Putin Pushes Ukraine Peacekeeper Plan in Face of Opposition

  • Russia not discouraged by critical response, top diplomat says
  • U.S., Ukraine reject proposal; European reaction more mixed

How Putin Became the Symbol of Russian Power

Russia said it will press ahead with President Vladimir Putin’s plan for United Nations peacekeepers in Ukraine, even after the effort stalled in the face of opposition from Washington and Kiev this week.

“We never lose hope. We don’t expect immediate results,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told Bloomberg News on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who on Wednesday attended a Security Council session on peacekeeping along with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, vowed to oppose Russia’s insistence on only a limited deployment of the UN “blue helmets.”

Putin’s latest proposal was the first major Kremlin initiative to resolve the three-year conflict -- sparked by Russian-backed separatists -- since a 2015 peace plan and reversed years of rejecting Ukraine’s calls for UN involvement. But Russia’s narrow framing of the peacekeepers’ mission drew skepticism from Ukraine and its backers in the U.S. and EU. Many officials suspected a trick that would entrench the dividing lines in the conflict, which has cost more than 10,000 lives and poisoned relations between Russia and the West.

Poroshenko reiterated his own plan for peacekeepers -- covering the entire conflict zone and the border with Russia -- in his speech to the Security Council Wednesday. “Deployment of the UN peacekeeping operation should restore justice rather than freeze the conflict and cement the occupation,” he said. Lavrov told the Security Council that the Russian approach would ensure “strict, full implementation” of the peace accord signed two years ago in Minsk, Belarus.

‘Important Shift’

Despite the disagreement over the scope of the mission, Putin’s latest offer suggests the Kremlin’s opposition to international participation on the ground could be softening, possibly opening the way to a deal in the future, said Fyodor Lukyanov, who heads the Council on Foreign and Defense, a Kremlin advisory group.

“This is a fairly important shift in the Russian position,” an opening gambit in a strategy aimed at moving beyond the Minsk agreement, he said.

Putin’s proposal came amid the Kremlin’s growing disillusionment with President Donald Trump, who came into office promising to improve relations but has brought a deepening of the chill amid allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. elections last year. His administration has said it’s considering sending lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, something Moscow vehemently opposes. Any Russian hopes for a softening of the hard line in Europe led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel have faded as she’s now expected to win strongly in Sunday’s elections.

Western Sanctions

In the short term, the political shifts in the U.S. and Europe mean any chance for softening sanctions on Russia imposed over the Ukraine crisis seems increasingly remote. Trump, pressured by the U.S. Congress, signed a law in August that expands the restrictions and makes them much harder to lift. EU officials have said there will be no easing without progress on the Minsk deal, which reduced but hasn’t stopped the fighting.

While Russia repeatedly insists it isn’t seeking to ease the sanctions, which have hurt its economy by curbing access to international capital markets and energy technology, the stalemate in the Ukraine conflict has raised concerns in Moscow that the measures may stay in place indefinitely. For Russia, the costs of subsidizing the separatists are also a burden on a budget already pressured by falling oil prices.

France and Germany, which sponsored the Minsk agreement, have cautiously welcomed Putin’s proposal. The U.S. and Ukraine have taken a harder line and blocked debate on a Russian draft resolution at the Security Council this week.

In a telephone conversation with Merkel Sept. 11, Putin agreed to expand his initial proposal for the peacekeepers mandate beyond just the line of contact between Ukrainian forces and the separatists to include guarding international observers. But the Kremlin so far seems reluctant to allow them to patrol the Russian-Ukrainian border, a key demand of the U.S. and Ukraine, which accuse Moscow of sending arms and troops across that frontier to support the rebels. Russia denies that.

‘Essential Step’

“If we think of the international peace-keepers as replacement for the Russian army in terms of controlling heavy weapons and border control -– this would be an essential step forward and will form the basis for implementation of the Minsk agreement,” U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, told a conference in Kiev last week. “The very fact that this proposal has been made is interesting and it needs to be looked at.”

While there is skepticism at Russia’s real intentions, some analysts say that the longer and medium-term costs of the Russian control of eastern Ukraine may be forcing some change in its position.

“There is a sense that a window for more meaningful negotiations on and off the scenes might be opening, and that this signal is being sent from Moscow,” said Gwendolyn Sasse of the Centre for East European and International Studies in Berlin.

— With assistance by Kateryna Choursina, Gregory Viscusi, and Patrick Donahue

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