Latest truce could halt fighting but freeze division in Ukraine

Analysis: Intense fighting day before cease-fire takes effect is a reminder that conflict in Ukraine is far from over

If war is the continuation of politics by other means, as Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz put it, then Ukraine’s cease-fire could be described as a continuation of war by other means.

After marathon talks in Minsk on Wednesday and Thursday to reach a second cease-fire deal in five months, heavy fighting between government forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine intensified on Friday, killing at least 25 people one day before the truce was set to take effect.

That fighting appeared to be an 11th hour push to create facts on the ground that would be codified in the subsequent truce — a reminder that the expected lull in hostilities will, at best, stanch the bleeding, not resolve Ukraine’s nearly year-long war.

“The Minsk truce will not end confrontation, but rather recognize it,” wrote Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, in The National Interest.

Under the Minsk II truce, combatants are required to immediately withdraw heavy weaponry to at least 30 miles from the front lines. Later, if the cease-fire holds, constitutional reforms are to be enacted that will give Ukrainians in the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk the autonomy from Kiev — a so-called “de-centralization” — that separatist leaders have demanded. 

If those steps are taken and local elections are held in the autonomous regions, Kiev will resume control of Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia by the end of 2015.

However, enforcing the cease-fire’s terms could prove difficult.

“The Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces may not settle for anything less than what they consider victory,” said Balazs Jarabik, a fellow at the Central European Policy Institute in Europe.

“For the separatists, this means acceptance of the statelets that they control, and the maintenance of clearly delineated political separation from Kiev,” said Jarabik. “The Ukrainians, on the other hand, cannot appear to be giving in to Russian military pressure in the east and Russian political pressure in Kiev.”

The latest cease-fire left in dispute the status of the strategically important city of Debaltseve, which separatists appeared to control on Friday after a sustained offensive to capture it from forces loyal to Kiev. The Associated Press reported that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin emerged from the Minsk talks on Thursday still disagreeing over which forces should hold the city under the truce.

“He is counting on time and endurance to bring the collapse and division of Ukraine and a revision of the post-cold war world order,” The Economist surmised of Putin’s broader strategy. 

Facts on the ground had lent credence to that argument long before the latest cease-fire talks: Notably absent from the negotiating agenda in Minsk was any discussion of the status of Crimea, the Ukrainian province annexed by Russia last year.

As pro-Russia rebels have moved their front lines steadily westward, putting a growing share of territory beyond the writ of Kiev, the issue of Crimea has largely taken a backseat. Russia insists that, based on a disputed referendum held in the territory in 2014 under its military presence, Crimea is no longer part of Ukraine.

Zeroing in on the more immediate crisis in the country's east, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has been heavily involved in setting the groundwork for diplomatic efforts, will monitor the implementation of the cease-fire that begins a minute after midnight on Saturday.

But this newest truce agreement is broadly similar to the failed one brokered last September — except that the separatists now control more territory. That agreement, also brokered in the Belarusian capital, was violated countless times by each side and seemed doomed almost from the start.

Whether this week’s cease-fire meets the same fate will soon be apparent.

For now, some take solace that, with the agreement, there is nonetheless a rare positive development.

“Even if this particular truce doesn't hold, it's clear there is a strong will to look for a lasting solution,” wrote Leonid Bershidsky, a columnist for Bloomberg View.

Trenin offered an even more resigned view: The truce, he said, “will not necessarily prevent further escalation, but might postpone it.”

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