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Issue No.: 573 | March 2015
 

Will Merkel and Hollande Succeed in De-escalating Conflict in Ukraine?

R. G. Gidadhubli
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Not content with Poroshenko’s offer of political and economic incentives to separatists for ‘self-rule’, Putin seems to be bent on ensuring that pro-Russians are free to run their own affairs with a minimum of control from Kyiv

On 11th February 2015 the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French President Francois Hollande held a Summit meeting in Minsk with the Russian president Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president Peter Poroshenko to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine. Prior to that, the two had met Putin in Kremlin on the 6th February which was followed by Merkel’s meeting with the US president Barack Obama on the 9th February in the White House with regard to the year-old Ukrainian conflict. Questions arise as to what necessitated these high level emergency meetings and whether they have succeeded in their efforts to solve the problems. 

Necessity for Emergency Meetings

There are several reasons as to what necessitated these meetings. Firstly, conflict in eastern Ukraine has intensified between pro-Russian rebellions (‘Separatists’) and the Ukrainian Army. According to analysts, the rebels become more aggressive and are now in control of several towns including Mariopol, Donetsk, Debaltseve, Luhansk, Horlivka. More than 5,500 people have been killed and 15,000 injured according to UN estimates, though the actual number could be more.

Secondly, the Minsk agreement of September 2014 to contain violence and bring about peaceful settlement of conflict by all concerned has been violated repeatedly as contended by many analysts by both the sides.

Thirdly, separatists have expanded their control over the ‘Buffer Zone’ which might become a part of the region under their control. Two provinces of Ukraine are now under their control. As opined by some western analysts the separatists have seized control of hundreds of square kilometers of land since the September deal and have made gains in January 2015. According to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg the "Separatists have moved well beyond the original contact line and that they have also received substantially increased supplies of weapons in recent weeks”.

Fourthly, there are accusations and counter-accusations between Russia and Ukraine over the issues relating to the conflict in Ukraine. While the Ukrainian government has accused Russia of supplying defence equipments and even sending soldiers as ‘volunteers’, Russia is in a denial mode and is insisting that it is an internal problem of Ukraine. This is far from convincing. Ukrainian president Poroshenko, apart from alleging external support for the shooting down of the Malaysian airplane a few months back, has shown Red passports and military IDs of captured or killed Russian soldiers as evidence of Russian involvement in aggravating conflict in eastern part of the country. "This is the best evidence for the aggression and for the presence of Russian troops,” he said.

Pro-Russian Vs. Pro-West

Ukraine is caught up in the East-West conflict. Russia’s Putin is keen that Ukraine which is close to Russia be part of Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union formed in 1st January 2015. Under a radically different scenario Putin insists that he will not tolerate any ultimatums from NATO and America. Not content with Poroshenko’s offer of political and economic incentives to Separatists demanding ‘self-rule’, Putin seems to be bent on ensuring that pro-Russians are free to run their own affairs with a minimum of control from Kyiv (Kiev). Alternatively Russia wants a ‘virtual division’ and not autonomy for the eastern Ukrainian region, so that it can be closer to Russia politically and economically, in conformity with Putin’s vision of a ‘Novo Russia’.

The Ukrainian president Poroshenko has moved closer to the West and has signed an agreement to be part of the European Union has asked the USA and Western powers for defence equipments to strengthen defence capability of his country so that it has a convincing "diplomatic voice.” At the same time he has declared himself as president of peace and not war. A qualitative change might be expected if Poroshenko declares Martial Law as he has threatened to if the situation does not improve. He has become confident that American President Barack Obama has promised to supply sophisticated defence equipments to Ukraine to defeat the ‘Separatists’ and calling Russia a ‘Regional Bully’ for its policy of aggression and coercion and a threat to international stability. Moreover, NATO on 5th February agreed to immediately set up six command posts in Eastern Europe and establish a spearhead force of 5,000 troops in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. 

Merkel has been making strenuous diplomatic efforts to prevent the worst case scenario of a breakup of Ukraine and therefore wants to avoid a military solution. She has rightly advised hardliners in the USA and the EU to withhold additional political and economic sanctions on Russia and supplying arms to Ukraine hoping that the Summit in Minsk on 11th Feb might bring about some positive solution to the conflict. At the same time Merkel has been candid in stating that Putin should take substantial steps forward to implement the cease-fire deal signed in September 2014 in Minsk and cautioned against persisting violence in eastern Ukraine even as talks were held on 11th February. Hollande has frankly stated that the Franco-German initiative was "one of the last chances” for peace. As this article goes to press, there is a glimmer of hope that Russia might soften its stand even if there is no likelihood of a total de-escalation of conflict.

Dr R. G. GIDADHUBLI, professor and 
former Director, Center For Central Eurasian Studies, 
University of Mumbai
 
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