Fragile deal is last chance for peace

LONDON - The deal imposing a ceasefire in Ukraine from this Sunday concluded among the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany holds as much promise as it has pitfalls, and the chances of a durable settlement remain slim.

"We have managed to agree on the main points," a bleary-eyed Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters yesterday.

"It wasn't the best night for me, but it's a good morning," he added.

Despite 17 hours of gruelling talks in the Belarus capital of Minsk, during which Mr Putin was seen smashing pencils on his conference room desk in a sign of frustration, some of the agreement's most important provisions have yet to be clarified.

Under the agreement, all fighting will cease on Sunday and all prisoners held by the Ukrainian government and the ethnic Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine will be released.

A demilitarised "buffer" zone will be established between rebels and government forces.

Tanks, artillery pieces and a variety of short- and medium-range missiles will be withdrawn.

Ukraine committed itself to granting the ethnic Russian eastern provinces a "large" measure of autonomy.

In return, Ukraine will regain control of its international borders with Russia, currently controlled by rebels.

Even if the ceasefire is implemented and holds on Sunday - something which never happened before in Ukraine's year-long war - this will represent a big victory for Russia and the rebels, since it will cement at least some of their territorial gains.

Establishing a buffer zone between the combatants clearly makes sense.

But the buffer zone is relatively large - 50km wide, stretching over hundreds of kilometres - and will require a lot of international observers to police it.

Achieving this in 14 days, as the agreement envisages, will be technically difficult, especially since observers will also need to supervise the withdrawal of heavy weapons from fighting areas.

Then there is the material support from Russia.

Mr Putin has always denied any connection with the Russian rebels in Ukraine and claimed to have no soldiers or equipment in that conflict.

Yet the Ukrainians say they have proof.

Yesterday, a Ukrainian military spokesman said around 50 tanks, 40 missile systems and 40 armoured vehicles had crossed overnight into eastern Ukraine from Russia, another sign of the new agreement's fragility.

Mr Putin has now signed a deal that explicitly commits him to order the rebels to stop fighting and withdraw equipment which Russia says it does not have in Ukraine.

And then there are the longer-term political difficulties.

As the agreement currently stands, the Ukrainian Parliament is expected to grant eastern Ukraine autonomy.

Once this is accomplished, local elections will take place in the rebel provinces.

And soon thereafter, Ukraine will regain control of its eastern borders with Russia from rebel forces.

But the chances of any of this happening are virtually nil.

The rebel provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk have always enjoyed autonomy: Most of the school teaching and administration have always been in the Russian, rather than the Ukrainian, language.

What the separatists want is to have their own "parliament" and police forces answerable only to themselves, hold Russian passports and conduct their trade with Russia regardless of the trade legislation of Ukraine.

This is independence in anything but name.

There is no way the Ukrainian Parliament would accept such provisions.

And there is no incentive for the rebels to compromise either.

Although Ukraine is now bound by the latest deal to restore welfare services and payment of salaries and pensions to the separatist enclaves, the ethnic Russian rebels have had a year of getting used to Russia's financial support, which is more generous.

France and Germany hope that, as flawed as the deal is, it could serve as a justification for a Russian decision to scale down its involvement in the war, particularly since the Russian economy is now suffering from the double impact of economic sanctions and low oil prices.

Either way, one conclusion is obvious: If the current deal unravels, Western governments will proceed to supply the Ukrainian military with weapons, and that will condemn the country to many years of proxy warfare.

So at least in this respect, this is truly Ukraine's last chance for peace.

This article was first published on Feb 13, 2015.
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