After marathon four-nation talks in Belarus’ capital Minsk, the Ukrainian government and rebel forces yesterday signed a roadmap to implement a peace deal. It was indeed a victory for hectic diplomacy undertaken by Germany’s Angela Merkel who was shuttling between Kiev, Moscow and Washington and her French counterpart Francois Hollande. The deal became possible because Germany and France succeeded in winning Russia’s confidence. Earlier Moscow had scoffed at them saying it would not deal with vassal states, referring to their subservience to Washington.
A ceasefire will come into force on Sunday while steps will be taken to remove all heavy weapons from the frontline. Though much more needs to be done, the deal appears to be a win-win for all – for Ukraine, Russia, Ukrainian rebels and Europe – and it came at a time when Washington was planning to aggravate the crisis by sending lethal weapons to Ukraine – weapons that could change the balance at the battlefront in favour of Ukrainian forces.
The move to send hi-tech arms had the bipartisan support with hawkish Senator John McCain strongly advocating it while Obama’s next Defence Secretary Ashton Carter told his confirmation hearing that he was very much inclined to support the arms transfer move.
The deal also came at a time when Ukraine’s economy was falling apart. If Ukraine went ahead and bought the US weapons, it would have only worsened its economic crisis which, according to analysts, requires at least US$ 50 billion to get back on the right track – the kind of money which even the European Union was unable to offer. Yesterday as the deal was signed, the IMF announced a US$ 40 billion loan deal for Ukraine. On the other hand, if Ukraine had got the US weapons, it would have led to an escalation of the crisis – with Russia supplying Ukrainian rebels with equally powerful weapons.
Sending US weapons may serve the United States’ political agenda of taking Nato all the way to the borders of Russia and thereby containing Moscow. But on the other hand, such a move will only exacerbate the Ukrainian crisis, the triggering of which was largely due to the brash moves of the United States and its European allies.
The United States’ failure to recognise Russia’s security concerns in its backyard was a costly diplomatic mistake. Moscow had believed that Washington would reciprocate Russia’s policy of not messing around in areas where the US had genuine security concerns.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and France’s President Francois Hollande take part in a press conference after a summit aimed at ending 10 months of fighting in Ukraine in Minsk yesterday. AFP
Breaking this unwritten understanding, the US together with its European allies decided to expand Nato’s borders to Russia. They plotted a regime change in Ukraine early last year when the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of an economic partnership deal with the European Union at the last minute following instructions from Russia, which promised Ukraine more economic benefits than the EU would offer. An angry US backed Ukraine’s opposition parties, including parties with neo-Nazi credentials, to stage mass protests at Maidan Square in Kiev in support of the EU deal. The US took matters into its own hands and at one point Victoria Nuland, the top US diplomat in charge of the region, used the ‘F’ word to show her frustration at the United States’ EU allies when they differed on who should lead the new government after Yanukovych’s overthrow.
As the US and its European allies hoped, the protesters succeeded in overthrowing the democratically elected Yanukovych. The illegitimate interim government was immediately recognised by the US and the EU. Russia in response annexed Crimea in Ukraine’s southeast following a referendum there and supported pro-Russia separatists in Eastern Ukraine. The end result of the US shotgun diplomacy in Ukraine was a civil war which has so far killed 5,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
While Ukraine burned, the US and its Nato allies added more fuel by slapping economic sanctions on Russia. Washington also conspired with Saudi Arabia and brought the world oil prices down in a bid to punish Russia, the world’s number one oil producer. At diplomatic level, Washington tried to get Russia to submit to unrealistic demands such as the handover of Crimea, where Moscow maintains a strategic warm water port and its Black Sea fleet, the withdrawal of support to the rebels in Ukraine’s breakaway eastern regions, the resumption of easy credit facilities to Ukraine to buy Russia’s oil and gas at one fourth the market price. Obviously, Russia kept rejecting these unreasonable and untenable demands and insisted that the only way to end the conflict was to give more autonomy to the two separatist regions in Ukraine’s east. The stalemate at the level of diplomacy escalated the conflict with Ukrainian forces suffering a series of setbacks in recent weeks at the hands of the Russian-backed rebels. It is against this backdrop that Washington planned to prop up the Ukrainian forces by supplying them with sophisticated weapons such as antitank missiles, battlefield radars and reconnaissance drones.
Thankfully, Germany and France saw the danger in the US move. They indicated their opposition to any major US arms transfer to Ukraine and launched their high-speed shuttle diplomacy to bring about yesterday’s interim deal. Their diplomacy came weeks after the Doomsday Clock was advanced by two minutes to read three minutes to zero hour. The hands of the clock -- an early-warning mechanism set up 70 years ago by a group of US scientists to warn world leaders of a global disaster – were last set so precariously close to zero hour some 30 years ago. That was during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. This time around the scientists maintaining the clock were driven to advance the clock by two developments -- the world leaders’ failure to effectively deal with the fast approaching climate change catastrophe and the big powers’ irresponsible march towards a nuclear conflict. And nowhere is such a dangerous situation more evident than in Ukraine where nuclear-armed Russia and nuclear-armed Nato are fighting a proxy war.
Certainly US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are not imbeciles to trigger an all-out nuclear war over the worsening crisis in Ukraine. But what guarantee is there that men of reason won’t start devastating wars?
Yesterday’s deal may not bring the Ukrainian crisis to an end. Previous ceasefire deals signed amid much hope have collapsed. The handshakes and body language of Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko were not one of elation but one that suggests “Okay let’s try this one also.”
If the latest deal is to survive and lead to permanent peace, the US and its European allies should understand Russia’s security concerns and let Ukraine become a non-aligned nation in the context of the emerging cold war between Russia and the West.