Arrival of Humanitarian Convoy in Eastern Ukraine and Upcoming Poroshenko-Putin Meeting: Is a Real “Game-Changer” in the Offing?
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU
American Institute in Ukraine
Up to now, the Kiev administration under President Petro Poroshenko has placed all its eggs in the basket of achieving a short-term military victory over insurgents in Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts. That increasingly looks unlikely. Even western media has begun to notice a growing gulf between reality and the scattershot claims by “Anti-Terrorism Operation” spokesman Colonel Andriy Lysenko of the National Security and Defense Council. Whether unsubstantiated allegations of a Russian armored incursion (immediately destroyed by Kiev’s forces), of an anti-Kiev militia attack on refugees, or of Kiev’s capture of most of downtown Lugansk, the credibility of this new form of “Lysenkoism” is suffering, as are expectations of a “victory parade” through Kiev on August 24 Independence Day.
Arrival of the Russian “White Convoy” humanitarian aid trucks into the insurgent-controlled zone of fighting further complicates Kiev’s efforts. Implausibly dubbed by Kiev a “direct invasion” – despite excruciating delays while the Red Cross, Ukrainian officials, and world media verified beyond doubt that the almost 300 trucks contained nothing but relief goods – the convoy as of today is rolling into areas where civilian hardship from relentless shelling and bombing by Kiev forces is reaching catastrophic proportions. Finally, in light of Kiev’s obvious foot-dragging, the trucks moved across the border without a final green light from the Ukrainian side and without Red Cross personnel accompanying them. Kiev has responded with the implausible claim that insurgent forces would themselves attack the trucks (and how would they know that?) to “justify” a Russian invasion, which may or may not signal Kiev’s own intentions. Perhaps most worrisome for the Ukrainian side is the possibility that the very presence of the relief convoy could impose a de facto localized ceasefire, as well as dramatizing the suffering inflicted by Poroshenko’s offensive.
Meanwhile, the economic situation in Ukraine grows ever worse as the conflict in the east drags on. The hyrvnia has reached a new low (approaching 14 to the U.S. dollar), coal production (needed for electrical generation) centered in the conflict zone is collapsing (added to the increasing toll of the cutoff of Russian gas for nonpayment), and Economy Minister Pavlo Sheremeta has tendered his resignation in frustration of the slow pace of economic reforms (themselves problematic in terms of Kiev’s urgent plea for the International Monetary Fund to combine the third and fourth pending tranches of stand-by lending). The impact of sanctions on Europe’s agricultural sector, especially hard hitting in countries already in steep economic crisis like Spain and Greece, is deepening, adding to the pressure on Brussels and Berlin for a settlement.
Eyes increasingly are focused on a meeting scheduled for next week in Minsk, where Poroshenko will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The European Commission (but reportedly not the United States) will be represented, with energy and economic ties between the EU and the Moscow-led Customs Union on the agenda:
Asked by EurActiv what the Commission expected to achieve at the 26 August meeting in Minsk, Commission spokesperson Chantal Hughes said that Commission President José Manuel Barroso was unable to respond to the invitation of Russian President Putin to attend, but the EU executive would be represented by Vice President h Ashton, Vice-President Günther Oettinger, responsible for energy, and Commissioner for Trade Karel de Gucht.
“The purpose of the Commission is threefold […]: to discuss the implementation of the EU-Ukraine Association agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, to explain once again why we believe these agreements are positive for the region, secondly to explore the possibility of re-launching energy talks possibly in a trilateral format [EU-Ukraine-Russia] in September […] and finally to discuss the wider political security concerns and to reiterate the EU’s concern regarding the security and humanitarian situation in Eastern Ukraine”.
Asked why the meeting was at the invitation of the Russian President, although it took place in Belarus, she said this was a meeting of the Customs Union, and that the issue had been discussed and agreed with Ukrainian President Poroshenko.
As always, the wild card is the position of the United States. Some in the Washington establishment, such as the ever-bellicose Washington Post, insist that only a zero-sum military solution is acceptable, never mind the human cost (“On Ukraine, any bargain is a bad bargain,” August 21):
With so many innocent civilians caught up in lethal combat, it is tempting to look for a cease-fire or some kind of time out that would lead to a period of diplomatic negotiation. But what would a pause and diplomacy accomplish? Any negotiations that leave this blight festering in Ukraine must be avoided.
But in what some are taking as a signal that the establishment consensus is beginning to crack, Professor John J. Mearsheimer called in the authoritative Foreign Affairs for a compromise settlement in Ukraine that will be familiar to AIU readers (“Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” September/October issue):
There is a solution to the crisis in Ukraine, however — although it would require the West to think about the country in a fundamentally new way. The United States and its allies should abandon their plan to westernize Ukraine and instead aim to make it a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia, akin to Austria’s position during the Cold War. Western leaders should acknowledge that Ukraine matters so much to Putin that they cannot support an anti-Russian regime there. This would not mean that a future Ukrainian government would have to be pro-Russian or anti-NATO. On the contrary, the goal should be a sovereign Ukraine that falls in neither the Russian nor the Western camp.
To achieve this end, the United States and its allies should publicly rule out NATO’s expansion into both Georgia and Ukraine. The West should also help fashion an economic rescue plan for Ukraine funded jointly by the EU, the International Monetary Fund, Russia, and the United States — a proposal that Moscow should welcome, given its interest in having a prosperous and stable Ukraine on its western flank. And the West should considerably limit its social-engineering efforts inside Ukraine. It is time to put an end to Western support for another Orange Revolution. Nevertheless, U.S. and European leaders should encourage Ukraine to respect minority rights, especially the language rights of its Russian speakers.
Will the arrival of the “White Convoy” and next week’s Minsk meeting set the stage for a shift in western policy in the direction suggested by Dr. Mearsheimer, or will the Post’s “damn the torpedos” cruise to disaster continue to prevail? We shall soon find out.
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