A deal in Donetsk – too good to be true?

This week seemed to bring the first positive steps in the Ukraine crisis. On Thursday the news broke that Russia, Ukraine, the US and the EU had reached an agreement on how to resolve the situation in Eastern Ukraine. However as soon I read the agreement I found it hard to believe that this was a real end to the crisis. So what was in the agreement? Why is it so surprising? And what might be going on behind the scenes?

The problem with this agreement is that it seems like Russia is backing down almost completely. Here are some of the statements from the agreement, and why they are so surprising.

“All illegally armed groups must be disarmed” This would require the separatists to disarm, which should allow the Ukrainian government to reassert authority over the East without having to use their army at all. The police could simply make sure things went back to normal.
“All illegally seized buildings must be returned” This would mean the end of all the occupations of public buildings in Donetsk and Eastern Ukraine. It seems like Russia would be stabbing the separatists in the back after supporting them so strongly. Russia agreeing to the word ‘illegal’ is also strange; previously they’ve said the separatists are only protesters.
“Amnesty will be granted to protestors” This isn’t a huge sacrifice on Ukraine’s part. It does mean a lot of angry separatists running around, but the police can always try and arrest them on other charges.
“The announced constitutional process…will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions” Firstly, there’s nothing concrete in here, and certainly no regional referendum on independence (which is what the separatists wanted). Secondly, the Ukrainian government had already agreed to consider more rights for the provinces and even a national referendum on how much freedom they should have. Again, Ukraine isn’t really giving up much here.

This is a deal which seems to be giving the advantage to Ukraine. The separatists would be disarmed, Ukraine would regain control over the East, and in exchange they would enter negotiations on giving the East more autonomy. But is this really that likely? Here are three scenarios on what might really be happening.

1. Russia is genuinely backing down after realising they don’t have enough support for a Crimea style annexation in the East. It’s possible that the events of the last weeks were just testing the waters, to see what might be possible. While there is much support for more autonomy, very few Eastern Ukrainians actually want to join Russia. This scenario would mean that Putin has decided he has achieved all he can in Eastern Ukraine, and it’s time to pull back.

However, this would not fit in with his statements on the same day the deal was announced. During an interview he mentioned ‘Novarossiya’, an old name for parts of Southern and Eastern Ukraine Russia conquered in the 18th century. He seemed to suggest that it was a mistake that these areas became part of modern Ukraine. Unless this was just a vague threat, it seems like Putin is not ready to let Ukraine go that easily.

2. Russia has agreed, but intends to allow the separatists to continue to hold buildings, and claim that the Ukrainian army is breaking the peace if it moves in. This seems the most likely option at the moment, seeing as the separatists have refused to leave their buildings until the government steps down. Russia can continue to say it has nothing to do with the separatists, and wait until the Ukrainian army tries to move back into Eastern Ukraine. When it does, they can then claim that peaceful protesters are under threat. As long as the pro-Russian protesters refuse to back down, it looks likely that this deal won’t mean much at all in the long term.

3. It is possible that there has been a deal behind the scenes that the Russian annexation of Crimea will eventually be accepted. It’s worth remembering that Crimea isn’t mentioned in the agreement. It remains illegally annexed territory. However a deal would mean that that the US and EU will begin to treat Crimea like part of Russia (after enough time has passed for it not to be obvious) if Russia allows the Ukrainian government to keep Eastern Ukraine.

It makes sense that such a deal would be kept secret. Ukraine wouldn’t want to let the world know that they gave away a piece of their territory. The US and EU wouldn’t want the world to see them accepting such an outrageous breach of international law by Russia. Russia wouldn’t want people to realise how they have cynically used the Ukrainian separatists. And Ukraine wouldn’t want to risk angering Russia again, as well as letting the world know their humiliation at having to accept the loss of Crimea. If the situation in Eastern Ukraine ends up actually improving, then I believe this theory might be correct.

The government has announced a truce over Easter, but say that the military will continue to move East after the holiday is over. Russia’s reaction, and the way things progress in Donetsk Oblast, will show which of the above scenarios is correct.

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