Ever since the road map for peace in Ukraine was agreed on February 12, the prevailing mood in western capitals has been pessimism laced with cynicism. In the unlikely event that the ceasefire somehow takes hold, this will be interpreted as proof positive that the terms favoured Russia. Whatever happens, Russia — or, more specifically, President Vladimir Putin — will be to blame. Any notion that Moscow might genuinely want peace in Ukraine, and be willing to compromise to achieve that, is excluded from the calculation. And so continues the profound misreading of Kremlin thinking that has dogged the West’s approach to Russia, and militated against any settlement since President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev and Russia snatched Crimea a year ago.
A textbook example of western diplomacy’s wrongheadedness was offered by Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations. Power — who habitually sounds more like an appointee of George W Bush than of President Barack Obama —responded to a resolution tabled by Russia in support of the Minsk agreement by insisting that it was not worth the paper it was written on. “Stop arming the separatists,” she shouted. “Stop sending hundreds of heavy weapons across the border in addition to your troops. Stop pretending you are not doing what you are doing.” “Russia,” she went on in similarly accusatory mode, “signs agreements, then does everything within its power to undermine them. Russia champions the sovereignty of nations and then acts as if a neighbour’s borders do not exist.”
She then meekly voted with everyone else in favour of the resolution. Now, Power may well have been playing to some very particular galleries: The majority-Republican US Congress, the fearful Nato allies in the Baltic states and Poland, plus of course the pro-western government in Kiev, all of whom would demand that Washington hang tough. But such public dismissal of Russia — with charges, such as “sending hundreds of heavy weapons across the border”, that have not been substantiated, despite all the surveillance technology Nato has at its disposal — will hardly encourage Moscow to cooperate. It might as well behave badly, for all the thanks it gets.
The argument that Russia was the big winner from the latest Minsk agreement is anyway exaggerated. After Moscow annexed Crimea, a western consensus evolved to the effect that Putin’s long-term objective was the restoration of the Soviet, or Russian, empire, and that if the Kremlin could not, or would not, take over all Ukraine it would establish a proxy presence in the Donbass in order to make a pro-western Ukraine ungovernable.
The “special status” for the region, envisaged at Minsk, is widely seen as Russia’s gain. So too is the fact that the demarcation line allocates marginally more territory to the “separatists” than they received under previous ceasefires. But that assumes a degree of Russian control of the rebels that was always exaggerated. And other aspects of the agreement can be seen as sharply limiting any Russian gains (beyond Crimea, which was not mentioned). Ukraine will remain a single state within its present borders.
Kiev’s writ, in terms of currency, pensions and most legislation, is to run across the country. This is what Putin has signed up to — and what, by the way, he insisted Russia would accept all along. Those who insist on Russia’s — or Putin’s — expansionist ambitions have also to explain why Russia did not follow up its annexation of Crimea by doing the same in the Donbass, or even contesting power in Kiev. The idea that the Kremlin’s objectives might have to do primarily with Russia’s own security, rather than with keeping Ukraine inside a latter-day eastern bloc or maintaining a notional bridgehead in the Donbass, is rarely entertained.
If Russia’s central aim is security rather than expansion, however, then two things follow. First, western sanctions and military scare tactics such as the threat to supply Kiev with weapons will not work; they will only make matters worse. And second, Russia’s interests will lie in a long-term settlement with a stable Ukraine, not the perpetuation of conflict — even a “frozen” one — in the east. Might this perhaps explain why Russia committed itself to the Minsk agreement — rather than to trick Kiev and the West?
The reason the September ceasefire collapsed was not that Russia “undermined it”, as claimed by Power, but that neither the anti-Kiev rebels nor the Ukrainian government forces accepted the demarcation line that was drawn, and because both had the means to fight on. The only way Russia could have enforced that ceasefire would have been to intervene with its own forces on the ground, a prospect Power would surely have liked even less.
The stakes this time around are far higher, because of the US debate about supplying Kiev with weapons — which, incidentally, also gives the Ukrainian government incentive to fight on. But if the rebels’ victory at Debaltseve last week has established a demarcation line everyone can live with, then the ceasefire may yet have a chance, as may the survival of Ukraine as a single state. To describe any of this as a gain for Russia is risible. Ukraine’s orientation becomes more western almost by the day. If it holds, the Minsk agreement offers Russia a dignified way of accepting Ukraine’s post-Soviet emergence as an independent state. Moscow needs this small measure of diplomatic ambiguity, not petulant accusations that it is acting in bad faith.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd