The conflict in Ukraine took some dramatic turns this month that led many observers to conclude that the Kremlin was succeeding in its effort to keep Ukraine under Russia’s thumb, with the collusion of a spineless West. Actually, while Russia has wrested some concessions, the handwringing is largely unwarranted—so far. But much depends on the West’s willingness to continue applying pressure to Russia and offer meaningful aid to Ukraine. And, even in the best-case scenario, a “frozen conflict” zone in eastern Ukraine is a likely and troubling outcome.
In the final days of August, when Ukrainian forces seemed close to routing the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, their successful push against the insurgency was abruptly and brutally reversed; all available evidence indicates that, despite Moscow’s implausible denials, the counter-offensive was led by invading Russian troops. With Ukrainian fighters demoralized and reeling from their sudden losses, President Petro Poroshenko agreed to ceasefire talks. On September 5, representatives of Ukraine, Russia, and the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk signed an agreement that suspended Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation” and at least temporarily left pro-Russian separatists in control of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Then, on September 12, came the news that key parts of Ukraine’s about-to-be-ratified comprehensive trade agreement with the European Union would not take effect until the start of 2016, in consideration of Russia’s economic interests. This is, of course, the same agreement that former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych backed out of in late 2013 because of Kremlin pressure and bribery—a move that sparked the “Euromaidan” protests and sealed his political fate. Does the delay mean that Vladimir Putin has won and the revolution has lost?
Some believe so. A Time column by the magazine’s Moscow correspondent, Simon Shuster, was titled “How Putin Got His Way In Ukraine.” Shuster—whose Time cover story in late July portrayed Putin as having a near-supernatural ability to win and grow more formidable with each crisis—argues that the compromise made in Brussels gives the Russian strongman exactly what he wanted in the first place: a say over Ukraine’s relationship with Europe. This theme is echoed by European commentators such as Deutsche Welle’s Bernd Johann, who wrote, “The EU has bowed to pressure from Moscow. Ukraine can evidently become European only with the consent of Russia.”
Many Ukrainians share these concerns; deputy foreign minister Danylo Lubkivsky resigned in protest against the trade deal postponement, saying it sent “the wrong signal” both to the Russian aggressor and the citizens of Ukraine. The symbolism was reinforced when Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, approved the agreement with the EU on the same day that it passed the law on the “special order of self-government” in the rebel-held parts of eastern Ukraine.
In a blog post on the Ukrainska Pravda website, Poroshenko adviser Yuri Lutsenko urged his compatriots to “stop the cries of ‘all is lost.’ ” Lutsenko pointed out that the law applies only to parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and only for a three-year period—a far cry from Putin’s expansionist intent—and argued that the truce would give Ukraine a chance to recover from hostilities and shore up its military.
To some extent, this is spin control. But some independent Russian commentators critical of the Kremlin also believe Ukraine is gaining, not losing, from the Minsk agreement, whose terms are largely identical to the ones Poroshenko offered, and the rebels rejected, in June. Historian Mark Solonin argued on his blog that the deal spells the end of Putin’s quest to reclaim Novorossiya (“New Russia,” the czarist-era name for territories in eastern and southern Ukraine that many Russian nationalists regard as Russia’s own). The insurgents are required to disarm, disband, and allow local elections with proper monitoring—presumably by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which organized the negotiations. It seems unlikely they will comply; but, while the survival of the illegal Donetsk/Luhansk enclave certainly poses problems for Ukraine, these problems are by no means fatal.