The difficult road to genuine agreement
Material posted: Publication date: 27-09-2014

Political analyst Dimitri Simes — why Russia, the West and Ukraine have a very long way from the Minsk truce to end the conflict.

The ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine — this is good news for long-suffering local population, however, the truce remains very fragile and generates different expectations as both sides of the conflict, and among those forces that support them from abroad.

As for the West, the first obvious point is that although the crisis in Ukraine significantly intensified hostility to Russia, this hostility began to manifest a few years ago, and it was caused by the growing impression that Russia under the rule of President Vladimir Putin refuses to act in accord with the world order that was established after the cold war. Opposition from Russia plan to launch air strike on the Assad regime in Syria, a strong opposition against NATO expansion and the deployment of missile defenses in Europe, restrictions against subsidized Western foundations, non-governmental organizations in Russia and the lack of interest in the construction of Western-style democracy was, perhaps, the latest from Washington and Brussels that Putin's Russia is very different from other post-Soviet countries. Within this perspective, Russia stubbornly refused to accept Western norms of behaviour strongly in all aspects.

Exaggeration the assertion that the West was just looking for an opportunity to punish Russia. But, of course, there was a predisposition to see in the conflict between Moscow and Kiev Russia do not obey the aggressor and Ukraine the victim friendly. This predisposition was the lens through which Russia's actions in Ukraine were not only accepted by the U.S. government and the EU, but most of the Western media and foreign-policy elite and wider public opinion.

The second point is that the regulations on the special relationship between Russia and Ukraine and especially the recognition of the fact that, because Russia has in this state some special rights — was widely rejected in the West and, in particular, in the United States. Neoconservatives and liberal interventionist, which largely defined the foreign policy of America after end of cold war, bragged that it was the course of America led to the defeat of the USSR. Pragmatic realists objected to the exaggeration of the role of the USA in the collapse of the Soviet Union and reminded that in August 1991, President George Bush senior warned against nationalism in Ukraine and elsewhere in the USSR, obviously preferring a scenario in which Ukraine would remain in a reformed Soviet Union. From this point of view, Yeltsin's Russia, has declared, with the support of the overwhelming majority in Parliament on sovereignty of the RSFSR, far more than the United States, responsible for starting the chain of events that led to the collapse of the USSR. It was President Yeltsin called on Russian soldiers not to obey the orders of the Soviet leadership in the conflict with the Baltic separatists. And, of course, Yeltsin signed an agreement with Ukraine and Belarus, by driving the last nail in the coffin of the Soviet state.

Despite this, neoconservatives and realists agree that Ukraine today is a sovereign state, and like any state it has the right to defend its territorial integrity. In the West say that since the end of world war II part one of the European States was not annexed by another state. From a technical point of view, it is. Kosovo was forcibly seized from Yugoslavia and included in the European orbit with the potential prospect of gaining status as a member of NATO, but it has not become part of Albania. Is there any difference from the point of view of geopolitics between annexation and such exclusion — the issue is more complex. But this distinction has allowed Washington and Brussels to argue that their position has moral superiority.

The fact that the United States and its allies carried out an open invasion in a number of States in the last two decades, is not regarded as a precedent. Similarly, the fact that the Obama administration has provided aid to the Syrian rebels and planned to launch air strike on the Assad regime, in the face of increasing opposition to these plans in Congress, is not considered as a relevant analog to the Ukraine. Some may say that there is a big difference between the opposition to the Syrian dictator and the support of the West, oriented towards democracy of the Ukrainian government. Others, like many in Moscow, will point out the hypocrisy and double standards. A historian might point to the fact that Rome deemed it lawful for themselves that could never be acceptable to Parthia, and that States rarely require their allies to the same standards of behavior as their rivals. Whatever it was, but by the time of the Ukrainian crisis, the Russian majority in the West were perceived not as a partner, if not as the enemy.

The third point: I must say that the notion that the United States was forced reluctantly to obey them Europe to enter the conflict with Russia, is an obvious simplification. Of course, some pressure from America for the introduction of more and tougher sanctions was evident, however, many in Europe welcomed this pressure and in fact wanted even more stringent steps than those taken by the Obama administration. Poland and the Baltic States requested the permanent placement of NATO infrastructure on its territory. Sweden essentially acted in the same direction. Leading European powers, for whom the enlargement of the European Union served as a major rationale for their own legitimacy, were not prepared to resist these calls for solidarity. Angela Merkel, being more pragmatic than most other leaders, was hardly a friend of Russia and was not interested to appear the enemy of the Baltic and Polish appeals to confront Moscow. Simple question: what kind of Ukraine would prefer to see Germany — westernized or being in Union with Moscow, which could once again turn Russia into a European superpower. The answer is self-evident.

From this point of view, the introduction of new sanctions against Russia once the Minsk agreement has a certain logic. Because this agreement is the result of not only Putin's peace plan, but also the counterattack of the rebels, which Moscow openly supported. The idea of Russia was to not allow Kiev to crush the Donetsk and Lugansk Republic, the idea of Brussels and Washington — is to stress that more involvement in the situation in Ukraine, Russia will have to pay a big price.

Accordingly, once the ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine was installed, it became apparent that there are irreconcilable differences not only in the interests of the parties to the conflict, but even in the description of what actually happened in Ukraine and around it. From this situation there is no easy way out, but there are very powerful reasons not to allow escalation of the conflict.

I don't believe that sanctions can force Russia to fundamentally change its policies. There is just a single example of when sanctions would force an independent country, and especially a great power, to abandon what it believed relevant to its key interests. But, on the other hand, I find it hard to imagine that Russia would invade Eastern Ukraine or all of Ukraine. I admit that this option is feasible from a military point of view and emotionally attractive. However, even without sanctions, this scenario would require Russia a very serious economic sacrifices. This would have made Ukraine an important factor of Russian policy (and Western policy towards Russia) for many years to come.

In a situation where there is no good way out, usually looking for short term solutions. However, although the option to create a new frozen conflict looks better than war in the long term should satisfy no one. A lasting solution to the Ukrainian question is a more ambitious and difficult task, however, only when all the cards are laid out on the table, it will be possible in principle to reach a sustainable agreement that would be based on a minimum programme of all parties to the conflict. It encompasses the territorial integrity of Ukraine, guarantee genuine autonomy for the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, the establishment of non-aligned status for Ukraine and a lifting of sanctions.

Ukrainian nationalists and many militia members may not like this decision, but it is, in principle, it would be reasonable for Moscow, Washington and Brussels. But the devil is in the details. In the West, many seek a formula that clearly would have demonstrated that Russia is a loser, and Putin has gained nothing from the fact that the present aggression. However, as shown by the annexation of Crimea, attempts to drive great power in a corner is dangerous. In Moscow understand that economic sanctions are difficult to compete with the US and the EU. But a new front for America in Syria and Iraq recalled that Russia has the painful and asymmetric responses and not just the Middle East. Nor in whose interest it is to continue to check each other for strength.

Dimitri K. Simes


Tags: assessment , Russia , geopolitics , Ukraina