The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine has made a mockery of the West’s latest attempts to negotiate a ceasefire but may ultimately pave the way for a more durable peace. It did not take long for the latest truce brokered by France and Germany and signed in the Belarussian capital Minsk last week, to look as impotent as previous deals. With barely a pause, pro-Russian rebels continued their assault on the key transport hub of Debaltseve, ultimately forcing the Ukrainian military into a humiliating retreat. “It was a classic case of good intentions paving the way to hell,” said Ievgen Vorobiov of the Polish Institute of International Affairs. “German Chancellor Angela Merkel saw the situation was deteriorating fast and the United States was talking about supplying arms and escalating the conflict, and felt she needed to act. But she didn’t have a plan B if the ceasefire failed, and she had nothing to enforce it- neither military power nor more sanctions.” The west has struggled to formulate a response to the continued fighting. Merkel and French President François Hollande emerged from a meeting in Paris on Friday offering nothing but further calls for the truce to be respected.
Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to deny he is directly backing the rebels, even as NATO remains adamant that his special forces, artillery and air defence units are still very much active in Ukraine. But some argue the battle for Debaltseve was inevitable, with the rebels clearly seeking more territory and resources to make a viable mini-state out of their fiefdom in the east. It also had symbolic importance, having been a key focus of military campaigns during the 19th and 20th centuries. France and Germany may have decided to accept the fall of Debaltseve as the price for peace said Jorg Forbrig of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank. “They are not naive. Perhaps, they think now this question is in a sense settled, it could contribute to a more durable ceasefire,” he said. The question is wether the rebels will now pressure other areas, notably the port city of Mariupol. But Balazs Jarabik, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the rebels may be reluctant to attack a million-strong city of mostly Russian speakers. “The more bloody the rebel advance, the more it proves right those who say Russia must be stopped,” said Jarabik. “Putin has already achieved his main goals- he’s taken Crimea, he has a frozen conflict in the east. Now he needs the fighting to stop so that the international pressure on him falls.” Russia has encouraged “frozen conflicts” elsewhere in its neighbourhood, for instance in Georgia and Moldova where it has fuelled separatist movements just enough to keep the countries unstable and make them unattractive partners for the West.
But even if the ceasefire holds, many see the deal heavily weighted in Russia’s favour. “It puts all the cards in rebel and Russian hands,” said Kadi Liik of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The first Minsk accord (signed in September) prepared the ground for a frozen conflict but the second has handed exactly the sort of leverage to Russia that it has been seeking.” She points to clauses that say Ukraine will only regain control of its border by the end of the year, and only after constitutional reforms that leaves Russia with a powerful say over affairs in the east. The other problem is wether Kiev, with its economy in free fall and it’s politicians at each others throats, is ready for the difficult political negotiations to come. “It’s more and more clear that the West isn’t able to mobilise the money that Ukraine needs, and that the government in Kiev can’t pull it’s act together,” said Jarabik. “This needs to be the focus now. If there’s no political progress, then there will be a return to fighting.” And then there is the wider geopolitical problem of wether Russia and the West can even patch up their differences after a year in which relations have dive-bombed. The problem, said Liik, is a basic difference in how they view the world: the West sees a rules-based system, Russia sees great powers defending their spheres of interest. “What the West wants is a profound change in Russia’s behaviour, and that will not be easy, particularly since the West’s track record has been chaotic and unimpressive,” she said.