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An elusive peace in Ukraine


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My optimism in previous essays on Ukraine ('Ukraine endgame' and 'Signs that East Ukraine has averted mass human tragedy') continues to be undermined by the remarkable capacity of all players in this tragic drama – the government in Kiev, the rebels in East Ukraine, and their respective backers in NATO and Moscow - to dig in stubbornly and refuse to compromise goals in this now very nasty civil war. Both Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin are hard men, heading military-political establishments that would see concession as signs of weakness.

On the ground, superior Ukrainian Army firepower continues to batter the shrinking rebel perimeters around the besieged cities of Donetsk and Lugansk. The Ukrainian army now holds most of the surrounding countryside. Tenuous access corridors to the nearby Russian border to the east (at another city confusingly called Donetsk) remain contested, including the MH17 crash-area.

Refugees trying to flee along those escape routes to Russia have been shelled and killed. Each side blames the other; truth is the first casualty in this increasingly bitter war. Allegations of atrocities abound. There have been a reliably estimated 3300 casualties so far. Over 2000 of these are civilians, with many women and children killed as rebel-held areas come under inaccurate national artillery fire. International agencies estimate 330000 refugees have fled their homes, about half to other parts of Ukraine and half to Russia. The latter may never return.

Damage to the social fabric in East Ukraine has been profound. The former bi-cultural 'live and let live' spirit of Russian-speaking pro-Russian people and Ukrainian-speaking pro-nationalist people has been shattered by the cruelty of the war. There is deep anger against Kiev now in Donetsk and Lugansk.

Yesterday, a boastful Soviet-style military parade in Kiev to celebrate Ukraine's  Independence  Day was countered by a cruelly humiliating forced march of captured Ukrainian Army prisoners of war through Donetsk, recalling similar parades of captured German soldiers in WW2.

The only ray of hope on this bleak scene of locked-down embittered warfare is the patient, quiet diplomacy of German Premier Angela Merkel. She visited Kiev for talks with Poroshenko on Saturday. Major Western news agencies emphasised her public support for Poroshenko, and her public demands on Putin to stop smuggling men and arms across the border to help the rebels.

But, digging deeper into agency reports, I found she had strong messages for Kiev too: that it is now time for compromise on both sides when Poroshenko meets Putin on Tuesday evening (AEST) in Minsk, the first face-to-face talks between the two leaders since the war started.

Merkel, a fluent Russian speaker, has good personal bonds with both Putin and Poroshenko. With Obama's hands full of the Middle East and domestic difficulties, Merkel is carrying the Western brief in the Ukraine civil war: above all, that it must not spread to other areas on Russia’s periphery. She would have had strong private words for Poroshenko.

But there is no sign yet of him heeding those words. In their joint press conference, he declared Ukraine ready for compromise, yes, but determined not to cede any of Ukraine’s national territorial integrity and sovereignty. Translation: he wants back both East Ukraine and Crimea.

Yesterday’s military parade in Kiev was accompanied by a demand for $3 billion from the West to reequip Ukraine’s war-depleted army hardware and missiles. Poroshenko declared Ukraine will have to remain in a state of permanent military alert.

Putin has been quiet these past days. He is, I would guess, waiting to take Poroshenko’s negotiating measure in Minsk. He has recent cause for satisfaction in the undoubted propaganda success of the 240 Russian humanitarian aid trucks which, after waiting eight days for Ukrainian border clearance that never came, unilaterally drove to Lugansk and Donetsk under white flags, unloaded their humanitarian cargoes, and quickly returned to Russia.

Condemned by Western leaders as a provocative violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, the humanitarian convoy made the West look powerless and callous. It will have raised the morale of the beleaguered and starving defenders of Lugansk and Donetsk, and made them more prepared to fight a Gaza-style urban defensive war if necessary. Russians don’t give up easily.

As recently as yesterday, I thought Putin might be prepared to concede East Ukraine if Poroshenko agreed to Crimea staying in Russia. I thought this may have been Merkel’s private advice to Kiev. But now I am less sure.

The aggressive national parade on Sunday, and the defiant Donetsk counter-parade of prisoners, don’t suggest to me a war on the point of conciliation. Poroshenko’s aggressive truculence has left Putin no room to climb down.

So I will not predict an early peace after Tuesday, though I will pray for it. This war, with all its attendant risks of escalation, seems set to continue.


Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Poland.

Image of Ukrainian tanks in Slovyansk taken by Sasha Maksymenko in July 2014. Obtained under Creative Commons licence via flickr

Tony recommends 'Watching the Eclipse', an essay by New Yorker editor David Remnick for background on nationalist forces fermenting in present-day Russia.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, Russia, diplomacy, Angela Merkel, war



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Existing comments

Thank you for this article,Tony I too pray for early peace from this war. May our prayer be heard.

Rita Cusack | 27 August 2014  

Thank you Rita. It surprises me how little interest there is among Australian politicians and media commentators in this war. I guess they have too much else on their plates now. But quite apart from the major death, destruction and civilian dislocation the war is causing in Ukraine, there is very real risk of it drawing in Russia itself and other bordering states into armed conflict. And that would involve NATO. Hence, our major ally the US. We should follow this war and urge peace based on compromise by both sides. There are no heroes or villains here.

Tony Kevin | 27 August 2014  

Tony, You write the Russian aid convoy “unilaterally drove to Lugansk and Donetsk”. You may have access to information I have not seen, but I understood that first convoy only went to Lugansk. Driving on to Donetsk, 180 km further west, would have been a far more dangerous and provocative act.

H.A. Willis | 27 August 2014  

I hope mr Kevin continues providing his important insights about the war in this far away place. What happens there could affect us all

Jl TREW | 27 August 2014  

H A Willis, thank you - I stand corrected. There is potential confusion because the town on the border though which I think the Russian aid trucks may have entered Ukraine is also called Donetsk - but it was my mistake. To update - talks in MInsk went quite well, with Putin shifting the emphasis from geopolitics to trade and gas issues, but Putin continues to press Ukraine miiitarily, apparently opening up an undeclared new war front along the southern Black Sea coast towards Mariopol and Crimea. It may be a serious invasion, or it may be sending a message to Poroshenko that he cannot go on shelling Donetsk and Lugansk without retaliation. As usual ,both these authoritarian leaders talk peace and make war at the same time. The risks of expansion of this war to other countries on Russia's borders may have lessened a little after Minsk but remain real. I shall continue to follow the story.

tony kevin | 29 August 2014  

Tension continues to escalate in Eastern Ukraine crisis. A Russian-backed push by separatist forces towards Mariupol on the southern Black Sea coast slowly continues but Russia continues to deny military involvement. Russia demands that Kiev commence talks with separatists on internal statehood for East Ukraine within Ukraine and denies any intention to support political secession of region from Ukraine. Kiev pleads for NATO's weapons support. It is getting nastier: Minsk talks have yet to bear any diplomatic fruit. It is still not clear if Russian-backed military pressure in the South is a feint aimed at real peace talks and taking the Ukrainian military pressure off Donetsk and Lugansk, or a preparedness to take effective control through separatists of the Black Sea coastal region of Ukraine as far as Crimea and possibly even Odessa, which would be a disastrous loss of territory and assets for Ukraine.

tony kevin | 01 September 2014  

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