‘Lot to lose’ as Ukraine and Russia prepare Paris summit
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Ukraine said Wednesday it has struck a deal with pro-Russian separatists to withdraw tanks and light weapons from the frontline of the conflict in the east of the country. The Donbass region has seen its calmest period since a rarely respected international ceasefire agreement was signed last February, but its fate remains uncertain as world powers prepare to review the deal on Friday.
Representatives of Ukraine and the separatist rebels agreed on general conditions to extend a withdrawal that began at the start of September and further cool a conflict that has killed more than 8,000 people.
The draft deal results from talks in Minsk facilitated by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has been monitoring the conflict.
“We’re going from the third to the fourth week of relative calm,” Michael Bociurkiw of the OSCE’s Ukraine monitoring mission in Kiev told RFI.
“There were at least two days where there were no ceasefire violations whatsoever. It’s very good for letting people’s lives normalise a bit and for us to be able to help repair crews get to fix power lines and water pipes.”
However, Bociurkiw notes that the full peace plan – agreed at a summit between leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany in February – is far from being fully implemented.
“There’s still activity on so-called training ranges," he said. "There are on some days controlled explosions of unexploded ordinance, and there is still a lot of heavy and light weaponry near the contact line and a lot of armed individuals, so the chances of escalation are still very high.”
The atmosphere at the United Nations General Assembly in New York showed both Ukraine and Russia remain deeply divided on how to resolve the conflict in the Donbass, where separatist rebels want to establish closer ties to Moscow.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko used his address to rail against Russian “aggression”, in reference to Kiev’s accusation that Moscow orchestrated and backed the rebels in the weeks following its annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
Poroshenko urged the world not to buy into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “conciliatory statements” proposals to form an international coalition to fight the Islamic State armed group in Syria.
Russia meanwhile ruled out any possibility of bilateral talks with Ukraine and avoided any mention of the conflict.
“[Putin] hopes to use Syria to gain international prestige to trick the West into compromising on Ukraine, thereby isolating Ukraine and getting more concessions out of it,” says Gustav Gressel of the European Council on Foreign Relations, for whom the Russian president’s focus on Syria is part of a geopolitical strategy to gain control of the Donbass.
“There is still a lot to gain and a lot to lose for both Ukraine and Russia,” Gressel explains.
“Russia wants the Donbass to be Russian-controlled, not integrated into any administrative structures but still a tool to influence Ukrainian central decision making. […] Ukraine says, ‘either it’s a frozen conflict, and there is a frontline where our responsibility ends, or we have it all; we control the border and Ukrainian law will be applied.’”
French President François Hollande is to host Putin, Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris on Friday to review technical aspects of the deal and not necessarily to negotiate a resolution of the conflict or an easing of international economic sanctions.
The direction of global politics has brought doubt into Ukraine’s future.
“I fear that the Ukraine fatigue in the West and the false hope that Russia’s Syria policy would yield results will make the West a bit too soft and a bit too quick on the negotiations over the final status of the Donbass,” says Gressel.
“But I hope to be positively surprised by French and German diplomacy.”