October 12, 2014

Ukraine: Fragile Ceasefire!

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE ceasefire agreement between the central government and the Eastern Ukrainian rebel forces on September 5 was viewed by the governments in Moscow and Kiev as a definitive step forward to end the vicious civil war that had gripped the East European country. At the negotiations in Minsk, the Ukrainian government was represented by a former President, Leonid Kuchma. Aleksandr Zakharchenko represented the rebel factions from the East. Russian President, Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko had met on the sidelines of a regional summit in Minsk before the ceasefire agreement was signed. The agreement laid out a road map for the immediate cessation of hostilities and a peaceful settlement of the conflict. The 14 point peace plan includes pledges of retuning areas that are under rebel control back to the government and the exchange of prisoners taken during the five month conflict. Militias on both sides will be disbanded and a 10 kilometre buffer zone will be established between the Russian and Ukrainian border. Importantly, the agreement states that power will be decentralised and the status of Russian as an official language will be guaranteed. The initial attempts by the Ukrainian Parliament to strip the official status given to the language had inflamed public opinion in the mainly Russian speaking East of the country. The courageous step taken by the Ukrainian president to try and bring a negotiated end to the conflict is already being undermined by the forces that triggered the crisis in the first place by engineering the illegal ouster of the elected government in the beginning of the year. What has angered them the most is Poroshenko’s decision in Minsk to accede to the long standing demand of the Eastern Ukrainians for the “decentralisation of power” to the regions and the creation of a “special autonomous zone” in the east of the country. The rebels in the East, who in recent weeks, have scored a series of military victories, want the Ukrainian government to seriously consider the demand for the rewriting of the Ukrainian constitution that would turn the country into a federation and guarantee the “neutral military political status” of Ukraine. The government in Kiev which came into being after the western supported coup, on the other hand, has been accelerating the process to completely do away with the federal system of government and further reduce the powers of regional governors. The new government which mainly represents the Ukrainian speaking parts of the country is also speeding up moves to totally integrate with the West, economically as well as militarily. The European Union (EU) already has the new government installed in Kiev in its tight embrace. NATO has been itching to officially move into Ukraine since the country became independent and install its missile defense systems along the border with Russia. US SPENDS BILLIONS IN “SPREADING DEMOCRACY” The continued expansion of NATO along Russia’s border is a red rag for the Kremlin. At the NATO summit held in Wales in the first week of September, its Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that member states would jointly contribute 15 million euros in direct military aid to Ukraine. NATO also approved a “comprehensive and tailored package of measures” to assist the Ukrainian military in the improvement of logistics, command and control, communications and other services”. In a joint article written to coincide with the NATO summit, President Barack Obama and the British Premier, David Cameron brazenly accused Russia of undermining democracy in Ukraine “at the barrel of the gun”. The two leaders conveniently glossed over the West’s hand on role in overthrowing a popularly elected government in Kiev. The US state department has admitted to spending around $5 billion in “spreading democracy” in the country. NATO has now taken the decision to locate rotating military forces along the Russian border and establish a permanent military “spearhead” for Eastern Europe. The NATO secretary said that the decision to establish the so called military “spearhead” in the form of a “rapid response force” was a demonstration of the “solidarity and resolve” to confront Moscow. The latest decision is in contravention of the 1997 Founding Act of the NATO-Russian council under which NATO had agreed to not permanently base its troops in Eastern European countries that have become its members. A former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, recently described NATO as “the largest danger to world peace” and that it should “be dissolved as a matter of urgency”. President Poroshenko’s decision to accede to a ceasefire at this juncture when moves were afoot in Western capitals to diplomatically isolate Russia, has seemingly not gone down well in capitals like Washington and London. The Baltic States with a combined population of 6.6 million have been the loudest in demanding the presence of NATO troops on their territories. Their leaders, all avowedly pro-western are talking of an imaginary Russian military threat where none exists. The western media has been saying that Poroshenko has blindly accepted a ceasefire plan drafted in the Kremlin glossing over the fact that Poroshenko had submitted a similar peace plan soon after he was elected in June this year. It was the rebel leadership in the East that had rejected the peace proposals at that juncture. Moscow has been insisting that it is not involved in the internal domestic conflict afflicting Ukraine that has led to the loss of more than 2500 civilian lives and immense loss to property and infrastructure. More than half a million Ukrainians have fled across the border to Russia to seek refuge from the fighting that has been raging since the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych by the right wing “Maidan” protestors on February 22, this year. A day earlier, in an agreement brokered by the EU and Russia, Yanukovych and the opposition, had agreed to form a “unity” government. The activists of the extreme right wing led by parties like the “Right Sector” and “Svoboda” had launched an armed assault on the president’s residences and office, forcing him to flee from Kiev the next day. Some of Poroshenko’s allies have been quick to criticise the ceasefire agreement. Yuri V Lutsenko, one of Poroshenko’s closest advisers, said that the proposal to create a “special zone” in the East would be a “cancerous tumour in the Ukrainian organism”. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in the country on October 26. Politicians in the pro western part of the country who now hold the reigns of power want to appeal to anti-Russian nationalistic sentiments. Sections within the security and political establishments are now working overtime to torpedo the ceasefire agreement. Many Ukrainians have however conceded that the idea of genuine federalism would be good for the country in the long run. After Ukraine became independent, it has been ruled by a series of presidents, who were constitutionally allowed wide ranging powers. As a result, many of them became authoritarian as well as venal. Sporadic but relatively minor breaches of the ceasefire agreement have already started taking place. In Donetsk and Mariupol, mortar and machine gun attacks were reported. In Donetsk, the Ukrainian military reportedly fired on rebel positions. In the second city, the rebel forces were held responsible for the breaking the ceasefire. Both sides have said that they will continue to hold fire. A positive sign is that prisoner exchanges have begun. Many residents of cities in the East are returning home after weeks of heavy shelling from government forces. The longevity and permanence of the ceasefire will of course depend on the negotiations that will take place between the warring sides. The statement by President Obama at the end of the NATO summit was not overly optimistic. He said that he was “hopeful but based on past experiences, also skeptical” about the prospects of the ceasefire lasting. Dmitry S Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman however lauded the agreement and expressed the hope that it would be observed in full. MORE PUNITIVE SANCTIONS ON RUSSIA Despite the positive developments, the West has announced plans to slap more punitive sanctions on Russia. They include a ban on arms exports and additional sanctions on the banking and energy sectors. The US and EU had first imposed stiff sanctions on Russia in late July after the crash of the Malaysian passenger airliner MH17 over eastern Ukraine. The West was quick to rush to judgment blaming Russia and the rebels in the East for the crash of the civilian plane. Since then, the West has been conspicuously silent over the incident with the finger of suspicion moving in another direction. The sanctions on the energy sector could hurt Russia the most, affecting production as well as revenues. Half of Russia’s budget is dependent on oil revenues. Moscow, however, is not taking things lying down. Moscow had responded to an earlier round of Western sanctions by banning the import of poultry, vegetable and dairy products form EU countries. This has already had a negative impact on the farming and dairy sectors of many EU countries. Countries like Finland have already been hard hit by the Russian counter measures. Germany, the economic engine of Europe, continues to be heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies. Slovakia, an EU member, has openly argued against the logic of imposing sanctions against Russia, at a time when many European economies are struggling to emerge from recession. The Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev warned in the second week of September that his country would “respond asymmetrically” to any new sanctions. He said that Russia would seriously consider banning over-flights by Western airlines. “If Western carriers have to bypass our airspace, this could drive many airlines into bankruptcy”, Medvedev said in Moscow. Long haul flights to Asia mostly use the vast Russian territory. Taking a circuitous route would mean usage of more fuel. The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko who played a small role in brokering the peace deal, warned fellow Eastern Europeans that the situation in Ukraine “has created a huge funnel and the vortex flow in the funnel” is sucking in all the countries in the region. “It is Uncle Sam who is pushing us into the vortex and let us be frank; many politicians in Ukraine are fulfilling his orders”, he said.