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Ukraine, A Frozen Conflict

By Jonathan Power

It has been two years since a mass of demonstrators brought down the centrist government of President Viktor Yanukovych.

We don’t hear much about Ukraine these days, mainly because the foreign journalists, not having too much to do−and often being freelance and therefore only paid by the number of lines they get printed−have gone home or to other hot spots. Most of the news these days comes out of the Washington-based International Monetary Fund that repeatedly warns that the economy of Ukraine teeters on the brink, and that corruption remains so deep and widespread that it is difficult, to say the least, to get good economic decisions made. Often the government appears to be checkmated by an unsympathetic parliament where the representatives of the oligarchs, who prefer the status quo, wield power.

To compound the problems−which will surely continue even if Russia, the EU, and the U.S. find a common political and military solution−fighting in the east has now resumed. Fortunately, the main truce, agreed at Minsk a year ago by the heads of government of Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany is maintained and these short flare-ups tend to happen every couple of months.

Winding the clock back to two years ago, the demonstrators in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square, were motivated by the arguments over a trade agreement with the EU, then being negotiated. They were ardently for it, but the government had done a somersault under Russian pressure, and reoriented its trade policy towards the Moscow-sponsored Eurasian Economic Union. In truth, Ukraine could have had both−just as the U.K. has the EU and is negotiating the North Atlantic Free Trade Area. But the EU and the U.S. threw their weight behind the demonstrators and said Ukraine couldn’t face both ways.

After a few days, the demonstrations turned violent. Although the Western press was slow to catch on, they had been infiltrated by neo-fascists who fired first at the police and second at the more peaceful demonstrators. Some of the neo-fascists in the Svoboda and Right Sector parties, who trace their pedigree back to Nazi times, became snipers, firing from the 11th floor windows of the adjacent Hotel Ukraine. A BBC documentary aired footage of this.

Even though there is now the Minsk truce, these organizations are calling for a nationalist and anti-Russian revolution.

The implementation of the Minsk agreement is falling behind its timetable, despite the withdrawal of Ukrainian and Russian-supported insurgent forces last spring.

According to the Minsk agreement, a dialogue was supposed to start between Kiev and the rebels the day after the withdrawal to discuss the modalities of local elections in accordance with Ukrainian law. So far, Kiev has refused to talk.

Kiev was the first to violate the Minsk agreement. It has also dragged its feet on stipulation that a new constitution be created “with entry into force by the end of 2015.” The constitution is meant to incorporate decentralization. This will provide for “linguistic self-determination.” It is also meant to allow the participation of local governments in appointing the heads of prosecutorial bodies and the courts in certain areas. It will encourage the central government to conclude agreements with the authorities in Donbass on economic, social, and cultural development. It will allow the establishment of People’s Militia by local councils.

On the other side, Russia has still not handed over the control of the border to Kiev. Meanwhile, the U.S. has sent military equipment and trainers for Ukraine’s national guardsmen, many of whom were members of the neo-fascist volunteer battalions.

It is difficult for the Kiev government led by President Petro Poroshenko to move forward. According to Gordon Hahn, who has been a visiting scholar at Washington’s influential Center For Strategic and International Studies, “The paralysis in parliament is driven by the ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists which are robust and gaining strength under the stress of economic collapse, social dislocation, and state-supported radicalization.”

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front party and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party have suggested that any attempt to comply with the latter part of the Minsk accord could lead to an ultra-nationalist revolution.

The future for Ukraine looks like something between grim and grimmer. How long can a frozen conflict last? Perhaps as long as a piece of string?

The West wants to help Ukraine. On the other hand, it feels that it has already poured too much money down a rat hole. Not much new money is arriving. One would think that puts a lot of pressure on Kiev to conform to Minsk. It doesn’t seem to.

The West could do one very useful thing right now: say clearly and loudly that it doesn’t want Ukraine in NATO. That may help make the Russian bear a little more malleable and flexible. And that may help Kiev honor the Minsk agreement.

*****

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Jonathan Power is a former long-time foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune and author of Conundrums of Humanity: The Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Day.

[Photo courtesy of Day Donaldson]

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