One indication of the perilous state of the ceasefire that is supposed to prevent all-out war between the Ukraine government and separatist rebels was the announcement last weekend that Heidi Tagliavini, Europe’s chief mediator in the crisis, wants to quit. That declaration came as fighting made the ceasefire look increasingly meaningless and leading industrialized nations met at the Group of Seven summit to figure out how to keep pressure on Russia. Sadly, there is little reason to hope for a genuine and enduring deal: Moscow needs to preserve the option of instability in Ukraine to maintain leverage over political discussions in Kiev and security talks throughout Europe.
Four months ago, Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France agreed to a ceasefire in the Donbass region of Ukraine, where separatist rebels fought the Ukrainian government for autonomy and eventual independence from Kiev. Officially, the rebels are an independent force, aided only by Russian volunteers; in fact, the rebel force is supported by the Russian military and government. There is little indication that they could survive without Russian assistance.
The February deal followed the collapse of a ceasefire agreed a month earlier, which itself was an attempt to shore up a ceasefire concluded in September last year. The February agreement was shaky from the start, with fighting continuing in areas where the rebels looked set to advance. While the two sides exchanged fire on a daily basis, casualties were limited, at least until last week when fighting over the city of Maryinka left at least 28 people dead.
The scale of the battle for Marynika prompted fears that the ceasefire may be in danger of collapsing entirely. Both sides are reported to have used weapons banned under the February agreement; the Ukraine government conceded that it resorted to heavy artillery but says that was a response to rebel violations of the ceasefire terms. The Kiev government also charged the rebels with launching a full-scale offensive with more than 10 tanks and as many as 1,000 fighters. That allegation was substantiated by ceasefire monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who noted that tanks and other heavy weapons were moving through rebel-territory; they did not observe similar Ukrainian deployments until much later, implying at least that the rebels were the aggressors.
No doubt, both sides are guilty of violating the accord; each has exploited opportunities to create facts on the ground whenever it could. The result has been a steady erosion of the ceasefire such that a top United Nations official could warn last week, “We are either looking at a return to a deepening intractable conflict or a momentary upsurge in parts of the conflict zone.”
That warning has been amplified by reports that as many as 10,000 Russian troops are massing in the west of the country near the border with Ukraine. Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko has warned that a full-scale Russian invasion is likely.
Last weekend, leaders of the G-7 group of leading industrialized nations met in Germany to discuss the Ukraine crisis along with other issues. Topping their agenda was the extension of sanctions that have been imposed on Russia in response to its support for the rebels. Before the entire group convened, U.S. President Barack Obama met with his host, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and they condemned “Russian aggression in Ukraine” and agreed that sanctions should remain in place until Moscow fully implements the Minsk agreement and respects Ukraine’s sovereignty.
On his way to the summit, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stopped in Ukraine to meet with Poroshenko. There, he declared that Japan respected Ukraine’s “sovereignty, rule of law and territorial integrity,” and that as host of next year’s G-7 summit he would work to bring a genuine peace to the troubled country. Thus far, Japan has contributed nearly $2 billion in aid to Kiev and has joined the international effort to sanction Russian individuals suspected of involvement in the Russian annexation of Crimea last year.
More than 6,400 people have been killed in fighting in Ukraine since violence started in April 2014 and more than 1.3 million have been displaced. Sadly, those numbers will certainly grow. Russian President Vladimir Putin is — despite his protests — deeply invested in fomenting unrest in Ukraine, a state that he, along with many other Russians, sees as critical to their nation’s security. Putin believes that the West is fundamentally hostile to Russia and determined to keep Moscow from reclaiming its rightful status in Europe and globally. The conflict in Ukraine allows Russia to extend its physical presence and influence in Central Europe, as well as reminds Western governments of Moscow’s ability to destabilize countries on its periphery.
There is little indication that Putin is ready to change his mind. The steady erosion of the ceasefire is proof that he continues to see value in chaos and that the sanctions against his country have not impacted his calculus. The G-7 needs to be prepared to double down since the situation in Ukraine is going to get worse.