This article originally appeared at in Daily Times
According to BBC World in a broadcast yesterday morning, its considered opinion is that the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed rebels are battling US-backed Ukrainian forces, is working. There are still too many skirmishes, too many guns and mortars being fired but the big guns are largely silent. President Vladimir Putin said the other day that both sides have been guilty of transgressing the ceasefire.
Both the Russians on one side and the US and NATO on the other have been playing with fire with their support of the two sides. Who suffers? The ordinary inhabitants of the eastern provinces. However pro-Russian they were before all the fighting began they are now largely convinced the rebels killing in their name no longer represent them. The businesses they work for or own are working at half power or less. Unemployment has soared, homes have been decimated, pensions are unpaid and hospitals are finding it increasingly hard, struggling to deal with extra patients and a curtailed drug supply.
In Moscow, among thinking people, it has become clear that Russia should have no interest in taking over large swathes of Ukrainian territory, which would be just an economic albatross around its neck. Putin is said to think like that, although he might be glad if the rebels, including a good number of Russian soldiers, captured the port city of Mariupol, making it easier for Russia to integrate Crimea.
We now wait anxiously until the end of the year. The agreement made in Minsk in February by German Chancellor Angel Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and President Putin determined that the separatists do not have to hand control of 450 km of the Ukrainian-Russian border back to the central Ukrainian government until the end of the year. That step was made conditional on Ukraine devolving powers to its regions and passing a law granting “special status” to the eastern areas. The regions will be allowed to create their own police forces and appoint prosecutors and judges.
Telling the rebels to lay down their arms will not be as easy for Putin as western observers often suggest. On one occasion, Putin confessed that only 30 percent of his decisions get implemented. If one reads The Russia Hand by Strobe Talbott, President Bill Clinton’s chief of Russian affairs, there are innumerable examples during the time of President Boris Yeltsin when senior members of the bureaucracy, including the top ranks of the military, simply went their own way until Clinton and Talbott drew attention to what they were doing and Yeltsin angrily told them, in front of Clinton, to carry out his decisions and orders.
In Moscow, at the end of last year, one well-informed observer, close to Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev, told me how to get the rebels to quit was “the million dollar question”. They have their own impetus, their own agenda and are not easy to control. It does not make the problem easier when the top commander of NATO alleges that Russia has invaded Ukraine. It took the chief of the French military intelligence service to knock that untruth on the head.
The Ukrainian government also stirs the pot. It is still not above board about the sanctity of Russian language rights. Last week, the Ukrainian parliament banned Soviet-era World War II veterans from parading at the weekend with hammer and sickle banners. The government still talks loudly about the western promise made at the time of the Georgian War in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia would be welcome into NATO in due course. Today NATO members, not least the US, do not make it crystal clear that this is not going to happen in the foreseeable future.
Even such Cold War warriors as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski argue that President Barack Obama should speak with clarity on this subject. “Ukraine should not join NATO,” says Kissinger. It was the expansion of NATO into the former eastern bloc states, eventually right up to the Russian border, that provoked Russian public opinion to become so anti-US (although there was a degree of Russian government acceptance during the good-will days of presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush).
It was Clinton and Talbott who initiated this policy, despite 95 percent of Russian experts from the US’s top universities telling them that the expansion of NATO was neither needed nor desirable. George Kennan, the US’s revered elder statesman on Russian affairs, warned that it would be the beginning of a new Cold War.
“There was no reason for this. Nobody was threatening anybody else. Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history that removed the Soviet regime.”
It is time overdue for Obama to change the government’s counterproductive Ukraine policies. Only that will truly end the war.
The writer has been a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune for 20 years and author of the much acclaimed new book, Conundrums of Humanity — the Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Age.