Kiev could face backlash over potential deal with Russia
Ukraine has many historical reasons to mistrust both East and West when it comes to deciding its fate
A woman carries a bag of humanitarian aid from a delivery point in the Ukrainian forces-controlled town of Debaltseve in the Donetsk region. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
As Angela Merkel and François Hollande flew to Moscow to discuss Ukraine with Vladimir Putin yesterday, a Twitter post showed the trio’s faces superimposed on those of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the historic Yalta summit.
Exactly 70 years ago, the Allied leaders met in Crimea to establish Europe’s post-war order, and Stalin secured a Soviet “sphere of influence” from the Baltic to the Black Sea that would last until the collapse of communism in 1989.
The nations of eastern Europe get nervous when major powers go over their heads to discuss their fates; this is one reason why countries from Estonia to Bulgaria so value their seats around the table at the European Union and Nato.
Ukraine belongs to neither bloc and still resides, as its old Slavic name suggests, “on the edge”, between a western world dominated by the US and EU, and a Eurasia of mostly autocratic former Soviet states grouped around a resurgent Russia.
Ukraine has many reasons to mistrust both sides, the latest being the failure of Russia, the US and Britain to honour a 1994 pledge to protect it from aggression in return for its relinquishment of nuclear weapons.
After Merkel and Hollande unexpectedly arrived in Ukraine bearing a new peace plan for Ukraine’s ravaged east, and then flew on to Moscow without making its contents public, Ukrainians suspected a sell-out.
Merkel insisted she would “never deal with territorial questions over another country” and Ukraine’s foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin told compatriots: “Don’t worry. They’re not pressuring Ukraine. France and Germany are helping us restore peace.” But Ukrainians’ fears are well-founded.
They know the EU is split over how strongly to punish Russia for annexing Crimea and supporting the separatists, and that the chance of sanctions being dramatically tightened shrank with Greece’s election of Moscow-friendly Syriza.
Ukrainians also know Nato will not defend them, and US president Barack Obama is reluctant to arm a military which, while improving, is still riddled with incompetence, corruption and suspected Russian spies.
Above all, Ukrainians who back its pivot towards the West find it hard to imagine a compromise deal that would be acceptable to them and to Putin and the militants, who rely on Russia for diplomatic and financial support and delivery of everything from tanks and rockets to food and medical supplies.
Ukrainians observe that Moscow fabricated a threat to the country’s Russian-speakers to justify seizing Crimea and fomenting war in the east. However, while Putin was happy to annexe the relatively small and desirable Black Sea peninsula, he does not want the subsidy-guzzling rustbelt of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Rather than eyeing a further land-grab, Putin appears to view the conflict as a means to an end: the destruction of the new, still-shaky order in Ukraine; and the demoralisation of pro-western movements in Russia and neighbouring states that may seek to mimic the protests that ousted Kiev’s previous Kremlin-backed regime.
Many Ukrainians believe Putin is implacable, that sanctions have not softened his stance, and that any deal he offers will contain a trap.
If, as some reports suggest, Hollande and Merkel were in Moscow to discuss giving the rebels more land, or more autonomy, than Ukraine has previously offered in exchange for a ceasefire, then it could backfire brutally on Kiev.
These problems – along with bloodshed in the east that is made more galling by tales of incompetence, graft and treachery among the top brass – are eroding faith in oligarch- turned-president Petro Poroshenko and his government.
Western leaders may encourage him to make major concessions in return for a Russian promise of peace, but he knows it could trigger a revolt by opponents – including battle-hardened volunteer battalions – who would see compromise with Russia and its proxies as a betrayal of those killed in the east and on Maidan square.
Such a pact would be especially hard to present to Ukrainians now, in the run-up to the anniversary of the deadly climax of the Maidan rallies and the loss of Crimea.
With his country isolated and struggling economically, Putin is likely to use next month’s celebration of Crimea’s “reunification” with Russia to claim victory in the current crisis.
Any deal that Putin would accept now, therefore, could be expected to inflict considerable pain on Poroshenko; at best, it may temporarily “freeze” the conflict, staunching bloodshed for a while without healing the deep wound between Ukraine and Russia.