Four months after the Minsk II accords, the Ukraine crisis continues to simmer, with occasional violent eruptions. The ceasefire in Donbass has not prevented some 1,000 people from losing their lives since February, adding to the previous fatality count of more than 5,000. Some of the heavy weapons that both sides should have pulled back from the line of contact are still positioned close to that line, and are active.
Despite some technical contacts with the participation of both Kiev and Donbass, political dialogue on the “modalities” of local elections has not started. Kiev has balked at issuing pardon and amnesty to those it still terms “terrorists.” Exchanges of prisoners and hostages have taken place, but some are definitely still being held against their will. Some humanitarian supplies are managing to get through to the region but no convoys are allowed to cross the ceasefire lines. “Full restoration of social and economic transfers,” including pensions and taxes, has not happened. The reality is more of a tightening economic blockade.
The restoration of Kiev’s control of the Ukrainian-Russian border, which was supposed to begin right after the local elections and be completed after the “full political regulation” of the situation in Donbass by the end of 2015, has been blocked by complete lack of progress on the political front. There has been no evidence of a pullout of foreign forces and weapons and disarmament of illegal groups. Russia’s support for the “people’s republics” is unwavering. Constitutional reform in Ukraine aimed at drawing up a new basic law for the country by the end of 2015, even if it proceeds, will go on without Donbass.
This is a dismal record by any standard, but compared to the numerous and highly authoritative recent predictions from Kiev, picked up in Brussels and Washington, of an imminent Russian invasion, the situation is less bad than feared by many. Moreover, the month of May has seen some diplomatic activity between the West and Russia, including the visits by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Moscow and by US Secretary of State John Kerry to Sochi.
For the first time in many months, Russian President Vladimir Putin was engaged face-to-face by a senior member of the Obama administration. These conversations, particularly Kerry’s, have provoked speculations about a climb-down from the 15-months-old confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine.
This, unfortunately, is wishful thinking. The most that has been achieved in Sochi is a degree of understanding between Washington and Moscow about the dangers of allowing the conflict to boil over and potentially to widen. Both the Russians and the Americans sought assurances from the other party that they are not pursuing a military solution. The Obama Administration, focusing on the president’s foreign policy legacy, was also interested in getting Russia’s continued cooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue, and possibly also Syria and the Islamic State (IS).
The last thing Obama needs is a conflict in Ukraine getting out of control, confronting his administration with the risk of deeper and more direct US involvement. The Kremlin, for its part, having protected the rebel-held enclave in Donbass, is preparing now to sit and watch economic hardship in Ukraine lead to social tensions and ultimately to political upheavals overthrowing the Maidan-installed leadership in Kiev. Freezing the conflict for now looks like the best option for both the United States and Russia.
A frozen conflict in Donbass is not what the European Union wants. Europe insists on full implementation of the Minsk accords. However, it needs to face up to the harsh realities. Donbass rebels want a confederal status within Ukraine, complete with a veto on the country’s potential NATO membership. Kiev wants to crush the rebellion, punish its leaders and activists, and end Russian interference in Ukraine. No compromise between the two seems possible. Minsk II is definitely headed for a train wreck. Its likely failure, however, must not be allowed to lead to a resumption of the large-scale hostilities that we saw last summer and winter.
To avert looming disaster, the parties to the Minsk agreement and the United States need to focus on those elements of it which can be implemented: stabilizing the ceasefire; pulling back heavy weapons; and exchanging prisoners. This means in practice much tighter control of the forces physically confronting each other across the line of contact.
Russia, of course, will have to support Donbass economically and financially, but that burden will be light compared to the burden that others will have to carry to support Ukraine and avert its meltdown. As for the rest of Minsk II, the agreement should be converted into an open-ended diplomatic process, which might come in handy when and if conditions on the ground change.
Four decades after Helsinki and a quarter-century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe has entered a new period of insecurity. This is not just one crisis, however acute, which can be resolved in short order, so that the situation returns to “normal.” Things will not be fixed quickly. Behind the Ukraine crisis looms the Russia problem, which despite a number of attempts, was not solved by means of the country’s inclusion into the Euro-Atlantic security system.
Ironically, the problem can hardly be solved by means of Russia’s exclusion from the rest of Europe; this is a recipe for a continued standoff. No “grand bargain” between Russia and the West is even conceivable at this point. European security is at an impasse.
While no new “end state” of European security is visible at this time, things will likely have to play themselves out. The Baltic States and Poland should feel safe: Russia is not after them.
New crises, however, are possible elsewhere – for example in Transnistria, where the Russian-protected mini-state may be squeezed hard by Ukraine and Moldova. In the bigger scheme of things, Ukraine’s domestic evolution will be of prime importance. Will the country finally be able to reform itself or will the country’s elites, which have not changed much since the Maidan revolution, use the conflict in Donbass as an excuse not to?
Finally, US concerns about alleged Russian violations of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) might return US missiles to Europe, so that they can target Russian strategic assets at close range. Should that happen, a new Euromissile crisis will be inevitable.
It may be that things will get worse before they get better. If so, then rather than thinking about some grand architecture for the future, it would make more sense now to think about stepping away from the brink.
Pathways leading toward safer ground include stabilizing the situation in Donbass; preventing a new crisis in Transnistria; using confidence-building measures and direct lines of communication to prevent accidents and avoid miscalculation. For the United States, Russia is now Europe’s problem to deal with. The Europeans need to rise to the challenge and come up with a strategy of conflict management, prevention and eventually resolution. Their own security depends on it.