Signs of peace

Russia sees the Ukranian government’s ceasefire pact with the eastern rebels as a definitive step forward to peace, but the U.S. and Britain have accused Russia of undermining democracy in the east European country “at the barrel of the gun”.

Published : Sep 17, 2014 12:30 IST

President Petro Poroshenko with Ukrainian Army personnel at Mariupol. The picture released on September 8 by the Presidential Press Office shows him in a military uniform for his first war-time visit to a flashpoint eastern city.

President Petro Poroshenko with Ukrainian Army personnel at Mariupol. The picture released on September 8 by the Presidential Press Office shows him in a military uniform for his first war-time visit to a flashpoint eastern city.

THE CEASEFIRE agreement signed by representatives of the Ukrainian government and the eastern rebel forces in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on September 5, is viewed by the governments in Moscow and Kiev as a definitive step forward in ending the five-month-old civil war in the east European country. At the negotiating table, the Ukrainian government was represented by former President Leonid Kuchma. Aleksandr Zakharchenko, “prime minister” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, represented the rebel factions in the east. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met on the sidelines of a regional summit in Minsk before the agreement was signed.

The agreement laid out a road map for the immediate cessation of hostilities and a peaceful settlement of the conflict. The 14-point peace plan includes pledges to return areas under rebel control to the government and exchange prisoners. Militias on both sides will be disbanded and a 10-kilometre buffer zone will be established along Ukraine’s border with Russia.

Importantly, the agreement states that power will be decentralised and the status of Russian as an official language will be guaranteed. The initial attempts by the Ukrainian Parliament to strip Russian of the official language status had inflamed public opinion in the mainly Russian-speaking east.

The step taken by Poroshenko to bring about a negotiated end to the conflict is already being undermined by the forces that triggered the crisis in the first place by engineering the illegal ouster of the elected government early this year. What has angered them the most is Poroshenko’s decision in Minsk to accede to the long-standing demand of eastern Ukrainians for the “decentralisation of power” and the creation of a “special autonomous zone” in the east. The eastern rebels, who in recent weeks scored a series of military victories, want the Ukrainian government to consider their demand for rewriting the Constitution to guarantee the “neutral military political status” of Ukraine and to turn the country into a federation. The government in Kiev, which came into being after a Western-supported coup, on the other hand, has been accelerating the process of doing away with the federal system of government and further reducing the powers of regional governors. The new government, which mainly represents the Ukrainian-speaking parts of the country, is also speeding up moves to integrate with the West, economically as well as militarily.

The European Union (E.U.) already has the new government in its tight embrace. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has been itching to officially move into Ukraine since the country became independent and install its missile defence systems along Ukraine’s border with Russia.

NATO’S package of measures

The continued expansion of NATO along the Russian border is a red rag for the Kremlin. At the NATO summit held in Wales in the first week of September, its Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that member-states would jointly contribute €15 million in direct military aid to Ukraine. NATO also approved a “comprehensive and tailored package of measures” to assist the Ukrainian military in the improvement of logistics, command and control, communications and other services.

In an article written jointly to coincide with the NATO summit, United States President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron brazenly accused Russia of undermining democracy in Ukraine “at the barrel of the gun”. The two leaders conveniently glossed over the West’s hand in overthrowing a popularly elected government in Kiev. The U.S. State Department has admitted to spending around $5 billion in “spreading democracy” in the country. NATO has decided to locate rotating military forces along the Russian border and establish a permanent military “spearhead” for eastern Europe. Rasmussen said the decision to establish the military “spearhead” in the form of a “rapid response force” was a demonstration of the “solidarity and resolve” to confront Moscow. The latest decision is in contravention of the 1997 Founding Act of the NATO-Russian council under which NATO had agreed that it would not base its troops permanently in eastern European countries that had become its members. A former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, recently described NATO as “the largest danger to world peace” and that it should “be dissolved as a matter of urgency”.

Poroshenko’s decision to accede to a ceasefire when moves were afoot in Western capitals to isolate Russia diplomatically has not gone down well in Washington and London. Baltic states, with a combined population of 6.6 million, have been the loudest in demanding the presence of NATO troops on their territories. Their leaders, all avowedly pro-Western, are talking of an imaginary Russian military threat where none exists. The Western media have been saying that Poroshenko has blindly accepted a ceasefire plan drafted in the Kremlin, glossing over the fact that he had submitted a similar plan soon after he was elected to power in June. It was the rebel leadership that rejected the proposal at that time.

Russia has been insisting that it is not involved in the internal conflict in Ukraine, which has resulted in the death of more than 2,500 civilians and caused immense damage to property and infrastructure. More than half a million Ukrainians have fled to Russia in order to escape the fighting that has been raging since the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich by right-wing “Maidan” protesters on February 22. On February 21, in an agreement brokered by the E.U. and Russia, Yanukovich and the opposition agreed to form a “unity” government. But the activists of the extreme right-wing led by parties such as the “Right Sector” and “Svoboda” launched an armed assault on the President’s residences and office, forcing him to flee Kiev.

Some of Poroshenko’s allies have been quick to criticise the ceasefire agreement signed in Minsk. Yuri V. Lutsenko, one of his closest advisers, said the proposal to create a “special zone” in the east would be a “cancerous tumour in the Ukrainian organism”. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in the country on October 26. Politicians in the pro-Western part of the country, who now hold the reins of power, want to appeal to anti-Russian nationalistic sentiments. Sections within the security and political establishments are working overtime to upset the truce.

Several Ukrainians concede that the idea of genuine federalism would be good for the country in the long run. Ukraine has been ruled by a succession of Presidents with wide-ranging powers allowed under the Constitution. As a result, many of them became authoritarian and venal.

Sporadic but relatively minor breaches of the ceasefire agreement have already started taking place. Mortar and machine gun attacks were reported in Donetsk and Mariupol in the east. In Donetsk, the Ukrainian military reportedly fired on rebel positions. In the second city, the rebel forces were held responsible for the breaking of the ceasefire. Both sides have said that they will continue to hold fire. A positive sign is that prisoner exchanges have begun. Many residents who had fled the eastern cities are returning home.

The longevity and permanence of the ceasefire will, of course, depend on the negotiations that will take place between the warring sides. The statement by Obama at the conclusion of the NATO summit was not overly optimistic. He said he was “hopeful, but based on past experiences, also sceptical” if the ceasefire would hold. However, Dmitry S. Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, lauded the agreement and expressed the hope that it would be observed in full.

Despite the positive developments, the West has announced plans to slap more punitive sanctions on Russia, which will include a ban on arms exports and additional sanctions on the banking and energy sectors. The U.S. and the E.U. had imposed stiff sanctions on Russia in late July after the crash of the Malaysian passenger airliner MH17 over eastern Ukraine. The West was quick to rush to judgment blaming Russia and the rebels in the east for the crash of the civilian plane. With the needle of suspicion moving in another direction, the West has been silent over the incident. The sanctions on the energy sector could hurt Russia the most, affecting production as well as revenues. Half of Russia’s budget is dependent on oil revenues.

Russia, however, is not taking things lying down. It responded to an earlier round of Western sanctions by banning the import of poultry, vegetable and dairy products from E.U. countries. This has had a negative impact on the farming and dairy sectors of many E.U. countries. Countries such as Finland have already been hit hard by Russia’s countermeasures. Germany, the economic engine of Europe, is heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies. Slovakia, an E.U. member, has argued against the logic of imposing sanctions against Russia at a time when many European economies are struggling to emerge from recession.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned in the second week of September that Moscow would “respond asymmetrically” to any new sanctions. He said Russia would consider banning Western airlines from overflying its territory. “If Western carriers have to bypass our airspace, this could drive many airlines into bankruptcy,” Medvedev said in Moscow. Taking a circuitous route would mean usage of more fuel. Long-haul flights to Asia mostly overfly the vast Russian territory.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who played a small role in brokering the peace deal, warned fellow eastern Europeans that the situation in Ukraine “has created a huge funnel and the vortex flow in the funnel” is sucking in all the countries in the region. “It is Uncle Sam who is pushing us into the vortex, and let us be frank, many politicians in Ukraine are fulfilling his orders,” he said.

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