Editorial Board

A Cynical Ukraine Deal That Just Might Work

Photographer: Maxim Malinovsky/AFP/Getty Images

This morning’s cease-fire agreement for Ukraine is horribly flawed, yet far better than the alternative: Without it, the country would continue losing lives, territory and hope for a more stable and prosperous future -- whether or not the U.S. sends arms.

That said, it's easy to see why Russian President Vladimir Putin was the one who emerged from the all-night negotiations in Minsk wearing a grin. In many ways, the deal rewards Russia and the separatists he supports for breaking the last cease-fire, agreed to in September. Putin's displays of machismo -- he sat in a taller chair, looking down on his glum counterparts from France, Germany and Ukraine -- were only mildly less obnoxious than his straight-faced call for both sides in the conflict to stop fighting, as if the tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft missiles and drones being used against Ukraine’s military weren’t his. Yet there was truth to his posturing: Putin remains in charge of this war. Only he has both the means and the will to determine whether to expand it or end it.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was negotiating from a far weaker position. But this agreement at least creates a framework for his country to regain control of the Russian frontier, ensuring that Ukraine can remain whole and free.

Thursday's deal is based on the terms of the last one -- which failed to stop the fighting -- and it suffers the same central flaw: It sets a demarcation line on which neither side really agrees. This time, Ukraine will have to pull its heavy weapons back at least 31 miles from the current frontlines, while the pro-Russian separatists will have to withdraw the same distance from the line drawn in September. Given that the rebels have, since then, conquered substantial territory, the new buffer zone will be much larger, and leave more land in rebel hands.

In an act of cynicism that alone risks scuppering the deal, the start of the cease-fire was delayed until midnight Saturday. This guarantees a burst of savage fighting, and gives the rebels the chance to finally take Debaltseve, an important rail junction that Ukrainian forces barely hold.

The more important ambiguity, however, concerns sealing the border between Russia and the separatist-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. Thursday's agreement says that Ukrainian border guards should resume control of the frontier. This is a rare win for the Ukrainian side, and vital, because as long as there is no functioning Russian-rebel border, the separatist-held areas are in effect a frozen conflict zone. Only with Ukraine's border sealed can there be any hope for stability in the country.

Unfortunately, though, in a clear concession to Putin, the agreement turns re-establishing the border into a process that will take at least until the end of the year, after the separatists have consented, the two regions have held elections, and Ukraine has adopted a new constitution. Until then, Russia may continue to supply the rebels with weapons and troops as needed, until it gets what it wants from the government in Kiev.

As frustrating as this loaded process must be to Poroshenko, he and his European supporters must press ahead in the hope that Ukraine’s border can be resurrected. Whether Ukrainian forces keep or lose control of Debaltseve in the coming days won’t determine the success or failure of the agreement. But if Ukraine can ultimately control its eastern border and regain stability, it will have a chance -- with help from the International Monetary Fund's new $17.5 billion support program -- to restore its wrecked and bankrupt economy.

The U.S. and the European Union will need to add their support by supplying more money, more technical support for reform-minded ministers in Kiev, and continued pressure on Putin to abide by the cease-fire and get the border sealed.

After last September's agreement was reached, Western leaders let down their guard, even proposing to end economic sanctions against Russia. They cannot afford to make the same mistake this time. The new cease-fire is welcome, but it is at best the beginning of a process to achieve peace in Ukraine.

(Removes reference in second paragraph to image of Putin breaking a pencil, which footage from Russia's RT television indicates was fabricated.)

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.