Hopes by Western leaders that the Ukraine crisis would melt into history, or sanctions would cause Russia to back off, have been dashed, writes Professor Stefan Hedlund.
A realisation is dawning that unless the war in the Donbass region of east Ukraine can be brought to a speedy end, Ukraine stands little chance of avoiding sovereign default and state failure. But the prospects for an end to the violence are not good.
Talks in Berlin on Monday, January 12, 2015, held between the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, resulted in nothing. This prompted German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to remark, ‘The differences of opinions that remain make clear how difficult it is to achieve progress.’
The summit meeting between heads of state planned for Thursday, January 15, in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, has been called off.
Russia appears to have no intention of finding a peaceful resolution. Over the past couple of months it has deliberately reorganised military forces in Donbass. Regular army units have brought the rebel militias under control, at times via live fire exchanges. Heavy equipment has been brought in, greatly increasing the firepower, and armoured vehicles painted white for winter warfare have begun to appear. The fact that these were spotted months ago in depots inside Russia indicates that the Kremlin has been preparing to engage in winter war.
Much has been made by politicians of the ceasefire brokered in Minsk in September 2014. But on the ground it has brought little more than a reduction in the intensity of fighting. Even that may now be over. Attacks have escalated along the full length of the confrontation line and casualties have mounted since early January.
Russia is also making the most of Ukraine’s economic plight. Ukraine’s international reserves were down to US$7.53 billion on January 1, 2015. Adding insult to injury, Russia began circulating rumours it may call for early repayment of a US$3 billion Ukrainian Eurobond issued in December 2013. This is unlikely to happen, mainly because it is preferable for the Kremlin to retain this bond as a gun to the head of the Ukrainian Central Bank which is surviving on credits from the IMF.
The sad truth is that this is no longer about Ukraine. The crisis has triggered a deeply destructive game of tit-for-tat between Russia and the West. The West punishes Russia with economic sanctions. Russia punishes the West by ensuring Ukraine will stand no chance of recovery. Meanwhile, Ukraine is being ground into dust – and nobody in the West seems to have a clue what to do.