On Friday a ceasefire was announced between the separatists and the Ukrainian government, meant to pave the way to talks between the two parties. While both sides indicated they would hold their fire, at the time of writing there had still been shelling near Mariupol and Donetsk Airport. However, more is going on behind the scenes, and this ceasefire shows just how much influence Vladimir Putin has over the war in the east. It also comes just as NATO announced serious changes in its relationship with Russia. So why has a ceasefire been reached now, and what was Putin’s role? Will it last? And how will relations change between Europe and its neighbour to the east?
Firstly, this ceasefire is very clearly forced upon President Poroshenko by Putin himself. As I described in my last post on Ukraine, in recent weeks Russia has sent increased equipment, vehicles and soldiers across the border, with regular Russian troops opening a new front near the city of Mariupol. Instead of being able to continue their steady advance on the rebel strongholds, the Ukrainian army is on the back foot and sustained serious casualties.
The increased Russian involvement came in the lead up to a meeting in Minsk between Putin and Poroshenko. The pro-Russian offensive was basically Putin twisting Poroshenko’s arm by showing him that the Ukrainians will not be allowed to win the war. The more the Ukrainian army fights, the more Russia will back the separatists, ramping up the destruction and civilian casualties. That’s why Poroshenko agreed to a disadvantageous ceasefire that leaves the rebels in charge of a significant area. Carrying on fighting risked the separatists taking even more ground and further worsening the government’s negotiating position.
This doesn’t mean though that this ceasefire is any sort of solution for the conflict. The positions of the government and the separatists are still irreconcilable. The separatists are determined to join their territory to Russia, and the Ukrainians are equally determined that Donetsk and Luhansk remain part of (a federalised) Ukraine. There is also the question of how much control Poroshenko and Putin have over their forces and proxies. The Ukrainian army is fighting alongside numerous militias, some of which are far-right nationalist. Most of them will see any concessions as treason, and could turn on their government. The separatists also have numerous Russian nationalists and dreamers of a fantasy ‘Novorossiya’. After seeing Putin rescue them from a tight spot, they may be emboldened to press on with their grand aims. All this to say that a return to active conflict is still fairly likely.
The ceasefire announcement has not yet brought any indication that the nosedive in relations between NATO and Russia will let up. This return to a deep mistrust and hostile attitudes will most likely be one of the lasting effects of the Ukraine crisis. NATO has set up a reaction force clearly designed to counter possible Russian incursions in the east of NATO, and Russia has also announced planned changes to their military doctrine. The fact that Putin this week repeatedly mentioned Russia’s status as the world’s largest nuclear power also doesn’t help matters. However, the fears expressed by numerous analysts of Russia actually using nuclear weapons to threaten and divide NATO are rather unrealistic. Putin may be operating out of his own logic, but using nuclear weapons would turn the entire world against Russia for generations. Instead, Russia will most likely come to resemble China in their difficult relations with other countries. However, the fact that people are even mentioning nukes shows how bad relations have got.
For now though, the focus is still on the conflict in Ukraine. If Russia puts pressure on the separatists to agree to a federalised Ukraine, then the halt in fighting could turn into lasting peace. However, the terms the pro-Russians are likely to demand will be unacceptable for Ukraine. With Putin showing no sign of backing down, it remains to be seen whether peace will come from both sides, or be forced upon Ukraine by Russian troops.