Is Ukraine being thrown off the bus? Not really, but France and Germany are right

Hollande-Merkel-PoroshenkoPoroshenko was in bullish form at the UN General Assembly but was apparently very worried about the Putin-Obama handshake, worrying that Washington would make some deal over Syria at Ukraine’s expense. Perhaps he should have been looking at Europe, instead. The ever-perceptive Leonid Bershidsky has an interesting piece in Bloomberg where he suggests that France and Germany have in effect told Ukrainian President Poroshenko that he has to make peace with the separatists, through pushing through a new election law for the Donbas and an amnesty for separatist leaders to allow them to contest the vote:

The way Merkel and Hollande see it, Poroshenko should be interested in working to reintegrate the rebel-held areas into Ukraine, which would mean contesting the election and, in case of an almost certain defeat, working with the winners. That’s the European way of doing things; trying to enlist outside support to defeat the separatists is not, especially when Europe has plenty of problems of its own.

Inevitably, Kiev’s partisans will see this as a betrayal and playing into Putin’s hands, as the new plan puts the onus on Poroshenko to get the law through his recalcitrant legislature. In the process, what seemed almost certain – that at year’s end, while Kiev comes into for some criticism, Moscow and the Donbas rebels get the lion’s share of the blame for the (inevitable) failure of Minsk-2 – now looks much less clear. After all, the burden is on Poroshenko and Minsk-2 implicitly just history.

If the conflict is viewed primarily in moral terms, in not allowing an aggressor to get away with intruding into a neighbour’s sovereignty, then fair enough. However, while Kiev has a right to reimpose its authority over a rebellious/occupied region, it is not the EU’s job to encourage a conflict that, frankly, shows no sign of ending soon. In those circumstances, surely the humanitarian option but also the pragmatic option is to try and end the war as soon as possible, which means a political settlement. Realistically, this means a Donbas which is going, at least for one political generation, to be dominated by local oligarchs and the remnants of local strongmen. However, regaining control of the border and the Donbas are a pre-requisite for any serious nation-rebuilding – and also allowing the displaced population to return home. This displaced population, after all, will probably be the best allies of Kiev there in the future.

As Bershidsky notes, Kiev has failed to win friends through relying largely on playing the victim: “Poroshenko can count on meaningful support only if he shows a commitment to do difficult things that would bring Ukraine closer to Western governance models: Achieve tough political compromises and implement painful reforms. So far, the Ukrainian president hasn’t delivered on either front.” Kiev at present doesn’t look likely either to be strong and determined enough to reconquer the Donbas any day soon, nor willing and able to reform adequately at home. When does political and humanitarian support simply become enabling a government to avoid painful but necessary measures?

This may look like a cynical Franco-German ploy to make life easier for Europe. But actually I would suggest that the best, most honest measures are often ruthlessly to recognize facts on the ground and act accordingly. The discussion as to whether time was on Moscow’s or Kiev’s side ignores one basic point: not Ukraine, not Russia, let alone the people of the Donbas, were “winning” and after a certain point such talk becomes meaningless. Even under probably-hokey new election laws, the Donbas will neither become a Muscovite puppet, nor an outlier in Ukrainian politics. Local elites in the future – as now – will be thoroughly self-interested, and only entertain Moscow’s blandishments when it is in their interests, which is as it has always been. Ukrainian politics remains corrupt, oligarch-dominated, and the Donbas will be no different.

But let me re-emphasize that reuniting the country, regaining control of the border, ending the fighting, getting Russian troops and auxiliaries out of the Donbas and re-establishing unitary government are all preconditions for real progress. Unless Kiev is willing simply to eject Donbas from Ukraine, and there is no evidence that it is, then the sooner it can regain it, by whatever means, the better.

Washington’s drip-feeding of weapons and support avoids tough decisions but is enough to keep the government fighting but not enough to win the war, let alone win the peace at home. France and Germany, by contrast, are not happy to facilitate this messy and unstable status quo, but feel that it is better to force some kind of resolution, however imperfect.

It lacks heroic appeal, feels shabby and almost appeasing, but I would suggest it actually combines realism with courage.

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  1. I live here and the fact that Ukraine is refusing to clean up its act domestically is starting to try everyone’s patience. They pay lip service only to anti-corruption. The PM is possibly the leader of the obstructionists. They need to chuck Donbas out of the country and put as many of the corrupt oligarchs and bureaucrats in jail as they have room for. But they won’t. In 10 years we’ll either have a strong nationalist government, authoritarian and just as corrupt, or we will be back under Putin. I am glad I am getting old

  2. Mark, your analysis is faulty in one key respect: Putin is bent on destroying Ukraine. Thus any concessions to him will turn against Ukraine either now or later. This is one reason out of many why Ukraine simply should not “give up” the 40% of the Donbas region which Russia currently occupies.

  3. Mark, I largely agree with your analysis: this is the best way to start ending the conflict. A very important prerequisite will be to get the Russian military actually out of Ukraine, of course (that is, even “peacekeepers” that Russia surely wouldn’t mind deploying). I am not sure if Putin is ready to sell that back home, but it will certainly be easier with sanctions withdrawn.

    Yet, to me it still seems that Germany and France have not figured out what is supposed to happen two steps ahead. What about Crimea and the sanctions related to the annexation? What happens to Ukraine’s European ambitions with an autonomous Donbas? Will the FTA with the European Union be implemented? Who will bear the cost of the Donbas’s reconstruction? And if Ukraine thus loses the chance to integrate with the EU and thus the incentives to reform, will that not lead to another Maidan?

    Don’t get me wrong – I agree with you about the indefensibility of the status quo, but in general I don’t like proposals that raise more questions than answers.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  October 10, 2015

      Thanks for the thoughtful response, András. I agree that there are many obstacles ahead, but overall peace is a prerequisite for sorting any of it out. And especially now Russia is also in Syria in force, my suspicion is that part of a wider deal will prove to be a de facto (of not de jure) recognition of Crimea’s transfer to Moscow’s control.

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