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Ukraine's Catch-22

Is there any real way out of this terrible mess?

Yury Nickulichev is a professor at the Russian Academy for National Economy and Civil Service

Those who like Stephen Leacock’s wonderful stories may remember one of his characters, a certain Lord Ronald, who on one occasion “flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.” It’s exactly this type of restless motion that comes to mind when you think about what’s cooking in our public debate over the situation in Ukraine, with the “collective wisdom” of various media and official policies also riding madly off in all possible and impossible directions.

To a degree, this is understandable and even excusable, for the Ukrainian crisis is wrought up in the midst of the most acute domestic and international contradictions. Those are just too many! To indicate just a few: it’s Kiev cyclically holding gas talks with an “aggressor state;” it’s the government boosting its military expenditures in a pre-default economic situation; it’s the society with a predominantly Russian-speaking population ostensibly hating “the Russians” (while in Central Ukraine, say, well over 70 per cent speak Russian); it’s the Ukraine’s parliament regularly discussing a special status and self-government of the “terrorist organizations” (i.e. republics) of the Donbass; it’s the “separatists” with nowhere to go seceding; it’s the ongoing military hostilities after the cease-fire Minsk 1.0 and Minsk 2.0 agreements; it’s the IMF generously lending billions which will kill Ukraine in a couple of years’ time; it’s the EU with their reluctance even to ease visa regulations for Ukrainians even slightly (“But, bro, what did we fight for on Maidan a year back?”); and it’s the world governments claiming to be Ukraine’s dearest friends, God bless them, but showing no inclination to give help to the country out of their own pockets, etcetera, etcetera.

And here comes the cardinal question: Is there any real way out of this terrible mess? I mean real. Practically possible. Effective. For if we push various false quick fixes, the situation will only become more aggravating. Of course, to quote H.L. Mencken, there is always a well-known solution to every human problem”, (but he continued) – “neat, plausible, and wrong”. More often than not, the “cure-all” prescriptions of this kind eventually prove to be wrong if we anticipate that the way out of trouble is somewhere very close, within sight and reach, almost at hand. “Suffice it to…”, but time’s been wasted, nothing’s really changed and, look, how come now things are so much worse than they used to be?

To me, much more realistic and eventually even more practical approach would be, first of all, to acknowledge that, under the current conditions and with today’s political actors and outside players, the Ukrainian crisis has no solution whatsoever. It’s those general preconditions and premises that must first undergo some fairly serious changes before there’s a glimpse of light in the long, long, long Ukraine’s tunnel (if only this is not a freight train coming at us, of course).

One would say these are too pessimistic and grossly exaggerated judgments. Well…

First thing's first, (and leaving aside “everything that’s economy”) there’s a civil war going on in the country. This terrible feud, sure enough, is not a proverbial elephant in the living room who everybody fails to observe, but do we grasp the real size and instincts of the animal? The war has now come to an absolute deadlock. As of writing, both Kiev and the Donbass can neither win nor lose it (the latter, among other things, for fear of consequences). The situation is perfectly frozen, with the sides becoming more mutually hostile than ever before. Is there any chance for reconciliation? Very bleak, almost non-existent! Consider that even after the Minsk-2 agreements, what’s been done (if, in fact, done in earnest) was the withdrawal of heavy artillery only, with hostilities never interrupted for a one single day. Are those people ready for a compromise? Add to this that they keep amassing their weapons and make no secret that they are ready and willing to fight again. By the looks of it, it’s only a question of time before heavy fighting resumes.

Now, what’s been done to wind it all down? Here’s a cursory overview of the so called Minsk process.

Minsk 1.0: (August-September 2014). To start off, some several weeks ahead of the Minsk meeting, President Poroshenko unveiled a “peace plan” consisting of 15 points. One of them was laconically expressed in a single word, “Disarmament”, (leaving people wondering if he was going to begin with dismantling his own troops or if it was only the Donbass insurgents’ battalions that were to be disarmed); the other points called for reform and decentralization of executive powers in the country to locally elected executive communities. The ink still wet, in August 2014 Kiev launched a large-scale offensive in the Donbass, only to suffer a catastrophic defeat at the end of the month. Experts agree that this appalling military setback (the “Ilovaisk massacre”) was a principal part of what made Poroshenko go to Minsk for an immediate cease-fire. On September 5, it came into effect.

In the meantime, after days of talks in Minsk, the OSCE unveiled a roadmap behind the truce. It said, among other things, that Kiev must “continue the inclusive national dialogue” and provide for decentralization of power through adoption of a special law, “On Temporary Order of Local Self-Governments in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts”.

An inclusive national dialogue of sorts commenced right away, for the cease-fire agreement did not survive even as little as a night. As time went by, no heavy weapons were withdrawn; nobody retreated to the agreed boundary line, while the law on the Donbass’s special status was eventually rescinded. (But, courtesy of Rudyard Kipling, “you must particularly remember the suspenders, Best Beloved”, by which I mean the recurrent decentralization talk at various dramatic moments of the war in the Donbass).

You will not forget the suspenders, Best Beloved, will you?” Then off to Minsk 2.0.

Minsk 2.0: (February, 11, 2015). This was an almost virtual deja-vu of Minsk 1.0, except for the fact that now it was a summit and a strange marathon of very intensive talks. Other than that, the Minsk 2.0 situation, in essence and in terms of negotiated points, so closely resembled Minsk 1.0 that… well, sometimes it did look like a piratic edition of the September 2014 ceasefire, did it not? Again, running parallel with the talks, there was an impending doom of the government troops, now in a critical area of Debaltseve, the precise reason, one might believe, the European leaders rushed to Minsk; there had to be, again, an immediate and full cease-fire as well as pull-out of all heavy weaponry by both sides; finally (“you have not forgotten the suspenders, Best Beloved?") a special point in the agreement stipulated for decentralization of power “in accordance with the Law of Ukraine “On Temporary Order of Local Self-Governance in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts””.

Good point, but, on March 17, the Ukrainian parliament, debating this very law, derailed it all, postponing the introduction of the new status for the Donbass until Donetsk and Luhansk regions hold elections under Ukrainian laws. In the meantime, they are to be “temporary occupied territories,” with this status remaining until Kiev fully restores its control in the region. Predictably, what it means is an atrocious bloodbath down the road, a mass “invitation to a beheading” for the citizens of the Donbass. As of now, there’s a demarcation line between the warring parties, but what of tomorrow? Will the new arrangement provide the local population with the necessary security and safety guarantees? And exactly how, for God’s sake? We wouldn’t expect the government troops and volunteer battalions start marching to Donetsk or Luhansk, flowers and boxes of President Poroshenko’s chocolates “made in Lipetsk, the Russian Federation” in their hands, to congratulate the local population on the forthcoming elections, while the latter to be welcoming them with the traditional “bread and salt”, songs and dances. And would the insurgents’ battalions join the happy crowd?

To sum up, diplomacy is just not working. Politicians and diplomats have, of course, to do their work and look for political solutions to the crisis. But currently there’s a vicious circle or a Catch-22 situation here. In it, political actors of sorts keep pushing their initiatives and projects as to how to de-escalate the war in Ukraine, but none of those can be put into practice precisely because the war itself escalates (or remains hopelessly frozen). Theoretically speaking, one of the warring parties must prevail before it all clears up, but, at this juncture can we know which of the two?

In the meantime, the Ukrainian “war and peace” machinery just goes and goes in circles. Ilovaysk – Minsk 1.0, Debaltseve – Minsk 2.0…

However, there was a new splash in the last couple of weeks, when, all of a sudden, Kiev appealed to UN and EU about peacekeeping missions for deployment in Eastern Ukraine. I say isn’t it the same Catch 22 kettle of fish in its most classic manifestation? By default and long-established UN practice, the peacekeepers are the guys who are here to keep peace, correct? They monitor peace processes and assist ex-combatants in implementing peace agreements. It’s therefore peace that comes first. Just imagine for a second that such a mission (of how many blue berets?) has been deployed (exactly in which locations?) in the areas torn by war. Gosh, but they are shooting like hell there!

Now, “you have not forgotten the suspenders, Best Beloved?” Good, because the Ukrainian government has now signaled its readiness to hold a referendum on federalization of the country. What a surprise.

<figcaption>How can peace return to Ukraine?</figcaption>
How can peace return to Ukraine?


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