Peace in Ukraine – Better luck this time?

This morning Eastern Ukraine woke up to what is supposed to be the ceasefire that leads to peace. On Thursday night in Minsk, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande managed to bring Putin and Poroshenko to a deal to end the violence; a deal that the rebels also signed up to. With the agreement being that the guns would fall silent at midnight Saturday, the artillery pounded away until the last minute. This morning though, the quiet seems to have held so far, with only sporadic shelling. So what does this second Minsk deal agree to? What chance does it have of succeeding? And what will happen if it doesn’t?

Meeting in Minsk (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

On the military front, the most urgent part of the deal is the ceasefire followed by the withdrawal of artillery from the frontlines on both sides. The most casualties in this war have been caused by often inaccurate shelling, and this is intended to put an end to that. All foreign forces and mercenaries are also supposed to leave Ukraine. There is also a humanitarian aspect to the deal, with the release of all captives, restoration of economic ties to the rest of Ukraine, and aid to be delivered immediately. Finally, there is the political. Dialogue is supposed to begin on local elections, and Ukraine’s constitution will be changed to allow for more decentralised power. Finally, by the end of 2015 Ukraine will regain control of its border with Russia. In the long term therefore, this would seem to be a good deal for Ukraine.

So far so good. But will the ceasefire even last long enough for a dialogue to start? The fact that the shelling went on until the last moment shows the deep mistrust on both sides, with reports saying that the combatants are sceptical. There also seems to be different ideas on the almost surrounded Ukrainian-held town of Debaltseve. Rebel leaders have said that the ceasefire doesn’t apply there, because it is in their territory, and the shelling has only slowed around the town. Poroshenko has made clear that any attack will be answered, saying “If we are slapped on one cheek, we will not turn the other”

Unfortunately, there are more problems with this ‘peace’ than Debaltseve. For starters, there are extremists on both sides who will not be happy with this deal. There are many fighters on the rebel side who believe they are fighting for a new Russian and Orthodox empire, and this deal will be seen as betrayal. On the Ukrainian side there are the far-right groups like the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, who are just as adamant about fighting on. It’s unsure how much control commanders on both sides have over these extremists.

The other problems are more long term. The Minsk deal implies that Ukraine should eventually regain sovereignty over the Donbass area and the border. I can’t see the rebels ever accepting Ukrainian authority again, and losing the border would mean cutting their supply lines to Russia. This isn’t something Russia would like to see either. The question of reforming the constitution is also tricky. The Ukrainian Parliament, mainly known for massive fistfights and egg throwing, is unlikely to cooperate fully with Poroshenko.

A final open question is whether Russia will continue to play a destabilising role. Will they put pressure on the rebels to accept the deal, and allow a more federalised Ukraine to form? Or will they continue to arm the rebels, and leave their soldiers in place? One interesting detail from the Minsk deal was that Tornado-S missile systems were to be pulled back 140km from the frontline. The reason this is interesting is that Russia is the only country that has this new missile system, and they have never exported them. It is this sort of weaponry that have made the rebels better armed than some NATO countries, and makes me question Russia’s commitment to peace.

Unfortunately, the most likely outcome is that the conflict remains frozen as it is, without much political progress, or that the ceasefire simply falls apart. This could lead to escalations such as the introduction of arms from the United States, or a more open Russian intervention to ‘end’ the conflict. If this ceasefire is Ukraine’s best hope, then the future remains dark.

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