Although the elements of a possible political settlement are visible, so far, the Kremlin has shown little interest in de-escalating the conflict. Instead, at every turn, Russian President Vladimir Putin has met Western sanctions and opprobrium with fresh violence. Let's admit it: The West's current strategy isn't working. It's time for new steps designed to encourage Moscow to change course, Politico writes, Censor.NET reports.
Putin met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Belarus on Aug. 26. Apparently the meeting did not go well. Ukrainian sources initially reported agreement on securing control of the Ukraine-Russia border and a prisoner release, but Russian sources gave a more downbeat assessment. For his part, Putin denied that Moscow had any role to play in achieving a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine-holding to the increasingly unsustainable fiction that Russia is not involved in the fighting.
With little tangible having emerged from Minsk, and with growing evidence of Russian forces bolstering the rebels, the sides seem set for more continued fighting.
On Thursday, Poroshenko told Ukrainians not to "panic" at Putin's escalation, but he is clearly concerned: He does not want a new "frozen conflict" to emerge in eastern Ukraine. His military has displayed increasing competence the past two months, pushing back the separatists and Russian fighters in their strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk. In doing so, he enjoys solid backing from the Ukrainian populace, which has rallied in the face of Russian aggression.
Kyiv's approach faces a major problem, however. The greater the progress made by the Ukrainian army, the greater the flows of weapons, supplies and fighters that have streamed across the Russian border into eastern Ukraine. Putin has staked much-perhaps his very political survival-on victory … or at least on avoiding defeat. So he has steadily escalated Russian support, and, by many accounts, regular Russian army units are now fighting on Ukrainian territory.
Finding a way out of the conflict will not prove easy. The Russian army will not march on Kyiv, but it may well escalate the fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Poroshenko should hold open the prospect for a negotiated settlement, one that does not force Putin into a humiliating reversal. Ultimately, Kyiv needs a solution that Moscow can accept. If not, the Russians have many levers-military, economic, energy-that they can exert to destabilize Ukraine. The Kremlin can make it very difficult, if not impossible, for Poroshenko to tackle the major economic and political reform challenges that he faces.
The Ukrainians have already laid out ideas that could provide the basis for a settlement that would be of interest to many in eastern Ukraine and, arguably, should interest Moscow as well. Poroshenko has proposed decentralization of power, which would push some political and budget authority from Kyiv to the regions, and official status for the Russian language. As for Crimea, he seems to accept that the occupied region's status has to be addressed in the longer term.
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On the foreign policy front, Poroshenko has already ruled out deepening Ukraine's relationship with NATO. That is a logical position, as a move toward the transatlantic alliance would prove hugely controversial in eastern Ukraine, and NATO has no appetite to take the relationship with Ukraine to a deeper level. Kyiv and the European Union have begun discussions with Moscow on steps that might alleviate the negative impact of the Ukraine-EU free trade agreement-the deal that set off last fall's political crisis-on Ukrainian-Russian economic relations.