Ukraine on the edge again

With the failure of the two warring sides to honour the Minsk ceasefire agreements, the civil war in Ukraine is threatening to escalate into a bigger conflict involving Russia and the U.S.

Published : Mar 04, 2015 12:30 IST

Russia-backed rebels in Debaltseve, Ukraine, on February 20, two days after they captured the embattled rail hub.

Russia-backed rebels in Debaltseve, Ukraine, on February 20, two days after they captured the embattled rail hub.

WITHIN DAYS AFTER THE MINSK II CEASEFIRE agreement was signed, it was clear that the guns were not likely to go silent in Ukraine in the immediate future. Both sides in the raging civil war, which has been going on for almost a year now, are blaming each other for breaking a short-lived truce, which had raised hopes of a more durable peace in a conflict that has claimed 5,600 lives and rendered more than a million people homeless. According to the agreement signed on February 12 in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, the two sides were to end hostilities within 72 hours. The agreement, signed after many hours of intensive talks involving the leaders of Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine, was similar to the one signed in September 2014 in Minsk.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel played a key role in the latest negotiations, having come to believe that the situation in Ukraine can only be solved diplomatically and not militarily as some in the United States administration feel. She shuttled between Washington, Moscow and Kiev in her bid to get the two sides in Ukraine to agree to a ceasefire. Although Germany supported the Barack Obama administration in its efforts to effect an illegal regime change in Ukraine in 2014, Angela Merkel has resisted U.S. moves to further militarise the conflict. She also saw to it that western Europe remained united behind Germany on the issue. Many European Union (E.U.) states had unwillingly supported the tough U.S.-led sanctions on Russia. Germany and Italy, among other countries, are dependent on Russian gas to power their economies. A war at their doorstep is the last thing they want in recession-hit Europe.

The key point in the ceasefire agreement was the withdrawal of the opposing forces from their current positions and the creation of a buffer zone. In recent weeks, civilians, as has been the case throughout the conflict, bore the brunt of the war. Both sides targeted heavily populated urban areas. The attack on a trolley bus carrying passengers in Donetsk in the third week of January, which claimed 13 lives, triggered intensive fighting and sounded the death knell for the Minsk I agreement. The cities of Donetsk and Luhansk have been subjected to artillery shelling by the Ukrainian Army since early January. The military assault started after the U.S. Congress passed the “Ukraine Freedom Support Act” and soon after the visit of the head of the U.S. Armed Forces to Europe, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, in January. By early February, the Ukrainian Army started retreating after the rebels started gaining ground steadily following the capture of the airport in Donetsk.

Many Ukraine watchers believe that another ceasefire was in the interest of the central government in Kiev. A prolonged ceasefire would give the Ukrainian Army the much-needed respite and time to rearm. President Petro Poroshenko told a Ukrainian television station that he had used the first ceasefire situation to rearm and bolster the Army.

Under the terms of the latest agreement, a 30-kilometre buffer zone should have been in place by now and all heavy weapons should have been relocated outside this zone. Both sides were mandated to start talks about meaningful decentralisation of power, a long-standing demand of the Russian-speaking people of eastern Ukraine. The rebels, on their part, reiterated their commitment to the unity of Ukraine as a federal state. It was agreed that rebel leaders would not be prosecuted by the central government and that there would be an exchange of hostages and illegally held prisoners. Both sides also agreed that international humanitarian aid would be allowed to flow unimpeded into areas devastated by the conflict. The two sides also agreed to adopt in 2015 a new Constitution that would guarantee federalism.

The ongoing conflict has destroyed Ukraine’s industrial base. The country’s economy, which was never on a strong footing, has shrunk by 8 per cent and is floundering. The rebels in the east conceded the government’s right to control and police the country’s borders, even in the conflict zones. The Russian side conveyed to the Western leaders in Minsk that Moscow had “full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”.

When the latest agreement was signed, Debaltseve in the Donetsk province was already surrounded by the eastern rebel forces. The control of the city is of tactical importance for the rebel forces as it is a transportation hub connecting the eastern cities of Luhansk and Donetsk. Poroshenko evidently hoped that the agreement would allow his beleaguered troops in the city to hold on. The representatives of eastern Ukrainians offered safe passage for the Ukrainian troops out of the city. Aleksander Zakarchenko, a rebel leader, warned that the terms of the ceasefire agreement did not cover Debaltseve. “Any attempt by Ukrainian armed forces to unblock Debaltseve will be regarded as a violation of the Minsk agreements,” he said. But Poroshenko had insisted that the Army was in control of the city and ordered the troops to keep on fighting. Barely a week later, the Ukrainian Army had to beat a hasty and blood-soaked retreat. Poroshenko now claims that he ordered a “planned and orderly” retreat of the 8,000 Ukrainian troops from the city. The Defence Ministry is claiming that 80 per cent of the troops have returned safely.

The Ukrainian military seems to have suffered a huge setback. Poroshenko claims that the casualties number only in double digits. He reacted to the military setback by calling for the deployment of E.U. and United Nations peacekeepers along Ukraine’s border with Russia. Moscow protested against the demand immediately. Deployment of E.U. troops on the border would bring them in direct confrontation with Russian forces. The Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been given the task of supervising the ceasefire. OSCE observers are already on the ground monitoring the ceasefire. Earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a call to the Ukrainian Army to stop firing. He asked the pro-Russian militias separately to allow Ukrainian soldiers to leave the town peacefully. Putin has downplayed the fall of Debaltseve and has urged the two sides in the conflict to “fully” implement the ceasefire agreement he negotiated with the leaders of Germany and France.

The Donetsk People’s Republic Forces, which has captured Debaltseve, claim that more than a thousand Ukrainian forces lost their lives in the fighting. Poroshenko is already facing difficult questions about his decision not to pull out troops immediately after the agreement was signed. In western Ukraine, young people are refusing to be conscripted into the Army. The disenchantment with politicians, who took over Kiev after the Maidan (independence square in Kiev) putsch in 2014, seems to be growing. Poroshenko’s approval ratings have taken a beating, with opinion polls showing that 46 per cent of the people feel he is not doing a good job. Unemployment and inflation are at an all-time high and the gross domestic product has shrunk by 6.5 per cent.

Many of those fighting alongside the Ukrainian Army are extreme right-wing nationalists belonging to neo-Nazi groups such as the Right Sector. A militia known as the Azov Battalion wears Nazi insignia on the uniforms and helmets. Putin, while on a state visit to Hungary in the third week of February, said he had credible information that Western powers had started supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine. He said the flow of weapons would increase the casualty rates “but the outcome will not change”. The Obama administration has tried to pin the blame on Russia and the eastern Ukrainian rebels for the events that have occurred since the signing of the Minsk II agreement. Ashton Carter, who recently took over as the U.S. Defence Secretary, said he was inclined to endorse the plan for dispatching more lethal weapons to the Ukrainian Army. The European leaders argued against such a move, fearing that the conflict might spiral out of control.

There are genuine fears in the international community that the conflict in Ukraine could escalate into a bigger conflict involving Moscow and Washington. Obama said he was seriously considering the option of sending more sophisticated weapons to Ukraine. He has been warning Russia of adverse consequences if it supported the mainly Russian-speaking rebels in eastern Ukraine. Russia has denied that it has sent troops or heavy weaponry into Ukraine. Putin insists that only Russian volunteers are fighting in eastern Ukraine. But if the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) go ahead and send lethal weapons to Ukraine, Russia will not stand aside.

The war of words between the U.S. and Russia is escalating although the fighting in Ukraine has subsided following the rebels’ capture of Debaltseve. A long-term solution to the Ukraine crisis is possible if the West distances itself from the goal of incorporating Ukraine into the E.U. and the NATO. Ukraine has to revert to its “non-aligned” status. Otherwise, the civil war will turn into a “frozen conflict”, like the ones in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova, to name a few.

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