Ukraine's Cease-Fire Is Putin's Victory
Ukraine has signed a cease-fire deal with the Russian-backed rebels holding part of its territory. For Kiev, this is an admission of defeat: Having failed to secure meaningful Western help, President Petro Poroshenko, who had vowed never to negotiate with the "terrorists," is cutting his losses.
It is far from assured that the cease-fire will hold, given all the bad blood between the two sides and the officially unacknowledged presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. If both sides, as well as Russia, whose ambassador to Kiev Mikhail Zurabov attended the talks, are serious about an end to fighting, however, it's a big deal for civilians in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. The UN says the conflict has already displaced more than 1 million Ukrainians. Even last night, people in Donetsk were hearing explosions as the Ukrainian forces shelled the separatist stronghold. The rebels and Russian soldiers, for their part, advanced on Mariupol, a port city that before the war was home to 400,000 people. Even as the cease-fire talks progressed, people on the beach there were watching plumes of smoke rising from the east, where exhausted Ukrainian troops and paramilitaries tried to push back the onslaught.
"The highest value is human life," Poroshenko said in a statement. "We must do everything possible and impossible to terminate bloodshed and put an end to people's suffering." That wasn't his approach when he attempted a military solution to the Russia-backed rebellion and almost won: the Ukrainian military ruthlessly shelled and bombed residential areas where the separatists took cover. Then Russia sent in crack troops and reversed the situation in a matter of days. In wars, little is black-and-white: If the cease-fire holds, the Russian interference may have spared civilian lives. History brooks no subjunctives, and it is impossible to say now how or when the conflict would have ended, had it been allowed to run its course.
Now, it's up to the sides to hammer out a compromise. Igor Plotnitsky, prime minister of the Lugansk People's Republic, said after the talks that the separatists would continue to seek independence from Ukraine. Poroshenko, for his part, tweeted: "Ukraine's territorial integrity and independence are not up for negotiations. They remain as they are."
The last sentence sounds ambiguous now that Russia has a firm hold on annexed Crimea and the rebels are ensconced in Donetsk and Lugansk, backed up by Russian military might. For Poroshenko, though, there is no ambiguity: He was elected with a mandate to keep the country together, and he promised to recapture Crimea, too.
The Ukrainian leader is now in an untenable position. On the one hand, he has nothing to show for his recent photo opportunities with U.S. President Barack Obama and European leaders at the NATO summit in Wales. "We cannot deal with Russia alone," Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said today as he waited for the cease-fire talks to end.
On the other hand, Ukrainians have become radicalized since their anticorruption revolution segued into a brutal war. "I don't want to guess on what terms the cease-fire has been agreed," Semyon Semenchenko, the commander of a Ukrainain volunteer paramilitary battalion, wrote on Facebook. "I don't care. I don't want to think about how THEY will push on or get their own state within Ukraine, financed by us." He called on all Ukrainian patriots to train for fighting and learn to shoot. "This is a long game and we're players," he wrote. "Don't let them turn you into spectators and all will be well."
If the peace holds, people like Semenchenko will soon be returning from the front, and they may well decide that Poroshenko gave up too easily and that Ukraine should have fought on and martyred itself. Poroshenko's plan to get a loyal parliament elected in October now faces many threats, ranging from a new escalation of fighting to a radical nationalist revolt.
As for Russian President Vladimir Putin, he has secured a ringside seat and may settle down with a bowl of popcorn. Any outcome suits him as long as Ukraine struggles to get out of its impasse alone. He will be happy to see the Lugansk and Donetsk regions turn into a frozen-conflict zone, precluding Ukraine's further integration into NATO and the European Union, and equally pleased to have them gain broad autonomy from Kiev and a veto on major political decisions. A military solution suits him, too, since the West has refused to engage him except in the form of ineffectual sanctions.
Make no mistake about it: The ceasefire is a victory for Putin, a vindication of his aggression and duplicity. I just hope it ends the bloodshed.
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