In The Media

A Settlement for Ukraine: Syria and the New Great Game

by Andrew Rasiulis

CDA Institute Blog: The Forum
October 23, 2015

In February 2015, the Minsk II peace process was established by a summit meeting of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France. The essence of the agreed process was a broad road map to negotiate a settlement for the war in Ukraine by December 2015. It was further agreed during a follow up summit by teleconference in August to reinforce the ceasefire as of 1 September to coincide with the start of the Ukrainian school year. The ceasefire held and French President Hollande hosted a Summit in Paris on 2 October to strengthen the progress towards a political solution to the war. The scene has now been set for a potential settlement. To add to this politico-​diplomatic-​military mix, new Russian moves in Syria have intensified what can be seen as the “New Great Game.”

To briefly recap, the war in Ukraine commenced in 2014 over the central issue of the future alignment of Ukraine between the West (NATO/​European Union [EU]) and East (Russia). The conflict is both a civil and a covert inter-​state war. It is a civil war since the Ukrainians lacked the unity of will to move closer to either East or West, with some eastern Ukrainians resorting to armed rebellion when the Ukrainian government chose to move towards closer alignment with the EU and NATO. Yet it is also a covert interstate war as Russia has unofficially backed the eastern Ukrainian rebels with arms and troops from the Russian forces (officially denied by Russia). Russia has strongly objected to Ukrainian integration with the West.

After a loss of approximately 8,000 lives, the warring sides are taking steps toward a settlement under the Minsk II process. To date, a number of actions have been undertaken, and others are being planned that auger for such a settlement. All of these events are taking place whilst Russia is making significant political and military moves in the Syrian civil war, which directly affect Western interests, specifically as it pertains to the war with ISIL.

At the end of August, Ukrainian President Petro Poreshenko presented a plan to the Ukrainian Parliament that called for a measure of decentralization of authority by Kiev over the eastern rebel oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk. While the bill passed first reading, it met with marked resistance and demonstrations by nationalist sentiment amongst western oriented Ukrainians. It now remains to be seen how the bill will fare on second and third readings within the fractious parliament. The point remains that the Ukrainian government is seen to be moving to implement a condition of the Minsk process which calls for more autonomy for the rebellious eastern oblasts. The Russians, in turn, appear to have reigned in the more extremist members of the eastern Ukrainian rebels and pressed for enforcement of the ceasefire as of 1 September. The ceasefire is now holding and both sides have begun to withdraw heavy armaments in accordance to the Minsk II protocols.

Further to the settlement package, local elections in Ukraine have been set for 25 October 2015. However, the Ukrainian rebels have decided to hold their respective local elections on differing dates. Donetsk and Luhansk will now have their elections on 21 February 2016, in accordance with the Ukrainian law governing local elections. Ukrainian authorities in Kiev are unhappy about the divergence of dates but the key point is that they are planned to take place. Resolution of this dispute will no doubt be linked with the specifics of the negotiated endgame.

More important for the settlement is the larger political picture with respect to the interests of the parties to the war. From a Russian perspective, their primary interest of Ukraine being at least non– aligned or neutral with regard to the West has largely been achieved. It is clear that Ukraine is not in a position to accede to either the EU or NATO in the short– to mid– term. Ukraine must first focus on the fundamental challenges that have dogged its reform process since becoming independent of the Soviet Union in 1991. Corruption and lack of political critical mass, especially concerning fundamental economic reform, have been the Achilles heel of an independent Ukraine. Therefore all parties should be able to put aside the controversy of Ukraine’s de jure formal alignment with the EU or NATO, at least to a future date of negotiation. On the other hand, Ukraine should be in a de facto position under a Minsk settlement to continue to work with the West in pursuing its key reforms, while maintaining its economic links with Russia, which are of interest to both the eastern Ukrainian oblasts and Russia itself.

The matter of Crimea will likely be held in abeyance for some time. Under international law, Ukraine has a legitimate claim over the sovereignty of Crimea, as it exercised legal jurisdiction from 1954, within the internal context of the Soviet Union, and then independently from 1991 to 2014. However, Russia had legal jurisdiction from 1783 to 1954, the time it assumed control from the Ottoman Empire until it was internally reallocated from the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic to that of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. However, Russia now has sovereignty as result of its military action to retake Crimea at the outset of the Ukrainian civil war in 2014. It is reasonable to assume Russia will not yield its control to Ukrainian demands for the return of Crimea, which Russia believes historically to be theirs.

The outline of the settlement package should be viewed as being tied with the larger New Great Game Russia is playing out with the West, specifically the United States. Russia is showing through its political, diplomatic and military actions that it has returned to the international stage, if not as a superpower then as a more traditional Great Power. Russia has demonstrated an ability to play a constructive and influential role with regards to Iran, as witnessed by the proposed nuclear deal. The United States is aware that Russia will also be critical to addressing and resolving issues relating to the Arctic. Through its recent military buildup and combat missions in Syria, Russia is demonstrating that there too it is a force to be taken seriously, specifically with regard to the war with ISIL and any broader settlement of a Middle East that can somehow resolves the Syrian civil war quagmire. On the latter point, it is interesting to note that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wasted little time in jetting off to Moscow to meet with Putin to coordinate military activity with respect to Syria. Similarly, the United States also re-​opened military talks with Moscow, which had been suspended for two years.

These developments are also critical to Canadian foreign and defence policy interests. The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) are currently involved in the war in Ukraine through the provision of military equipment and the training of Ukrainian forces in western Ukraine outside of the actual combat zone in the eastern oblasts. As it concerns the war with ISIL, the CAF have been conducting aerial combat missions over Iraq and Syria, and training local forces inside Iraq. With the election of the Liberal Party under Prime Minister-​designate Justin Trudeau, the combat mission will end but the training mission will continue. The Arctic and Russia are also of paramount interest to Canadian interests.

Canada therefore has a clear stake and interest in seeing a settlement for Ukraine that is indirectly tied with Russia’s role in the broader New Great Game. The advent of the Trudeau government also opens the door for more constructive Canadian diplomacy in all of these hot spots – a case where Canada’s military actions could be linked with diplomatic initiatives that serve our overall interests.

Andrew Rasiulis spent 35 years in the Department of National Defence involved the area of defence diplomacy. Upon retirement from the Civil Service, Andrew is active in the fields of international and defence relations, and is a Fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. (Image courtesy of Reuters.)

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