Minsk Meeting

Saving a Divided Ukraine

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A country torn.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If the Ukraine conflict cannot be solved, hostilities could extend beyond the split country to divide powers in Europe and beyond.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The Ukraine conflict started in Spring 2014.
    • The conflict may have cost 5,000 lives according to estimates by the German intelligence service.
    • Talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin are planned Wednesday in Minsk to find a solution.
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  • Audio

    Audio

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On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France’s President Francoise Hollande, Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to try to thrash out the fate of Ukraine.

U.S. President Barack Obama made it clear how he saw the meeting. “We are in absolute agreement that the 21st century cannot have us stand idle and simply allow the borders of Europe to be redrawn with the barrel of a gun,” he said in a press conference in Washington on Monday.

Ukraine’s sovereignty, his words implied, was not up for negotiation. The country must be whole, intact and independent, at any cost.

As he spoke, the German chancellor was at his side. She had flown to Washington straight after a meeting with Mr. Putin and Mr. Hollande in the Kremlin on Friday. Both she and Mr. Obama were careful not to contradict each other, or present a disunited front, but it is clear that Ms. Merkel’s priority is to stop war breaking out at the edge of Europe, while in the U.S. calls are growing to send arms to Ukraine to help them fight insurgents in the east.

Ukraine is planning to expand its army and will recruit 100,000 soldiers this year, but in reality, the sovereignty of the country is already being undermined.

A report written this month for the Brookings Institution think tank by a group of senior American diplomats and military leaders, including former US ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder, called for the United States to “begin providing lethal assistance to Ukraine’s military,” so the country is better able to defend itself.

It suggested the U.S. provides $3 billion’s worth of arms over the next three years to buy “counter battery radars, unmanned aerial vehicles, secure communications capabilities and armored Humvees,” among other things. Unstopped, they argue, Mr. Putin will seek territorial opportunities in other European states, including the Baltics.

Ukraine is planning to expand its army and will recruit 100,000 soldiers this year, but in reality, the sovereignty of the country is already being undermined. The Minsk agreement hammered out last September involved Kiev ceding control of a slice of eastern Ukraine to pro-Russian separatists, with a special status given to Donetsk and Luhansk, the area known collectively as the Donbas region.

The plan involves a 50-70 kilometer demilitarized zone along the front line: a new Berlin Wall.

This agreement recognized the possibility that Ukraine could be ruled as two entities, and even though the ceasefire fell apart after four days, broken by an outbreak of fighting around Donetsk airport, it set a precedent that Ukraine will have two different administrations.

New plans that will be discussed in Minsk this week may well involve setting a dividing line between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russia separatists. The plan involves a 50-70 kilometer demilitarized zone along the front line: a new Berlin Wall.

Culturally, it already exists. Television, a traditional builder of national identity, is becoming polarized. Pro-Russian authorities in Crimea have already shut off several Ukrainian TV channels in the region and some cable providers have dropped Russian channels in the rest of the country.

The European Parliament passed a resolution in January 15, warning that Russia was carrying out an “information war” blending cyber-warfare and propaganda.

Dariya Orlova, an academic at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine’s capital Kiev, told Handelsblatt Global Edition the country felt very divided.

“A great deal of people actually do not support either side. They simply want peace. But of course, the more Donbas civilians suffer from the war, the more Ukrainian soldiers die in that war, the prospects of real reconciliation get more distant and uncertain,” she said.

Politically, there is no national government in Ukraine. The country held presidential elections on May 25. Petro Poroshenko was elected to power with over 55 percent of the vote, but his mandate is undermined by the fact that there were no polling stations open in Donetsk and several other cities.

The same pattern applied to parliamentary elections in late October: pro-West parties won, but only because voters in the rebel-held east boycotted the elections and held their own polls, which in turn were not recognized by the government in Kiev.

The hope that Ukraine can exist as an independent, free state is growing dimmer. The country is heavily in debt. The currency is almost worthless. Ukraine’s industrial heartland is in the pro-Russian east and the rest of the country does not have an industrial base that can provide the same economic growth.

The International Monetary Fund, the European Union and other donors have promised a total package of around €35 billion but that was dependent on reforms that have not yet been implemented. In September, the IMF warned that Ukraine would need another $19 billion.

And as part of a concession to Russia, the E.U. has agreed to postpone the implementation of a long-planned free trade deal with Ukraine until 2016, a move that may be politically necessary but one that will nonetheless hamstring Ukraine’s economic progress.

The legitimacy of Ukraine’s government is being undermined not just by pro-Russian separatists, but by corruption and cronyism.

There has been some progress. The country’s director of prosecutions stepped down this week after being heavily criticized by activists for failing to investigate several politically motivated crimes. In Kiev, the resignation is seen as a small sign that civil society is having some impact on government, but there is a long road ahead.

“Honestly it all looks very uncertain and very dramatic,” said Ms. Orlova. “Ukrainians are under tremendous pressure all the time. It is an extremely traumatizing experience for the entire nation.”

 

Handelsblatt Global Edition’s Meera Selva has covered international affairs for more than a decade from Europe and Africa. To contact the author: selva@handelsblatt.com 

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