Update on the crisis: Will Poroshenko’s peace plan work?

While the weeklong ceasefire announced by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko last week did not bring an end to fighting over the weekend, it appears that the level of violence has diminished and that the Ukrainian “anti-terrorist operation” has been put on hold. Ukrainian forces reportedly returned fire when attacked, but they stayed in place and ceased trying to dislodge the separatists from Slavyansk and other towns where their forces are concentrated. They also stopped trying to extend control of the border and cut the separatists off from supply lines into Russia. And today, it appears that at least some of the separatists have agreed to abide by a ceasefire until the end of the week (see below).

The narrative in Kyiv is that with a new president at the helm, the government is trying to find a peaceful solution to the crisis despite the Ukrainian military having made considerable progress against the separatists, particularly in securing most of the border. The ceasefire means the border will stay open enough to allow separatist fighters to seek safe haven in Russia if they so choose (albeit without their heavy weapons). Kyiv is at the same time trying to secure Moscow’s cooperation in de-escalating the crisis, and Poroshenko has responded to anti-Maidan sentiments in Donetsk and Luhansk by promising to respect the language rights of all minorities, including of course Russians, and to undertake a measured decentralization of Ukraine’s unitary state (so decentralization in the form of elections for local councils and greater control of tax revenues and spending, not formal “federalization,” let alone the kind of federalization that Moscow has been advocating). And finally, Kyiv has agreed to enter into discussions with separatists, which reportedly began earlier today (see below). However, Poroshenko has also referred to a “Plan B” if the peace plan fails, the implication being that if the separatists refuse to put down their arms, the military will press ahead with its offensive, fully sealing the border and defeating the resistance decisively on the battlefield.

That strikes me as a rather sanguine take on the situation. As I wrote in my last post, there was convincing evidence on Friday that the Russian border was still very much open and that at least one large armored column, much larger than anything else I have seen on the side of the separatists, had crossed over into Ukraine and appeared to be headed toward Slavyansk. (Interestingly, I have come across nothing on the web that indicates just where that column ended up.) It also appeared that the Russian military was once again moving forces toward the border, even as Moscow prepared the ground politically for a “humanitarian intervention” in the east. All this came against a backdrop of Putin ordering the snap mobilization of some 65,000 Russian troops in the country’s Central Military District over the weekend.

At the least, all this suggests to me that if the ceasefire breaks down, there will be no quick military victory for Kyiv.

Nevertheless, the good news is that so far there has been no unilateral “humanitarian intervention” by Moscow (so a false alarm on Friday). And there has also been some good news for Kyiv on the political front. Poroshenko announced today that a former Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, who is from the east and is an acceptable figure to Moscow, will represent Kyiv in a trilateral “contact group” that has been charged with implementing his peace plan. Kuchma, along with the two other members of the contact group, the OSCE’s Special Envoy to the crisis, Hedi Tagliavini, and the Russian ambassador to Kyiv, Mikhail Zubarov, have apparently already traveled to Donetsk and met with Aleksandr Borodai, the DPR’s “prime minister,” along with one or more representatives of the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). After the meeting, Borodai was quoted as stating: “The consultation ended with authorities of the Luhansk and Donetsk Republics agreeing to maintain a ceasefire for their part … until the 27th.” Borodai also promised that the DPR and LPR would seek the release of the OSCE observers who have been held by some unknown groups of separatists for most of the past month. Meanwhile, Moscow has been less critical of the peace plan today than over the weekend. Perhaps most encouraging was a statement by a spokesperson for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council that there had been no attacks on Ukrainian forces from 9 am to 5 pm today.

While these developments are heartening, and there is at least a chance that they could lead to a lasting political settlement, I remain quite skeptical. Poroshenko is already under political pressure in Kyiv from those who think the ATO should continue full bore, and he will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to defend an agreement with someone like Borodai, who is Russian citizen, has been a member of a Russian far-right organization, and has never been elected to any office. Nor can Poroshenko agree to anything that falls short of a restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty in the east and the full applicability of the Ukrainian constitution, revised or otherwise, in the region, something that many if not most of the armed separatists will find unacceptable. Most importantly, I do not believe that Moscow will accept an outcome that leads to a restoration of Kyiv’s writ in the east.

Indeed, my take continues to be that the program minimum for Moscow is a “Transnistria Solution” for the Donbas – that is, the establishment of a breakaway region, preferably one with a Russian “peacekeeping force” in place, that blocks a restoration of Kyiv’s sovereignty in the region, is more-or-less controlled by the Kremlin, keeps Ukraine out of NATO, and facilitates Moscow’s efforts to apply constant pressure on Kyiv to return to the fold, so to speak. And Moscow may well get its way, which will be the topic of my next post.