Ukraine ceasefire announced at Minsk summit – what next?

It’s a deal. EPA/Tatyana Zenkovich

After all night talks in the Belarusian capital Minsk, the outcomes of the four party talks in the so-called Normandy format (Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany) have neither brought a major breakthrough or a complete disaster. As a deal, it is not a solution, but perhaps a step towards one.

It almost seems to be business as usual – yet another ceasefire deal and commitments to further negotiations on a more durable political settlement – but, by the standards of this crisis, this is not the outcome Ukraine’s people may have hoped for. Not least because the deal, as soon as it was announced, ran into its first set of problems with rebels demanding Ukrainian forces withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve before they would agree to the ceasefire.

At the very least, this might mean two more days of heavy fighting before the ceasefire starts on 15 February, at worst it might mean the deal will never be implemented at all.

In the run-up to last might’s summit, the crisis in Ukraine seemed to head towards a major juncture, along with relations between Russia and the West and within the Transatlantic alliance. The weeks before the summit in Minsk has seen intensifying diplomacy, escalating rhetoric, increased fighting on the ground, and a worsening humanitarian situation.

Impossible best-case scenario

A comprehensive agreement between Ukraine, Russia (and its proxies), France and Germany would obviously have been the most desirable outcome, but was also highly unlikely. The military balance of power in eastern Ukraine clearly favours the rebels, who have made substantial territorial gains beyond the separation lines established in the context of the Minsk Agreement of September 2014. They and their backers in the Kremlin still have little incentive to accept the Franco-German peace plan.

Ukraine, too, had no particular reason to sign up to a comprehensive deal either. While clearly under military and economic pressure, the facts on the ground only came about after open violations of the September 2014 agreement, and a peace deal would implicitly deem those violations acceptable, and potentially encourage more of the same.

Washington’s talk of delivering arms to Ukraine offers Kiev a ray of hope that help will be at hand if no new deal is reached in Minsk and the government’s military predicament increases further.

Tided over

The summit both avoided total collapse and fell short of stunning success. The resulting deal is hardly in line with Western interests, but it’s a decent second-best option for Russia and Ukraine – at least for now.

Much like the September agreements, we will probably see at least a temporary lull in violence and a stabilisation of the front lines with each side shoring up its positions and hoping for an opportunity to make a more decisive military push. But as each side consolidates, and regroups, the likelihood of success of such an attempt at forcing a military solution will decrease.

Can Europe’s relations with Russia ever be patched up? EPA/Alexander Ermochenko

This outcome does not make Ukraine a more viable, prosperous or democratic state, but at least prevent its complete collapse and offer a slim chance of rebuilding, reforming, and strengthening government institutions in those parts of the country controlled by Kiev, something currently not even remotely possible.

The Ukrainian government and its Western partners still face the prospect of a giant de-facto state of significantly larger proportions than Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Nagornyi Karabakh. But there are now two decades of experience – both good and bad – managing the presence of such entities in the joint Russian-EU neighbourhood.

Better than nothing

Most importantly, the outcome of the Minsk talks offers the West (and particularly the EU) a reasonably dignified way out of the current crisis.

It avoids causing a rift between NATO and the EU over arms deliveries to Ukraine in the middle of an ongoing war, prevents a near-complete collapse of relations with Russia, and helps avoid a further escalation of the war and the deepening of what’s already a major humanitarian crisis.

And while by no means a firm prospect, this deal may also help begin the long-term project of rebuilding Europe’s relations with Russia, not just stopping them from falling apart. What the West needs to accomplish this, is a proper strategy of how to deal with Russia, rather than the ad-hoc fire-fighting responses that have characterised much of Western policy towards the Kremlin for too long now.

A true rapprochement will not be possible to start over Ukraine as things stand, but by avoiding a complete freeze, relations can be rebuilt from the outside in. In other words, with Ukraine brought back from the brink, the West can get on with finding common ground with Russia in areas where their interests are far less divergent: Islamic State, as well as on Iran, Yemen, and Libya, to name but a few.

Such high-level confidence building would of course be useful in itself. But it could also point the way to a more sustainable solution for Ukraine – one that can build on the outcome of the latest Minsk round of negotiations, but eventually must go significantly beyond the limited progress that has been possible to achieve now.

Al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch adds Paris attacks to list of successes

Nasr al-Ansi, AQAP Commander, claims the Paris attacks. EPA/Al-Malahem Media

Al-Qaeda’s most active and notorious branch – the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – has claimed responsibility for the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. While some questions remain about the full credibility of the claim, it is not entirely implausible: it’s been established that some of the attackers had been trained in Yemen, and at least one of them had met AQAP’s former chief ideologue, Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born jihadist killed in a US drone strike in 2011.

Of all of al-Qaeda’s branches and affiliates, AQAP is the one with the most significant track record of serious international terrorist plots. It masterminded both the 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot and the 2010 cargo plane bomb plot. It also publishes the jihadist movement’s English-language magazine, Inspire.

AQAP has long been taken seriously as a terrorist threat by both local and Western security agencies, and has been the target of a US campaign for several years now. Drone strikes and surveillance have been reasonably effective, but they have by no means defeated AQAP, which is still considered the most dangerous of al-Qaeda’s affiliates.

Gaining ground

AQAP’s alleged involvement in the Paris attacks not only highlights the continuing threat from al-Qaeda in general, which must not be underestimated; it also underscores the similarities and differences between al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

The latter certainly had captured most of the attention since its rapid territorial expansion in 2014, and pushed al-Qaeda “proper” out of the limelight for some time.

While some have argued that the two are locked into a competition for leadership in the global jihadist movement or are headed in quite different directions, others have argued that differences between the two are marginal at best – and even fear the possibility of renewed co-operation between them, if only for each to secure their own independent survival.

The truth is that both views apply, in various ways. AQAP has long been carrying out attacks on the near and far enemy (the current and previous governments of Yemen and Western targets), much in the style of al-Qaeda. But it has also sought and even managed to capture and hold significant territory across southern Yemen, a strategy now also embraced by Nigeria’s Boko Haram.

An attack in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, December 2014. EPA/Yahya Arhab

It was among the first al-Qaeda branches to pledge allegiance to Osama bin-Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and it made no mention of Islamic State in its claim to have instigated the attack against Charlie Hebdo.

Yet the fugitive partner of one of the Paris attackers has reportedly fled to Syria, although it is unclear whether to territory controlled by Islamic State or al-Qaeda’s local affiliate there, the al-Nusra front. Meanwhile, another possible affiliate of the Paris attackers had already been arrested in Bulgaria on January 1 2015 on his way to Turkey.

Cut them off

In the same way that Islamic State has profited from instability and civil war in Iraq and Syria, the success of AQAP in Yemen since 2009, when it was born from the formal “merger” of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda, has been predicated on the weakness and fragmentation of the Yemeni state.

Variously aligned with tribes and the southern Yemeni independence movement, AQAP capitalised on the fall of the Saleh regime in the wake of the Arab Spring. Having captured large swaths of territory in the country’s south, it was pushed back during 2012 by a joint US-Yemeni campaign.

While not defeated, the organisation was significantly weakened, but it found a new lease of life in the fight against the al-Houthi movement, a minority Shi'a group that has captured significant parts of territory in northern and western Yemen, including establishing a presence in the capital Sana'a. This has given AQAP an opportunity to align itself with the Sunni backlash against the Houthis and regain a territorial foothold in the south.

The possibility that AQAP could start capturing and holding territory on a large scale is deeply worrying, not least since that would give the group a base from which to relaunch its international agenda.

The Paris attacks are a warning that we must close off the opportunity that a persistently weak and fragmented state presents for terror groups such as AQAP. For while the root causes for the attack on Charlie Hebdo may be found in the radicalisation of disaffected young Muslims at home in France, what ultimately enables them to launch major attacks are the means and training offered by AQAP and its ilk.

It is of course absolutely vital to address the personal motivations behind such attacks, but it may take a generation or more to do that successfully. In the meantime, making sure we permanently disrupt groups such as AQAP and their ability to train and recruit is a good strategy, and one which we can put into action now.

Ukraine steels for more unrest as Donetsk bus attack kills 12

Not looking good. EPA/Olga Ivashchenko

The deadly attack on a bus carrying civilians near Donetsk, killing at least 12 of them and wounding many more, comes in the wake of yet another round of failed talks among the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France. It also follows a pattern of persistent violence between rebels and government forces that has made a mockery of a ceasefire agreement brokered between the two sides back in September 2014.

Alongside this continuing violence, tensions between Russia and Ukraine and between Russia and the West have also increased.

As a result of the general deterioration in the situation, and triggered by a new squall of violence that included serious clashes at Donetsk airport, a planned summit in Astana between the leaders of the Ukraine contact group countries has been cancelled. This was foreshadowed in remarks by German chancellor Angela Merkel, who warned Vladimir Putin that the summit would not go ahead if there was no substantial progress on the implementation of the September ceasefire agreement.

As always, the battle for control of territory, set within the context of fierce great power competition over influence in areas deemed to be strategically significant, is carried out on the backs of civilians.

Human cost

The lives lost in the attack on the bus are the tip of the iceberg as far as civilian suffering goes.

Kiev has cut off rebel-held areas from any kind of services and increased controls at checkpoints. Rebels, despite support from Moscow, have been unable to breach the gap left behind. In addition, Ukraine and Russia have both had to cope with 1m people who fled the rebel-held areas, and who were ill-prepared to do so.

All this is further exacerbated by the fact that the government in Kiev and the rebels have failed to agree on terms for delivering humanitarian aid. The deteriorating humanitarian situation and the uncertainty about the future, compounded by the latest escalation in violence and the apparent futility of negotiations, is likely to increase the number of people fleeing the rebel areas even more.

Ramping up

The fronts in and beyond Ukraine have considerably hardened between Russia and its proxies, on the one hand, and Kiev and its allies on the other. Just as Russia has announced it will increase its military capabilities in Crimea and Kaliningrad, NATO has announced similar moves in its Baltic member states.

Cold war. EPA/Alexander Ermochenko

This is not the first step beyond the point of no return in Mikhail Gorbachev’s doomsday scenario of nuclear war between Russia and the West. But it does mark a serious escalation and yet another not-so-symbolic drawing of red lines.

This all increases the risk of local provocations getting out of hand, particularly in the Baltic states (with their considerable ethnic Russian populations) and Kaliningrad.

Trouble ahead

So the outlook for Ukraine at the beginning of 2015 is not good. In fact, it is considerably worse than a year ago before President Yanukovich (now on an Interpol wanted list) was forced out of office, before Russia annexed Crimea, and before a full-blown civil war started in the east of Ukraine, costing some 4,700 lives to date – more than a thousand of them having died since the farcical ceasefire was signed on September 5 2014, the most recent in a series of agreements hardly ever worth the paper they were written on, let alone the hopes people vested in them.

The prospects for Ukraine are further worsened by the fact that its major Western allies have other concerns, too, ranging from the ongoing crisis in Syria and Iraq, to the escalation in Nigeria’s war with Boko Haram, from new cyber security fears to the threats posed by terrorist attacks in major Western cities.

The crowded international security agenda means Ukraine is simply one among several crises. And without any tangible prospects of progress, Kiev’s Western allies are more likely to try to freeze and contain the situation than to invest political, human and financial capital into most likely futile efforts at resolving it.

This obviously plays into Moscow’s hands, too. the Russian economy is in a serious crisis, hamstrung by Western sanctions and low oil prices, and the Kremlin’s appetite for further escalation is weak. The intractability of the current situation offers Moscow breathing space to consolidate its gains so far, of which the annexation of Crimea is the jewel in the crown.

This does not preclude more of the kind of violence that eastern Ukraine has experienced in recent weeks, but it is at least unlikely that things will get much worse. And as the humanitarian crisis takes its toll, some de-escalation on both sides, however temporary and inconclusive, should not be ruled out.

At the same time, this does not mean either Kiev or its allies have given up on winning a political settlement on their terms. The geopolitical game over Ukraine is far from over – but we may well have to endure a long interlude before its conclusion.