decisions are planned to be devolved to regional authorities.

But Russia is maintaining the pressure. The foreign ministry on Friday accused Kiev of having “no political will” to implement the Minsk agreement.

Meanwhile, Berlin is also pressing EU officials to be conciliatory with Moscow. Foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier wrote this month to Mr Juncker urging the EU to ease “Russian concerns” over a deep free-trade agreement with Ukraine.

The planned deal helped trigger the initial crisis when it fuelled Russian fears of losing influence in Kiev. Implementation was postponed last year in the face of Russian resistance, with the hope of discussing the matter at trilateral talks between Moscow, Kiev and Brussels.

But Kiev is loath to involve Russia in what it sees as a bilateral accord — and Moscow has warned Ukraine against unilateral implementation. Mr Steinmeier has urged a start to the three-way talks, asking Mr Juncker to “use the considerable flexibility that the agreement offers”.


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