Could Ukraine’s War Finally Be Over?

For the first time since the conflict broke out, separatists issued a unilateral ceasefire

An end in sight, Ukraine hopes, for the years-long conflict — REUTERS
Sep 16, 2016 at 12:07 PM ET

A unilateral ceasefire by Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has raised hopes of a resolution to a conflict that has claimed over 9,500 lives and plunged ties between Moscow and Washington to their lowest level since the Cold War.

Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, the separatist stronghold in eastern Ukraine, announced his forces would cease fire from midnight on Wednesday.

Dressed in a suit rather than his customary camouflage, Zakharchenko said in an statement aired by Russian state television that separatist leaders were “fully committed” to the Minsk II agreements, the tattered roadmap for peace brokered by France and Germany in January 2015. He also warned, however, that separatists would not allow attacks by Ukrainian government forces to go “unpunished.” The leaders of the Luhansk People’s Republic, another self-proclaimed state, likewise declared they too would implement a ceasefire from Wednesday.

Previous ceasefires, including one announced to coincide with the start of the new Ukrainian school year earlier this month, have been shattered by what international observers say are violations by both sides.

However, this is the first time in the over two-year conflict that the Russian-backed separatist forces have unilaterally declared a ceasefire.

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Europe’s worst fighting for two decades began in Aril 2014, shortly after pro-Western protesters in Kiev had driven Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, from power. Stung by the loss of a strategic partner in what President Putin alleges was a Western-backed coup, Russia moved swiftly to support a nascent separatist movement in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. It also annexed Crimea from Ukraine, triggering Western economic sanctions and a rapid deterioration of ties between Moscow and Washington.

So what’s behind the eastern Ukraine separatists’ sudden desire for peace? After all, it’s not so long ago that Zakharchenko, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, threatened to march his forces on Kiev.

First, the ceasefire announcement came shortly after Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, said he expected parliament to vote “in the nearest future” on constitutional amendments that would grant autonomy for the separatist-held regions. Autonomy for the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic is one of the terms of the Minsk II agreements and Russia has been deeply critical of Ukraine’s failure to comply.

But there’s likely to be more than the promise of autonomy behind the separatists’ pledge to lay down their weapons. Russia desperately needs even small concessions to the crippling financial sector sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe, and the only way for that to happen is for it to implement the Minsk II accords.

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Western sanctions twinned with low global prices for oil have sent Russia’s economy into a tailspin, partially erasing advancements in living standards achieved during Putin’s long rule. Russian officials said recently that 23 million people – 16 percent of the population – are now living beneath a poverty line defined as an income of just $174 a month. Russia’s finance ministry also said last week that its national reserve fund, designed to cover shortfalls in the national budget, has shrunk by two-thirds since 2014, falling from $90 billion to just over $32 billion.

“It’s possible that the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic have lost the support of Moscow amid Russia’s economic problems,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center think tank, told Vocativ. “The Kremlin has other more pressing concerns right now.”

Kolesnikov said opinion polls indicate that previous sky-high support among ordinary Russians for the east Ukrainian separatists has dipped sharply in recent months.

“Putin’s wars in Ukraine and Syria are a drain on the economy at a time when we just can’t afford it,” said Dmitry Gudkov, the sole genuine opposition lawmaker in Russia’s parliament.

But while Russia’s cash-flow problems mean there may be some grounds for optimism in eastern Ukraine, veteran observers of the fratricidal conflict have seen their hopes for peace dashed before. In ominous news that broke just before the cease-fire announcement, Ukraine said three government troops were killed and 15 wounded. One was missing.

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“We have experienced long periods of standstill and when progress has been made, it has been in millimeters,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier ahead of the ceasefire and a trip to Kiev.

Others were even more pessimistic over the prospect of long-term peace, suggesting that neither Russia, nor the separatists intended the ceasefire to last.

“The separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk have shown they mostly break announced ceasefires, often within days,” Alex Kokcharov, a Ukraine and Russia analyst at the IHS Markit consulting firm, told Vocativ. “The latest announcement is clearly linked to the visits by foreign ministers of several EU countries to Ukraine. The separatists, most probably on Moscow’s orders, are trying to push the blame for the lack of Minsk II implementation on Kiev. The ultimate goal of Russia is to exclude the Ukrainian government from the negotiations process.”

For the long-suffering people of eastern Ukraine, real and substantial progress can’t come quick enough. Yet despite this week’s ceasefire, it will take something of a minor diplomatic miracle for the peace to hold.

“The best case scenario is an unstable frozen conflict,” said Kokcharov. “The line of contact is likely to become a de-facto border, with fighting and shelling along the line to continue.”

In the long-run, only Russia can realistically decide how and when peace comes to eastern Ukraine. Next move – Vladimir Putin.