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Published in Stream:
Day 714: February 1, 2016
Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Ukraine, Russia, Sanctions, And The Fate Of The Donbass In The Balance
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Shells continue to explode in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, but the fate of Ukraine may be decided in Berlin.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is in Germany to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel and discuss, among other things, the way to achieve peace in Donetsk and Lugansk, regions held by Russian-backed separatists.

But the peace process is littered with obstacles and contradictions.

If you ask the leaders of Germany, the United States, Ukraine, or Russia how to resolve the crisis in Ukraine they may all give the same answer -- the implementation of the Minsk accords -- but they will not mean the same things.

In brief, besides a ceasefire the Minsk agreements call for:

-- the holding of local elections, according to Ukrainian law, in Donetsk and Lugansk;

-- the designation by the Ukrainian government of Donetsk and Lugansk as regions with so-called "special status," and thus more autonomy;

-- the return of the control of the border to the Ukrainian military;

-- the release of all hostages and prisoners of war;

-- the withdrawal of "illegal armed groups and military equipment" from Ukraine.

The problem, however, is that the order of operations was never defined, and the various sides point to unfulfilled promises by the other as indication that the Minsk protocols are failures.

That said, it's a mistake to dismiss the deadlock over Minsk with pure relativism by saying that both sides are equally at fault. For instance, elections are scheduled in advance, yet the Russian-backed separatists made no attempt to participate in last fall's elections. Even after the September-iteration of the ceasefire, the OSCE still said new equipment was arriving in separatist territory from "somewhere" (i.e., Russia). Ukraine's top negotiator now says that hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers have not been freed by Russian-backed fighters and may in fact be dead. 

The Ukrainian government is very much divided on whether "special status" should be granted to Donetsk and Lugansk before they see concessions from the Russian-backed fighters and before a ceasefire is implemented. But so far no major Ukrainian politicians or parties have opposed the granting of greater autonomy to the Donbass entirely, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is working hard to pass conditional autonomy that will go into effect once a ceasefire is put in place.

In Europe there is yet a different division -- whether or not to drop sanctions against Russia before Minsk is instituted. Crimea is yet another variable as some in the West are signaling that they'd be willing to normalize relations with Russia without the return of the illegally-annexed Ukrainian peninsula.

Poroshenko today reiterated his stance that sanctions against Russia must not be lifted until Minsk is fully implemented, and Angela Merkel agreed with him. RFE/RL reports:

"Sanctions against Russia must stay in place until Russia fully implements the Minsk agreement," Poroshenko said at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.

His comments were echoed by Merkel who said given the lack of sustainable peace, the European Union must renew sanctions against Russia over its role in the conflict.

Merkel, however, is also under pressure both from the rest of the EU and from her constituents at home. Domestically, anti-migrant sentiment has been rising as Germany struggles with the Middle Eastern refugee crisis. Pro-Russian and far-right political candidates are rising in many European countries as a result of this crisis, and many of those candidates see Western policies as a problem and Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of the solution. Russia has itself weighed in on this crisis, with Russian media spreading fake (and now thoroughly debunked) stories about a migrant who allegedly raped a young girl:

Officials like Merkel will be under increasing pressure to settle the crisis with Russia, renew trade at a time when the global economy is struggling, and turn away from policies that, thanks to Russian propaganda, have been closely associated with the United States.

Then there is Crimea. Even if Minsk is implemented, many of the sanctions against Russia were put in place after Crimea was annexed. Though more sanctions were levied after Russia's invasion of the Donbass, is there an appetite in Europe to maintain sanctions even if Crimea is not returned?

All of these issues were also discussed on today's Briefing by RFE/RL, which you can listen to and read here:

-- James Miller