Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Luke Coffey: One can assume Russia loves frozen conflicts like Debaltseve

Time to acknowledge that the Ukraine ceasefire is dead

Ceasefire was destined to fail because there is so little trust between the warring parties.

24 Feb 2015 Russia-backed separatists search a road littered with destroyed Ukrainian army vehicles outside

Debaltseve, Ukraine [AP]
Luke Coffey

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.

He Offers This Propaganda in Al-Jazzera

Before the ink was even dry on the so-called Minsk II ceasefire agreement, Russian-backed separatists were attacking, killing, and wounding Ukrainian soldiers defending Debaltseve.

Debaltseve is an important town that serves as a key transport hub between Luhansk and Donetsk. Whoever controls it, also controls the Donbas region. In recent weeks the town has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, in the same way that Donetsk airport once was.

Even though the town has been the scene of bloody fighting during the days leading up to the peace negotiations, the ceasefire agreement did not mention Debaltseve at all. This glaring omission was interpreted in different ways by different people. The Ukrainians thought the ceasefire included all of the contested areas in Luhansk and Donetsk, especially Debaltseve. The Russian-backed separatists believed that Debaltseve must have been exempted from the ceasefire agreement because it was not specifically mentioned.

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After days of bloody fighting, Debaltseve was finally captured by the separatists. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that Ukrainian military units defending Debaltseve were withdrawn in an "orderly and pre-planned manner" - or in other words they retreated.

Doomed from the beginning

One can assume that Debaltseve (and the Russian occupied Crimea Peninsula) was ignored in the ceasefire agreement because consensus could not be found on how it was to be addressed. Do not forget, the ceasefire was agreed after a marathon 18-hour session. French and German mediators were so hell-bent on getting a peace deal - any peace deal - to thwart the US drive to arm the Ukrainians that they were willing to ignore some of the more contentious issues like Debaltseve and Crimea. Kiev is now suffering dearly from this lazy and rushed approach to "peacemaking".

So far the ceasefire appears to be benefiting everyone but the Ukrainians. Since the agreement went into effect last week dozens of Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and hundreds more have been wounded. The grad missiles continue to fly and Russian T-72BM tanks continue to roll. According to reports, the separatists violated the agreement 139 times in the first 24 hours alone - almost once every 10 minutes.

The deadline to remove "heavy weapons" - itself a terribly vague term - has come and gone with no action by either side. This provision in the ceasefire agreement was destined to fail because there is so little trust between the warring parties. Many prisoners who were supposed to be swapped under the agreement are still detained. Terms like "line of contact" and "security zones" are used throughout the ceasefire agreement; these are terms used to describe frozen conflicts, not terms to describe conflict resolution.

Whether it is in Georgia, Azerbaijan or eastern Ukraine, it is in Russia's interests to keep these conflicts frozen. Russia derives much of its regional influence through these frozen conflicts.

This ceasefire agreement has stalled the drive by some in the US to arm the Ukrainians. The agreement has also created a false sense of security in Kiev which has allowed the separatists to take the offensive against the Ukrainian military. As long as the separatists keep attaining victories, Vladimir Putin will continue to support them. This week it was Debaltseve. Next week it will be Mariupol.

Russia loves frozen conflicts

Moscow's abysmal track record at implementing ceasefires and peace deals means that nobody should expect that Russia will not use its influence to tame the separatists in eastern Ukraine. Six-and-a-half years later Russia is still in violation of the 2008 peace agreement signed to end the war against Georgia. Russia still has its troops based in areas where they are not supposed to be and Moscow still prevents international observers from crossing into South Ossetia and Abkhazia even though they patrol freely in the rest of Georgia.

Or look at Russia's involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Even though Russia, along with the US and France, form part of the so-called Minsk Group - created to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict - Moscow still remains the biggest weapons supplier to Armenia and Azerbaijan. How Russia is supposed to broker peace while selling billions of dollars in high-end weaponry is anyone's guess.

Whether it is in Georgia, Azerbaijan or eastern Ukraine, it is in Russia's interests to keep these conflicts frozen. Russia derives much of its regional influence through these frozen conflicts. Bringing these conflicts to a peaceful conclusion would only decrease Russia's influence in the region.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine is a reminder that implementing the ceasefire agreement is often far more difficult than signing a ceasefire agreement.

Ceasefires are messy, and it is wishful thinking to believe that local commanders on the ground would not interrupt the agreed text in a way that best suits their particular local situation. However, the scale of the fighting witnessed within hours and days of the agreement going into force has proven that Minsk II is dead and that Russia has no desire but to escalate the violence.

Russia knows that a Ukraine in perpetual conflict will be a Ukraine that never joins the Euro-Atlantic community. This is Russia's ultimate goal and Moscow will do whatever it takes to make it happen.

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