In The Media

A deal for Ukraine — and a last-ditch to avert a wider war in Europe

by Andrew P. Rasiulis

February 12, 2015

After 17 hours of tough negotiation at the Minsk Summit, we have a ceasefire deal for Ukraine. It’s a fragile peace, and in no way does it solve the political issues that led to the civil war.

What it does do is provide critical breathing space for the parties to step back and re-examine their respective positions. There is a measure of hope that the threat of further bloodshed — even an escalation into a major war in Europe — may induce the parties to edge toward a meaningful political settlement in which all have a stake in preserving peace.

The technical outline of the ceasefire which comes into effect at 0001hrs on February 15 provides for a disengagement of combat forces beginning on February 17, to be completed within two weeks. The rebel forces will withdraw to their previous line of the September 19 agreement, while Ukrainian forces will hold along current lines. This means the land gained by the rebels in recent fighting essentially will become a demilitarized zone, as Ukrainian forces will not be permitted to retake this territory. The rebels, however, are permitted to retain control of the Donetsk airport. It remains unclear how the disengagement will take effect in Debaltseve, where Ukrainian forces are surrounded by rebels.

The Ukrainian government will allow for the resumption of normal life within rebel-controlled territory, meaning the delivery of pensions and other essentials for the civilian population.

On the political level, the Ukrainian government and the rebels have agreed to hold discussions on constitutional reform that would allow great autonomy for the predominately Russian-speaking rebel-held areas. Both sides pledge to agree on reforms by the end of 2015 and to confirm the package through local elections under Ukrainian law.

Subject to the constitutional reform agreement, all sides agree that the Ukrainian authorities would retake control of the Ukrainian border. This also would take place at the end of 2015.

The devil now is in the political solution. Recall that the civil war started over the issue of whether Ukraine should align itself economically with the Russian-backed Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC), or the European Union. Predominately western Ukrainians rebelled in the Maidan Square when the Associate Membership deal with the EU was scrapped in favour of moving closer to the EAEC. This led to a change in government which favoured the European option for Ukraine, including eventual membership in NATO. For eastern Ukrainians, with their distinctly different tradition of integration with Russia, the move to the West was unacceptable. So they rebelled, leading to the current state of affairs. The move to the West was also politically unacceptable for Russia which has been backing the rebels with arms, advisors and troops described as “volunteers”.

These underlying political issues will need to be addressed now if a meaningful peace settlement is to take hold at the end of 2015. The first steps will be in the constitutional reform, allowing greater autonomy for eastern Ukrainians. The Russian language will need to be protected. And critically, the eastern oblasts with their Soviet-era economic base will need to keep their trading options open with Russia.

From the Russian perspective, the future of Ukraine’s relationship with the EU and NATO will be vital to ensure a lasting peace. While recognizing Ukraine’s democratic right to self-determination, the reality is that the Russians have a deeply ingrained belief that Ukraine must somehow be linked with Russia. The Russians have thus far demonstrated that this political question amounts to a fundamental national interest which they are willing to use their military assets to protect.

So the issue for all parties, including the EU and NATO, is whether there is a will to find a creative solution without resorting to a war in Europe. A primary consideration should be the current state of the Ukrainian economy, which requires a dramatic overhaul and reform. It is logical to assume that such reforms would precede any meaningful move toward Ukrainian accession to the EU.

Finally there is the issue of NATO membership. If one reviews the accession requirements for previous new members of NATO it is clear in objective terms that Ukraine and its armed forces are many years away from meeting NATO’s accession criteria. Moreover, should NATO waive these criteria and admit Ukraine into the Alliance under current circumstances, NATO would put itself on war footing against Russia. This is unlikely to find consensus amongst the NATO members.

In practical terms, the parties to the conflict have the option to work on short and mid-term solutions without unnecessarily threatening national interests. There is a measure of hope that a moderate approach to find political solutions by all parties may avoid a major war in Europe.

Andrew P. Rasiulis is a Fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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