UD. 15 October 2016.  

By Iryna Terlecky.

Relations between Russia and the West take a new dive, with peace still a distant dream.

“Forced” to defend Russian speakers

The pretence that Russia had nothing to do with the war in Eastern Ukraine seems now to have been completely dropped.

Putin spoke at a business forum in Moscow, answering questions about the economic situation in Russia, when the issue of the Ukraine conflict was raised.

He has persistently denied that Russia took any formal role, saying instead that some Russian soldiers may have gone to Donbas to fight ‘for personal reasons’. But with Russian orchestration of Crimea’s annexation clear for some time, he painted a new picture of the position in Donbas – blaming the Maidan protesters and the US for compelling Russia to act.

“It was not we who led to the government coup in Ukraine,” Putin said, before accusing the U.S. of funding and orchestrating the Kiev protests.

“Then when we were forced, and I want to underline this, forced to defend the Russian speaking population of Donbas, forced to respond to the struggle of the people living in Crimea to return to the Russian federation, [the U.S.] begins a wave of anti-Russian policies and introduces sanctions.”

Russia’s playbook in Syria

The same alternative world view characterises Russia’s continuing support for President Assad, where the horrors of the bombardment of Aleppo have dominated the news and have created a new low in international relationships.

In an emergency debate in the UK Parliament, the majority of MPs expressed themselves critically and, at times, emotionally about the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo.

Andrew Mitchell, former International Development Secretary, accused Russia of helping a «barbaric bombardment» of Aleppo and said that Russia’s manipulations and denials at the United Nations “precisely what Italy and Germany did to the League of Nations in the 1930s. And they are doing to Aleppo precisely what the Nazis did to Guernica in the Spanish Civil War.»

For Labour, shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said there had to be «strong statesmanship» and «not more brinkmanship» in dealing with the crisis in Syria.

She told MPs: «There are a number of war crimes that have been committed during this terrible war. There are the war crimes of Assad and Russia and there are the war crimes of the Jihadists.» Ms Thornberry said she expected those responsible to be tried by the International Criminal Court.

Former shadow defence minister Toby Perkins called for stripping Russia of the 2018 World Cup or a mass boycott, saying it was «utterly ludicrous» that Russia is set to host the biggest sporting event on the planet amid the continuing slaughter in Syria. Other MPs appeared to have some sympathy for this view as a means of increasing sanctions against Russia.

A pariah nation

Closing the debate, Boris Johnson said he would like to pursue the possibility of trials at the International Criminal Court, but also said that this was something that could take years or even decades to come to fruition. He condemned attacks of humanitarian convoys and said that,«If Russia continues on its current path then I believe that that great country is in danger of becoming a pariah nation.» 

Controversially, he told MPs he would «like to see» demonstrations against Russia’s actions take place outside the country’s London embassy.

This provoked derision from the Russian government, with Sergiy Lavrov reminding Johnson that the UK government had a duty to protect foreign embassies and their staff, while spokesperson Maria Zakharova called Johnston’s remarks ‘shameful’.

The Stop the War Coalition (STWUK), who have continually campaigned against the ‘fascist’ government in Ukraine, were also quick to react, saying that the government and media were whipping up ‘hysteria’ to portray Russia as the only problem in Syria. A spokesman for Jeremy Corbyn said that the priority should be to have talks inside the Russian Embassy and not demonstrations outside.

Elsewhere, French President Francois Hollande is one of the most vociferous proponents of a war crimes trial against Russia and President Assad, leading to reports that President Putin cancelled a visit to France after being told that Hollande would talk only about Syria.

But in the midst of the strong words, in Syria, as in Ukraine, there is no appetite in the West either for the imposition of a ‘no fly zone’, or for boots on the ground. As we have seen many times before, diplomacy alone, without any other coherent strategy that Russia will take seriously, is unlikely to bring any prospect of a change of course.

Where next for Minsk 2

In contrast to his apparently strong position on Syria, Francois Hollande appears to be taking a new tack on the war in Donbas. Previously, both France and Germany had fully supported President Poroshenko’s stance that elections and constitutional change to devolve more powers to regions, including Donbas, could not happen until Russian troops were withdrawn and Ukraine regained full control of the border.

However, in a speech to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Hollande seemed to take a different position, apparently suggesting that elections should be held first, and that this ‘could’ result in Ukraine regaining control of its borders. The message was, however, unclear, since he also said that the Minsk Process is a series of steps, and it was necessary to comply with each of them. “First, there must be ceasefire, withdrawal, disarmament, but elections must be held afterwards”.

President Putin took a similar position this week, saying that there would be no peace settlement in Donbas until the political provisions of Minsk II agreements had been implemented. He claimed that the separatists had announced a unilateral ceasefire and would not respond to ‘attacks’ from the Ukrainian army, with the implication that there was now nothing preventing political moves.

First Vice Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine Iryna Gerashchenko noted that French President Francois Hollande, in fact, said nothing new. She stressed that Ukraine stands for implementation of the full range of Minsk provisions: security, including the withdrawal of foreign weapons and equipment; humanitarian, with the release of all illegally detained persons; return of border control monitored by the OSCE; and political - elections under Ukrainian law and with international supervision. 

She stressed that if the deputies and staff of the European Parliament and the national parliaments of Europe are today are banned from Donbas for security reasons, then there can be no basis for free and democratic elections.

Interior minister Arsen Avakov was more critical of Hollande’s remarks, and urged Hollande not to betray Ukraine by entering into ‘vulgar bargaining’ with Putin. He said that Hollande’s interpretation of how to end the war were unacceptable for any real Ukrainian and warned of the dangers of a Russian ‘hybrid peace’, which would threaten Europe’s freedom. 

President Putin’s talk of a ‘unilateral ceasefire’ by Russian-backed separatists is not backed up by events on the ground. The Ukrainian Ministry of 

Defence Press Centre has reported that in the last 48 hours alone, combined Russian-separatist forces attacked Ukrainian army positions in eastern Ukraine 86 times, including barrages in the Mariupol, Luhansk and Donetsk sectors, using heavy mortars (banned under the Minsk agreement), machine guns and grenade launchers. Two soldiers were reported killed in action with 12 wounded in the last 48 hours. 

Silent reforms and careful steps

The last week saw a mix of successes and failures for the Ukrainian parliament.

According to political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, Ukraine’s lawmakers had “a week of silent reforms and careful steps.” Parliament failed to fulfill several requirements of the International Monetary Fund, in particular prolonging the moratorium on the sale of agricultural land. This has been an area of controversy, since the agricultural community believes that villagers and smallholders would not be able to afford land that they currently rent and that agricultural corporations would be the winners.

However, the Rada did vote to increase wages for teachers and free charity organisations from a tax on donations made by cell phone. There was also progress on funding for infrastructure, with the first reading of a bill to help pay for repairs to Ukraine’s crumbling roads. According to the Global 

Competitiveness Report, Ukraine is ranked 132nd out of 138 countries this year for the state of its road network. 

The Money for the fund will be collected from special taxes paid by the owners of lorries that weigh more than 40 tonnes, a special tax on oil and gas product imports, and other sources. With Ukraine’s poor-quality roads not only a byword amongst both citizens and tourists, but also key barrier to economic development, this is welcome news – but only, of course, if the procurement process is transparent and the money is spent effectively.


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