FPI Bulletin: Diplomacy Limps Forward in Ukraine

October 13, 2015

By FPI Associate Analyst Jordan Harms and Policy Director David Adesnik

On October 1, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany—i.e. the “Normandy Four” —held a summit meeting in Paris to address the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has now claimed almost 8,000 lives. The most important development in Paris was a verbal agreement to postpone local elections in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which remain occupied by Russian proxy forces. Previously, the Kremlin’s proxies had threatened to hold their own elections, without regard for Ukrainian law. Had these illicit elections taken place, they would have undermined the implementation of the Minsk II cease-fire agreement, concluded in February. Despite this reprieve for Minsk II, the Paris summit did nothing to address the fundamental cause of conflict – the invasion of Ukraine that Vladimir Putin refuses to acknowledge.

Minsk II

Minsk II is the successor to the September 2014 cease-fire agreement, also negotiated in Minsk, which fell apart as a result of constant violations by Russia and its proxy forces. Immediately after the conclusion of Minsk II, the Kremlin supported a major assault by its proxies that resulted in the capture of Debaltseve, a strategic railway hub. Since then, the front line has remained virtually unchanged. Despite warnings of a major Russian offensive, the intensity of the conflict has been limited, except for a surge of violence in August.

In addition to a cessation of hostilities and local elections, the Minsk II agreement calls for a withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front lines, the removal of all foreign forces and armaments, and constitutional reforms in Kiev that provide Donetsk and Luhansk with greater autonomy. Shortly before the Paris summit, representatives from Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE reached an agreement to begin removal of tanks and light artillery from the front lines, which Ukraine has begun to implement. Heavy weapons remain in place, despite Minsk II’s provisions.

The requirement for the removal of foreign forces remains a fundamental point of disagreement. Moscow continues to insist there are no foreign forces in Ukraine, while Western governments have reached the unequivocal conclusion that Russia has deployed thousands of troops to eastern Ukraine while equipping its proxy forces – the so-called “separatists” – with advanced weapons, such as the missile that shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, killing all 298 passengers aboard.

The prospect of constitutional reforms to provide greater autonomy for the occupied eastern provinces has opened up a sharp divide in Kiev.  In August, the Ukrainian parliament, or Verkhovna Rada, gave its initial approval to a set of constitutional amendments designed to satisfy the Minsk II requirements. This first step toward decentralization sparked violent protests that left three police officers dead in the capital. Whereas many Ukrainians see the reforms as de facto submission to Russian blackmail, it remains unlikely that Moscow or its proxy forces will consider the measures sufficient to satisfy Kiev’s obligations in keeping with Minsk II.

Russian Strategy and Objectives

What Russia seeks is not autonomy for eastern Ukraine, but an enduring source of leverage it can apply to prevent Ukraine from restoring its sovereignty and exercising its right to join NATO and the European Union. Moscow’s strategy of sponsoring proxy forces with a separatist agenda is one it has already applied successfully in Georgia and Moldova. The result has been a series of “frozen conflicts”, which Moscow can heat up when its interests require the intimidation of weaker neighbors.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, retired General David Petraeus, the former director of the CIA, explained why Russia cannot afford peace in Ukraine.  Putin’s “worst nightmare,” Petraeus said, “would be a thriving, vibrant, prosperous democracy with [a] free-market economy on his western border.” By keeping the war “bubbling”, Putin can impose tremendous costs on a government in Kiev that is struggling to implement far-reaching reforms while fighting off a foreign invasion.

Petraeus did offer a note of hope, however. He observed that “Vladimir Putin is going to run out of foreign reserves. He's probably got 200 billion or so left. He will burn through those in the course of the next 2 years.” If Western sanctions remain in place once Putin’s reserves have run out, “he and the companies that have debt coming due – he’s running a very large fiscal deficit – are not going to be able to go to world markets and get money to finance their government operations. So, I think he has, actually, a limited window of a couple of years to continue provocative actions.”

While the Russian economy is ailing, there is little information about how much of a burden the war in Ukraine imposes on the Kremlin’s finances. According to an interview with a separatist commander by an independent Russian journalist, Moscow provides the so-called “People’s Republic of Donetsk” with 70 percent of its budget. Russia is also building a massive new military base right on the Ukrainian border. There is also evidence that Moscow continues to provide its proxies with new kinds of advanced weapons.

In addition to its financial vulnerability, the Kremlin remains deeply concerned about the possibility that the Russian public will discover it is waging a covert war in Ukraine. The government routinely threatens those human rights organizations who seek to compile data about Russian casualties. Enterprising foreign journalists have unearthed “secret cemeteries” throughout Russia, where soldiers killed in Ukraine are buried. While the Kremlin’s control of the media has enabled it to hide the truth and persuade the public that the U.S. and Europe are responsible for the conflict in Ukraine, exposure of the covert war may cause irreparable damage to the government’s credibility.

Helping Ukraine

The sovereignty of Ukraine remains a vital strategic concern for the United States. To uphold its sovereignty, Kiev requires both diplomatic and military support from the United States. On the diplomatic front, the U.S. must defend Ukraine’s right to determine, in accordance with its own democratic procedures, how much autonomy should be given to its occupied eastern provinces. Misguided hopes that Russia will respect the Minsk II process should not become a pretext for extracting further concessions from Kiev. The U.S. should also strengthen the sanctions it has imposed on the Kremlin while encouraging Europe to do the same.

On the military front, the President should finally use the authority Congress has given him to provide lethal aid to Ukrainian forces. Although Ukrainian troops will never be able to drive out Russian forces, they can impose costs that will make the invasion untenable. To its credit, the White House has extended American training programs to include the Ukrainian Armed Forces as well as the Ukrainian National Guard. The President also recently approved the supply of $20 million of advanced radar equipment for Ukraine. However, these are steps in the right direction, not a comprehensive program of assistance that can influence military outcomes.

The Minsk II process may have generated occasional lulls on the battlefield, but is not a serious vehicle for resolving the conflict in Ukraine. Rather, it is a means for Putin to increase or reduce tensions in accordance with his own interests. Diplomacy will only succeed when Washington and Kiev have sufficient strength to show Moscow that the costs of its war significantly outweigh the benefits.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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