[Ed. – See UPDATE at bottom of text.]
As our LU Staff noted earlier, a “power” negotiating group was hard at work in Minsk, Belarus last night trying to put together some kind of deal to stop the fighting in Ukraine. Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, and Vladimir Putin were on hand to “help” Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, decide to accept a ceasefire that (a) doesn’t go into effect until the 15th, and (b) settles nothing.
This is what passes for a “deal” in these uncertain times. The Guardian summarizes the main points of the “agreement” (it’s hard to find a word that doesn’t require scare quotes), as of a few hours ago, or early evening in Minsk:
- Ceasefire to begin at 00.00am local time on 15 February
- Heavy weapons withdrawn in a two week period starting from 17 February
- Amnesty for prisoners involved in fighting
- Withdrawal of all foreign militias from Ukrainian territory and the disarmament of all illegal groups
- Lifting of restrictions in rebel areas of Ukraine
- Decentralisation for rebel regions by the end of 2015
- Ukrainian control of the border with Russia by the end of 2015
- The participants also agreed to attend regular meetings to ensure the fulfilment of the agreements, a Russian-distributed document said.
The only element of this agreement that doesn’t require further definition is the ceasefire. Basically, each one is vague enough to drive an 18-wheeler through, starting with the “withdrawal of heavy weapons.” What are heavy weapons, withdraw them to where, what is the effect intended – the list of essential questions goes on. There is no evidence that such specifics have been agreed on.
Which means this is basically an unenforceable agreement, as it now appears to stand. It looks to me like the northern Europeans were extremely anxious to just get something, anything, on paper: to kick the can down the road in a way that would preempt America’s interest in arming Ukraine to protect her territory. Last week, Merkel and Hollande were warning that the American proposal was a bad idea.
Quite probably, this was because Putin, with whom they had just met in Moscow, was threatening them – perhaps with unspecified “action” in the Baltic Republics, perhaps with a gas- and other trade-war that the shaky euro wouldn’t handle well right now.
Greece, newly energized under a heedless radical-left government, is about to provoke a showdown with the EU over Greek debt, unless Merkel and Hollande can somehow stick their fingers in that dike as well. And Greece, of course, is threatening to turn to Russia for solace – economic, political, no doubt ultimately geostrategic – if the EU won’t play ball.
The task Merkel and Hollande had in Minsk was to keep everything on a string for a while longer, rather than seeing it all break down. Putin could be an ally or a foe in that, depending on how much latitude Germany and France were willing to leave him with in Ukraine.
So – nothing being settled in Minsk, but the pretense of an agreement being trumpeted – they’ve left him with what we in the business refer to, technically, as a buttload of latitude.
I’m with Jason Karaian at Quartz: although the ceasefire is to start on a date certain, the date is (at this point) 48 hours away. That’s a lot of time for the “rebels” to seize more territory, and Russia to seek to rearrange further the conditions that will be considered the “status quo” for future negotiations. Then, of course, there’s the weeks after the ceasefire, when Ukraine can be pressured for some period into continuing to observe it — a nice convenience for the Russian-backed rebels.
And there will have to be future negotiations, since nothing is settled. There’s no path outlined to any of the points included in the “terms to be named later” agreement. It’s about as lame as it’s possible for a ceasefire to be, reminiscent of the inevitable series of thigh-slappers that attend any conflict between Hamas and Israel.
Lest we make too much fun of Merkel and Hollande, recall that the United States under Obama is the worst ally we have ever been. We need not think better of Merkel or Hollande than they merit, to recognize that they are justified in seeing Obama’s intervention as a prospect carrying more uncertainty than Putin’s threats. It’s quite possible that Obama would actively make things worse with any meaningful attempt to bolster Poroshenko and the government in Kiev.
The news media aren’t going to start getting this right for some time. They swim in the same intellectual and political environment as the West’s leaders, and they will continue to swallow whole the narrative presented to them about “agreements,” until enough of them see with their own eyes that it’s basically just false. As long as the facts on the ground are developing somewhere distant – somewhere they don’t have “eyes on” – they can keep giving these counter-narrative realities a lick and a promise.
** UPDATE ** Well, what do you know. Reuters reports that Russian tanks, APCs, and missile systems rolled into Ukraine during the talks in Minsk. Via Business Insider:
About 50 tanks, 40 missile systems, and 40 armored vehicles crossed overnight into eastern Ukraine from Russia via the Izvaryne border crossing into the separatist Luhansk region, a Kiev military spokesman said on Thursday.
Armored columns of Russian-speaking soldiers without insignias have advanced around Debaltseve, which has seen heavy fighting recently. …
He said the tanks and other military hardware had crossed the border “despite statements by Russian officials about the absence of Russian military equipment and forces on Ukrainian territory.”
Raise your hand if you still think the talks in Minsk were actually about sponsoring a peaceful settlement in Ukraine.