The president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, has held an emergency meeting of the National Security and Defence Council to discuss the escalation of fighting in the eastern oblasts (or administrative divisions) of Donetsk and Luhansk. This came after hours of negotiations between Ukraine, Russia and Ukraine’s breakaway regions failed to produce an agreement on a proposed 30 kilometre-wide demilitarised zone.
These latest turns follow a long period of phoney warfare. Each side in the Ukrainian conflict has agreed to withdraw particular forces along certain lengths of the “contact line”, but only so long as the other side does the same. The result is a highly fractious impasse.
Meanwhile, the frequency and intensity of sporadic exchanges of fire have only increased – along with military and civilian fatalities.
Given the events of the last two months, these developments are no surprise. The Minsk II ceasefire agreement was meant to reintegrate the breakaway regions into a re-formed Ukraine under a new constitution that would give them near-autonomy. But it has failed.
The other countries involved, Germany, France, Russia, and the US, have so far been content to stand back and let the peace process unfold. But while Kiev and the Russian-supported rebels have paid lip-service to Minsk II, completely independent political processes are still underway in the breakaway republics and in Ukraine proper.
Kiev has refused to negotiate with the rebels until they effectively surrender, and the rebels are refusing to hold municipal elections according to Ukrainian legislation. Naturally, each side blames the other.
At the heart of the trouble is the contact line separating the two sides, which has proved to be an almost insurmountable problem. This line is simply no basis for a stable peace. It does not protect central Donetsk city, which was shelled on July 18 – apparently by Ukrainian forces. And as August rolled around, 250 pro-Ukrainian demonstrators rallied in the beleagured port city of Mariupol against a proposal to withdraw the Ukrainian Armed Forces from the frontline village of Shyrokyne, 15 miles to the east.
Minsk II’s proposed demilitarised zone between the two sides was meant to allow for a ceasefire, but the contact line skirts around the edges of major cities such as government-controlled Mariupol and rebel-held Donetsk city. That means the zone would leave two major population centres at the centre of the conflict undefended.
Movement to dial down the situation has been negligible. The pro-Western authorities in Kiev have so far refused to negotiate directly with the rebels, but a series of armed conflagrations around the country, sinking morale in the regular army and the volunteer battalions and waning popular support have severely undermined their legitimacy.
Credible ceasefire negotiations look further away than ever, and tempers are flaring. The latest violent confrontation took place in the centre of government-controlled Kharkiv on August 3, when members of the far-right paramilitary Right Sector fired on supporters of the Opposition Bloc, the most popular political party in Kharkiv oblast, as they visited the justice ministry to protest a ban keeping them out of the autumn regional elections.
The violent attack shows how Ukraine’s highly mobilised and armed radical far-right is shutting down constructive politics. With moderate pro-Russian parties treated this way, it is almost impossible for the weak Kiev government to negotiate with the rebels or repair the relationship with Russia.
New cold war
There are some options open to help defuse the situation from the outside. A Yalta-style grand bargain between the US and Russia could conceivably solve the Ukraine crisis at the stroke of a pen. Russia’s demands are quite plain: a neutral Ukraine that is not a full member of either NATO or the EU.
The US could yet decide that a successful and prosperous Ukraine needs a mutually beneficial relationship with Russia, and that a geopolitically neutral Ukraine could stabilise if not end what’s already being called a new cold war.
But there is as yet no indication that the US is willing to accede to Russia’s wish for a comprehensive peace agreement between Russia and the west. It appears the west fears undermining the imaginary universal western values that have underpinned US and western foreign policy in the Eurasian theatre since the end of the first cold war more than Russian power.
The immediate future, especially for the people of eastern Ukraine, looks bleak. While Russia has so far used its proxies in the Donbas to influence Kiev, the failure of Minsk II and the instability of the current contact line may convince Moscow that it has little to lose by going further. And with the Kiev government on the ropes, there is hardly anything keeping this simmering conflict from boiling over again.