Ceasefire struck, but Ukraine isn’t out of the woods – so what happens next?

Peace in our time? Poroshenko and Putin shake hands in Minsk. EPA/Sergei Bondarenko

It has been reported that the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian insurgents have signed a ceasefire agreement at the meeting of the Contact Group on Ukraine in Minsk.

This had hardly looked assured in the preceding days. After a phone conversation with his Russian counterpart, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko announced on September 3 that a ceasefire agreement was possible, but did not immediately provide details.

Later that day, Vladimir Putin proposed a seven-point peace plan. This involved a cessation of offensive military operations, the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces surrounding urban areas, the deployment of independent international monitors to observe the ceasefire and an unconditional prisoner exchange.

At the same time, the self-proclaimed prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), Alexander Zaharchenko, announced that his forces were willing to halt combat operations if all pro-Kiev “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO) forces did likewise. However, this depended on the volunteer paramilitaries, such as the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion in Mariupol, following suit.

Poroshenko later spoke with Angela Merkel and outlined a “joint plan of actions”, which included a bilateral ceasefire, the deployment of OSCE monitors, the withdrawal of foreign troops from Ukrainian territory, and the creation of a border buffer zone.

All the while, it was unclear whether these overtures were simply posturing by all sides on the eve of the NATO summit, designed either to reduce the severity of any further US and EU sanctions or to justify NATO’s reluctance to arm let alone fight for Ukraine against the Russian-backed insurgents.

It now seems that the various parties to the conflict do at least want a temporary exit from the escalating recent hostilities. But as the agreement is an unexpected step towards some kind of peace, the question of what happens next still looms large.

Crunch time

In the run-up to the ceasefire, the fighting in east Ukraine had intensified rapidly; pro-Kiev forces had sustained very heavy losses and lost much of the territory they gained in July, while on September 4, the insurgents and Russian servicemen fighting alongside them threatened to take the strategic city of Mariupol.

It had also become apparent that as the West was apparently unwilling to arm Ukraine, the country’s authorities would soon have little choice but to sue for peace. More worryingly still, while it remains unclear precisely what the ceasefire agreement involved, several sticking points still threaten to undermine it.

The Russians and pro-Russian rebels have been adamant that the pro-Kiev forces pull back from their positions in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, though they’ve disagreed about how far they should withdraw. (The significance of this issue may have lessened in recent days, as reports suggest the Ukrainian army may have been retreating anyway.)

On the other side, President Poroshenko had been demanding that Russian forces leave Ukrainian territory. It is believed that possibly at least 100 tanks and thousands of servicemen from Russia are operating in Ukraine; it is unlikely that either President Putin nor the rebels would want to see them removed.

Finally, Poroshenko had requested a buffer zone along the frontier with Russia. Whilst it was unclear precisely what this might entail given that several hundred kilometres of the frontier are under rebel control it seems difficult to see how this could be implemented in the short term.

Just a first step

Broader issues too could easily jeopardise the agreement. It remains to be seen how willing the various paramilitaries are to abide by it; while Russia’s support for the separatists in recent weeks would imply that they are largely under direct Russian control, despite some disagreements over tactics, the pro-Kiev paramilitaries too might find a ceasefire hard to stomach indeed.

For ordinary pro-Kiev Ukrainians, let alone the ultra-nationalists, the taste of military defeat and ceasefire will be extremely bitter, and it is not clear whether volunteer battalions will support the deal.

This agreement is just the first step; the political problems that underpin the conflict, both within Ukraine and in Europe at large, are nowhere near being addressed, let alone resolved.

As far as those deeper issues go, there are three possible outcomes. First, the ceasefire could hold, but without a diplomatic breakthrough; the conflict would effectively be frozen, and Ukraine would lose much if not all of its industrial heartland in the Donbas. Second, the ceasefire could be broken, leaving an unwinnable war to simmer in east Ukraine for years yet. Thirdly, an international peace conference could be held to map out a neutral and federal but united Ukraine, creating a buffer state between NATO/the EU and Russia.

It is unlikely Russia would agree to the Donbas remaining in Ukraine, even with special autonomy, without a copper-bottomed guarantee or mechanism to prevent Ukraine from joining either the EU or NATO. Such a guarantee or mechanism is probably not politically acceptable at the moment to Kiev and its allies to the West.

There simply do not seem to be enough forward-thinking leaders in Kiev or in Western capitals who are willing to sacrifice their pro-Western sympathies for a united, neutral and federal Ukraine – the outcome that would probably offer the best chance for the country to develop economically and socially, at least in the medium term.

Instead, the mostly likely upshot as things stand is a frozen conflict in a formally divided country, with a pro-Russian Donbas protectorate partitioned from a pro-Western Ukrainian rump. Of all the possible outcomes of the ceasefire deal, this is probably the worst for the ordinary people of both the Donbas in particular and Ukraine at large.