Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

Russia stands firm in Ukraine as Minsk truce talks begin

Analysis: As leaders head to Belarus capital, the question remains – is Russia interested in changing tack in Ukraine?

An increase in violence between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed rebels has underscored the dim prospects for reaching a lasting cease-fire as French, German, Ukrainian and Russian leaders head to Minsk, Belarus, on Wednesday in a renewed push for peace talks.

While a cease-fire seems desirable to all sides in a conflict that has killed upward of 5,300 people since last April and displaced more than 1 million people, according to United Nations figures, finding terms that are acceptable to the parties involved is likely to be difficult — given the nearly impossible task of aligning Russian and Western strategic interests in Ukraine.

The September truce agreement, also brokered in the Belarusian capital, has been violated countless times by each side, most recently in particularly heavy fighting in the 48 hours leading up to the Minsk talks, which claimed the lives of at least 19 Kiev soldiers, along with an unknown number of rebel troops. Civilians have not been spared in the surge of violence, with the shelling of a bus shelter in Donetsk the latest incident of rockets hitting places where noncombatants gather.

But even as day-to-day violence has taken its toll on ordinary Ukrainians since September, little appears to have significantly shifted the calculus of external powers, suggesting any successes from the newest round of Minsk talks could prove elusive.

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin thinks that his core vital interests are at stake,” said John Mearsheimer, a professor of international relations at the University of Chicago. “Ukraine is a country that has great geostrategic importance for him. And he is going to pay an enormous price to keep NATO and to keep the EU out of that area.”

French President François Hollande said on Tuesday that the leaders were heading to the talks “with the strong will to succeed but without being sure that we will be able to do it.” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that simply holding the summit was no guarantee of success and that nothing has been resolved yet. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the talks are “one of the last” opportunities for ending the conflict peacefully.

The White House supports the latest German- and French-led Minsk efforts, but in a readout to a call President Barack Obama made to Putin on Tuesday, Obama said if the talks fail and “Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine, including by sending troops, weapons and financing to support the separatists, the costs for Russia will rise.”

Also on Tuesday, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev was quoted by Russian media as saying that “the Americans are trying to draw the Russian Federation into an international military conflict and, with the help of events in Ukraine, bring about regime change and ultimately to dismember our country.”

The U.S. — but not Germany or France — has publicly said it is considering providing weapons to Ukraine if truce talks derail again. Obama confirmed during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday that his administration had not ruled out sending Ukraine defensive weapons — a policy many in the administration and several former administration officials have supported.

The West says actions in Ukraine represent the most serious test to European security since the end of the Cold War in 1991 and that Russia has violated the terms of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, an agreement signed by Russia and the U.S. that, among other things, pledged both sides to respecting Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.

Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, U.S. and European officials have repeatedly accused Russian military forces of directly participating in the fighting, a charge Moscow denies. But Russia, while issuing denials, has acknowledged its strategic interest in Ukraine as a counter to purported efforts to pull Ukraine into the West’s orbit.

Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO, current leaders in Kiev have made overtures toward the alliance, unnerving Moscow, which believes NATO could expand into Eastern Europe again, as it did after the end of the Cold War.

Speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference on Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the U.S. and other Western powers of being hypocritical in objecting to Russian actions in Ukraine.

“The structure of stability [in the international community] … has long been undermined by actions of the Unites States and its allies in Yugoslavia, which was bombed, as well as in Iraq and Libya, NATO’s expansion to the east and the creation of new lines of separation,” he said.

As of now, Russia has shown no willingness to back down. Despite onerous Western sanctions levied against Moscow after it annexed Crimea in 2014, Putin’s political power has remained seemingly unchallenged domestically, and his calculus in Ukraine appears to be quite insulated from the economic misfortunes that have befallen Russia of late.

Permeating the deep skepticism ahead of the talks set for Wednesday, Russia announced on Tuesday the beginning of a monthlong military exercise of 2,000 troops on its side of the border with Ukraine.

“New military activity in eastern Ukraine now demonstrates that Russia is already escalating, with or without new U.S. arms for Ukraine,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, tweeted on Tuesday.

Whether Russia is liable to change course in Ukraine, even with an increase in pressure from the West, therefore remains decidedly uncertain.

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