Ukraine: one more try at peace

Proposal to leave illegally-annexed Crimea in Russian hands as the price for its commitment to ensuring peace in eastern Ukraine thrown into mix

 

Three years after the events in Maidan Square tipped Ukraine into revolution and set the country on course for civil war, the pervasive sense in the impoverished country today is of bitterness and distrust on all sides. A ceasefire in the east of the country and withdrawal of heavy weapons was due to begin yesterday after weeks of fighting. But omens were not good after a weekend of diplomatic sabre-rattling and fierce clashes on the edges of separatist enclaves.

Renewed fighting had been blamed on Russian attempts to test the resolve of the new Trump administration. President Trump’s refusal to condemn President Vladimir Putin, and his suggestion of moral US equivalence with his “our country isn’t so innocent”, appeared to suggest a US ambivalence about Russia’s belief in its right to assert its power in its old “sphere of influence”.

At the weekend Munich Security Conference, however, vice-president Mike Pence went some way to reassuring western leaders about the solidity of the US commitment to Nato and with his insistence that the US will hold Russia to its pledge to reach a permanent ceasefire in Ukraine.

President Petro Poroshenko, also at the conference, said the declaration was a “powerful signal that Ukraine for the new administration is among the top priorities”. It may well be wishful thinking.

But the message was not getting through to Moscow where President Putin signed a provocative edict recognising passports from the breakaway Ukrainian “states” of Donetsk and Luhansk – it was short of formal recognition of the two entities, but not by much, and provoked angry international reaction. Berlin condemned the move as a violation of the two-year-old Minsk peace accord to which the Russians also recommitted at the weekend to endorse the ceasefire.

The challenge facing the government in Kiev is compounded by the blockading by ultra-nationalists of supplies of vitally-needed coal produced in non-government controlled areas.

The nationalists who have effectively cut off major rail lines near the frontline say that trading with the separatists is an act of betrayal. Poroshenko warns of an energy and heating crisis in the west and that up to 300,000 jobs may be threatened unless supplies are resumed. Both the EU and the US have appealed for an end to the blockade.

A new twist has also been added to the complex diplomacy of the Ukraine with reports yesterday in the New York Times that Trump aides, his lawyer, associates, and a Ukrainian opposition MP have privately proposed to the administration their own peace deal as a means of persuading the US to lift sanctions against Russia.

The proposal which would leave illegally annexed Crimea in Russian hands as the price for its commitment to ensuring peace in eastern Ukraine, was denounced by Kiev and western capitals. Whether Trump will entertain it anyway is anyone’s guess.

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