A hope for a stable cease-fire in eastern Ukraine after German and French foreign ministers’ visit and Ukrainian government’s and Russia-backed militants’ declarations vanished in hours. On September 16, pro-Russia proxies and Ukrainian army both reported violations of the cease-fire declared a day before as the EU ministers were visiting the war-torn region.
Ukrainian troops reported that Russia-backed militants opened fire on their positions 30 times in 24 hours near Donetsk, Avdiivka, Mariinka, Mariupol and other locations. On first day of the so-called ceasefire six Ukrainian soldiers were wounded, later one of them died in hospital. At the same time, Moscow-backed forces accused Ukraine of cease-fire violations.
Just days before, the leaders of pro-Russia separatists in Ukrainian eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk announced a unilateral cease-fire starting at midnight on September 14. Russian state television aired their statements, in which they were expressing a full commitment to the Minsk peace agreement.
Apparently, these declarations were aimed at getting PR, and to show the EU ministers, as they were visiting Ukraine, that pro-Russia side of the conflict is doing efforts towards a peace settlement. Secondly, the separatists made the announcement came right after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that he expects the parliament to vote soon on constitutional amendments granting a special status to the separatist-controlled area.
On September 15, the German and French foreign ministers made their first visit to Ukraine’s war-torn Donbas region. The foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Ukraine traveled to the conflict zone to evaluate the freshly installed ceasefire. Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Jean-Marc Ayrault had returned from Moscow, where they discussed the ways of implementation of the Minsk agreement.
Steinmeier and Ayrault visited Slovyansk, which was captured by Russian forces led by former GRU colonel Igor Girkin in April 2014, which triggered a bloody war. They viewed a bridge destroyed in fighting between the separatists and Ukrainian troops and said they wanted to push a new bid for peace after a recent surge in violence.
The French FM also said that they were looking “to create the conditions for a summit” between French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Jean-Marc Ayrault added there was “no plan B” to the Minsk agreement in order to end a 29-month war between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed forces in Donbas. “The Minsk agreement must be implemented”, he concluded.
France’s Foreign Minister stressed the need for the adoption of a law on local elections in Donbas and insisted it is important to grant special status to the region. But Ukraine reminded that the elections are impossible unless Kyiv regains a full control of the state border with Russia and security level would become satisfactory. In addition, Kyiv pointed out to the reports on new arrivals of Russian weapons and munitions to Donbas armed militants through the uncontrolled by Ukraine part of border.
The German FM said that they came with “a promise from Moscow that effective there will be a truce that will last at least a week”. Believing that this promise will be respected, Ayrault and Steinmeier urged Ukrainian government to fulfill its obligations of the 13-points Minsk plan under which the rebels would get partial autonomy within Ukraine.
However, later Moscow denied it had promised Berlin to ensure a ceasefire, as it does not think of itself as a party to the conflict. According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Russia hoped that the foreign ministers’ visit would encourage Ukraine to fulfill its Minsk obligations.
The initiative of giving a special status to the separatist-held area remains unpopular within Ukrainian society. Thus, French and German ministers faced protesters during their visit to Kramatorsk, a town close to Slovyansk. Dozens of activists in front of the office of the OSCE, which monitors the armed conflict, held placards saying “No to a special status for Donbas” and “Do not repeat Munich 1938”, which symbolized diplomatic capitulation of European democracies to an aggressor, Nazi Germany.
Meanwhile, a United Nations report presented in Kyiv on September 15 accounted “escalation in hostilities and drastic increase in civilian casualties” in eastern Ukraine between May and August. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in the report that “the situation along the contact line remains deeply unstable” and “there is a real risk that a new outbreak of violence could happen at any time.”
We have to recall, that the previous attempt at a ceasefire from September 1st broke down after less than two weeks. Ukraine said on September 13 that Russia-backed militants killed three of its soldiers in violation of the truce. Meanwhile, the separatist leaders accused Ukraine of not honoring the ceasefire, saying the Ukrainian military fired heavy weapons at Donetsk residential area.
The Minsk peace agreement was agreed between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France in February 2015. The peace deal was brokered by France and Germany. It helped to considerably reduce fighting and to end large-scale battles in the Donbas region. But since violations have occurred regularly and smaller clashes have continued to claim lives. A political settlement, an implementing of further points of the Minsk plan, including adopting a special status for separatist-held area and returning to Ukraine control of its border with Russia, has stalled.
Following new ceasefire violations, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Ukraine will not make any further steps in the settlement of the situation in Donbas without Russia’s honoring its commitments to ensure security there. “Our demands are very simple. Russia must ensure a sustainable and comprehensive ceasefire in Donbas. In the last day, we’ve have seen what the truce proclaimed by Russia means – we were promised a ceasefire, but more than 30 attacks, including mortar and artillery ones, have been mounted,” Poroshenko said addressing the 13th Yalta European Strategy Annual Meeting, which was held in Kyiv on September 15-17.
Ukrainian President reminded the main requirements to Russia: stop supplying its troops, heavy weapons, ammunition and military equipment to the Ukrainian territory; provide finally unhindered access for the OSCE SMM to the occupied territory of Donbas and Crimea; provide full access for the international observers to the temporarily uncontrolled part of the Ukrainian-Russian border. Poroshenko’s statement was seen by some media in Europe as sign of burying the Minsk agreement which does not work.
Meanwhile, Russia claims it cannot ensure full cessation of hostilities as it is not a party to the conflict in Donbas. However, there is much evidence that Russian forces are fighting on separatist side and that new Russian military equipment was seen in Donbas, according to an extensive database of the InformNapalm . It means that without Moscow’s help separatist militants would be deemed to a fiasco.
Nevertheless, Russian president Vladimir Putin offered, still pretending that Moscow is not a party to the war, to mediate in the negotiations between Ukraine and the Russian-backed militants in Donbas. “What we can do is to create the conditions for the negotiation process and participate in it as mediators and guarantors of the agreements reached. That is what we can, want, and will do if our partners in Kyiv want it,” RIA Novosti quoted him as saying. “We are ready to maintain any contacts, as long as they lead to positive results, to the settlement of the crisis,” Putin said, commenting on Moscow’s readiness to continue negotiations in the Normandy Four format, comprising Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine.
So, Moscow wants a bill on special status for separatist area and an amnesty for separatist fighters first, while Ukraine says it’s possible only after it restores control over its border with Russia. It’s a deadlock which will remain for quite a long time.
Obviously, Russia’s top priority is not to end up the conflict, but to get the Western sanctions lifted. And there are signs that Kremlin tries to achieve that goal without a full implementation of the Minsk agreement. For that purpose Russia may reuse its assertion that the sanctions policy is counterproductive and damage the economy of both, Russia and the EU, and also use the influence of some pro-Moscow politicians and leaders inside the European Union. Several of them expressed an opinion that sanctions did not deter Russia or that they block diplomatic solutions.
However, in September the EU’s Committee of Permanent Representatives decided to extend for another six months until March 15, 2017, the sanctions imposed on 146 individuals and 37 companies in response to the violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. The sanctions are linked to the annexation of Crimea by Russia and Moscow’s role in Ukraine’s territorial integrity violation in Donbas war. The sanctions against Russia will remain unchanged for another six months, the European Council confirmed in an official statement.
The European Union introduced restrictive anti-Russian sanctions in March 2014 after Crimea was annexed by the Russian Federation. The West also accused Moscow of meddling in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, imposing further political and economic sanctions on Russia. The Kremlin has repeatedly refuted the accusations and introduced countermeasures claiming that the Western sanctions are counterproductive and undermine global stability.
Ukrainian President welcomed the EU Council’s September 15 decision to extend individual sanctions and urged the EU to keep comprehensive sanction pressure on Russia until the restoration of territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea. Petro Poroshenko thinks that “Moscow would take EU concessions as a green light to commit more crimes”. He said the sanctions were “a powerful tool” and that they “keep the Kremlin at the negotiating table both in the Minsk process and in the Normandy format”.
Russian politicians responded to the extension by highlighting “Brussels’ dependency on Washington” and “the sanctions’ negative impact on the settlement of the conflict in Ukraine”. “Continued sanctions only play into the hands of those seeking to upset the Minsk accords on Ukrainian settlement”, the Russian Federation Council’s Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Konstantin Kosachev said.
The EU’s position is that Russia must fully comply with Minsk before it relaxes sanctions. However, there are rumors in Brussels that the EU in EU-Ukraine summit in October could disassociate sanctions from Minsk, freeing Europe to undertake “selective engagement” with Russia in return for small positive steps, the EUObserver reported. . There is a scenario, and a risk for Ukraine, when the EU could blame Kyiv for Minsk non-compliance, even though it cannot hold elections in Russia-occupied regions until Russian forces pull out.
But why some European politicians rush to get an effective solution to the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine as soon as possible and at nearly any price. There are those who want to restore business relations with Russia as some politicians in Europe are constrained by lobbies and interests in trade with Moscow. In addition, it concerns two biggest EU member states’ internal affairs: in 2017 France will hold presidential election and Germany will hold parliamentary elections. They head towards elections while ruling parties saw their popularity decline following migrant crisis, terror attacks and failed attempts to settle ongoing conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.
In this context, a historian and author Niall Ferguson expressed an opinion that Ukraine may become a “footnote to a grand settlement between the United States and Russia over Syria”. This assertion was suggested before by some experts although such scenario has never happened. Ferguson, who participated in the 2016 Yalta European Strategy Conference, told the Kyiv Post in an interview that a part of a US-Russia agreement would be a deal over Ukraine that would grant autonomy to the Russian-separatist controlled areas, along with recognition of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Calling it “depressing,” Ferguson argues that Putin “turned the geopolitical clock back to the 1950s and 60s” and “had been able to insert himself into the Middle East and become the broker in Syria”
However, this scenario now has a low probability for two reasons. Latest developments in Syria show that the US-Russia brokered deal does not work. Secondly, there are many influential figures in the US who is, contrary to this assertion, are in favor of more help to Ukraine. For instance, former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told on the margins of the Yalta European Strategy conference that he wishes that the West would have taken stronger and swifter action against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I think that we could have done more. I think that would have provided some reassurance. I think there could have been more in the way of defensive weapons. I think we were even slow to providing military training. There are a number of areas where we could have done more and frankly done it without provoking a dangerous Russia”, Gates said. He served as US Defense secretary under President George W. Bush starting in 2006 and continued in the post under Obama until 2011.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials are worried that the European support for Ukraine is weakening. This opinion was expressed by Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister in charge of relations with the EU Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze in an interview to the Euractiv. A slow pace of reform and persistent corruption have shaken Europe’s confidence in Kyiv as trustworthy ally and contributed to discourage Brussels.
“I don’t like to hear comments from some European countries, which place the two sides of the conflict on an equal footing, suggesting that they carry equal responsibility for it. There is an aggressor country, while Ukraine is the victim”, she stressed. And Klympush-Tsintsadze reminded the West’s responsibility to ensure international law and territorial integrity of Ukraine, which was defined under the Budapest Memorandum, signed in 1994 by Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom.
As the Ukraine-Russia conflict is still in deadlock and the Minsk agreement to settle the armed conflict in Donbas doesn’t work, the EU remains divided on that issue. We can say that the Ukraine crisis highlighted this division which is generated by different states’ interests, but also Moscow’s role in EU fragmentation. In fact, many see Kremlin’s hybrid warfare aiming at shattering the EU’s unity and stimulating divisions. These measures include propaganda campaign and disinformation, as Kremlin-sponsored news web-sites, agencies and TVs write and broadcast in almost all EU languages, and backing and financing far-right, islamofobic and anti-EU parties with French National Front getting 9 million loan from Kremlin-linked bank.
In these warfare anti-Brussels and anti-US sentiments, refugee crisis, terror attacks by ISIL-linked extremists and anti-Muslim propaganda are being weaponised to divide and blow up Europe from inside. Even if in Brussels, Paris and Berlin may not realize this, but a hybrid propaganda war is waged against Europe. Ukraine-Russia conflict is going to be a topic which either worsens the split in the EU, or unites on the basis of common values. Depending on what stance European leaders take on Ukraine issue, we will know what Europe will become in the coming years.
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