Keeping Crimea on the agenda
The EU and USA have finally come up with tougher sanctions, but also a statement from the G7 calling for a return to unconditional ceasefire arrangements agreed during a disturbingly secretive meeting between the foreign ministers of Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine on July 2. The question of what is to be negotiated and with whom arises again, while the Crimea is conveniently taken off the agenda.
If Russian President Vladimir Putin ‘blinked’ this week, it was almost certainly over the $50 billion Russia was ordered to pay in compensation for its seizure of Yukos assets. How much the EU and US sanctions announced shortly afterwards are likely to hurt depends on who you speak to, but Putin is riding on an undiminished high of public support and will need powerful incentives to back down. Russia’s main response thus far has been to slap economic sanctions on Poland, with a ban imposed on fruit and vegetable imports. The choice of target was entirely predictable. Poland has been one of the strongest advocates of tough measures in support of Ukraine and against Russian aggression. It is also poor enough for the ban to hit very hard.
Few doubt the political motivation for this ban, or for the trade blockade against Ukraine and the cutting off of its gas supplies. Ukraine may have coped thus far without Russian gas thanks to reserves and because the fighting in eastern Ukraine has led to a drastic fall in industrial production. Winter is not so very far off and the situation cannot continue indefinitely.
The G7 leaders’ statement makes no mention of such economic pressure, nor does it do any more than “once again condemn Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea”. Its sanctions, it says, are “to demonstrate to the Russian leadership that it must stop its support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine and tangibly participate in creating the necessary conditions for the political process.”
There must, the G7 leaders assert, be a “political solution” and they call for a “peaceful settlement”. There may well be a clash between the stated need to implement President Petro Poroshenko’s peace plan and their call to “establish a swift, genuine and sustainable general cease-fire on the basis of the Berlin Declaration of 2 July”. This is difficult to say with certainty, however, since the said Berlin Declaration is difficult to track down.
The most detail available comes from a damning assessment of the agreement by Vladimir Socor from the Jamestown Foundation entitled “Ukraine makes far-reaching concessions to Russia at Berlin meeting”. The foreign ministers of Russia; Germany; France and Ukraine met, he writes, “in a “format designed to subject the Ukrainian side to pressure from the other three parties”.
“The ceasefire stipulated in Berlin would, if implemented, stop the Ukrainian forces’ rapid advances against pro-Russia forces in Ukraine’s east. These concessions would haunt Ukraine for a long time to come, if implemented as stipulated in Berlin”. Socur calls the meeting a “basically German overture towards Russia”.
“In the current crisis, German policy is guided by the principle of defusing tensions with Russia over Ukraine and returning to business as usual with Russia after a decent interval”. He believes the Joint Declaration to imply an unconditional ceasefire which is not in accordance with Poroshenko’s June 20 peace plan. The latter made a ceasefire contingent on disarmament of pro-Russian forces and / or their evacuation to Russia.
Other concerns are over the document’s placing of all ‘parties’ on an equal footing, with equal power, for example, to veto the terms and their implementation. Socur believes that this would mean that “the secessionist forces will remain entrenched in Ukraine’s east”.
The contact group would include “representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the OSCE (which operates under Russia’ s statutory veto), and several sets of Russia’s proxies, namely: the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (now “Novorossiya”), as well as Ukraine’s foremost pro-Kremlin politician, Viktor Medvedchuk, as an intermediary”. Putin made his wish for Medvedchuk’s involvement clear from the outset. It was and remains considerably less clear why German Chancellor Angela Merkel has insisted on the participation of Putin’s close associate, a person widely distrusted in Ukraine and targeted for US sanctions back in March.
It is worth noting, albeit with caution, other claims made in an article published on July 30 in the UK Independent newspaper owned by Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev. The article, entitled “Land for gas: secret German deal could end Ukraine crisis” begins with the apparent bombshell:
“The Independent can reveal that the peace plan, being worked on by both Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, hinges on two main ambitions: stabilising the borders of Ukraine and providing the financially troubled country with a strong economic boost, particularly a new energy agreement ensuring security of gas supplies”.
The author, Margareta Pagano cites ‘sources close to the secret negotiations’ to assert that the international community would need to recognize Russian annexation of the Crimea; and eastern Ukraine would be allowed some devolved powers. Russia would have to withdraw financial and military support for the various ‘separatist groups’ in the area.
Another highly controversial part of the alleged deals which the Independent claims that Merkel was brokering until the shooting down of MH17 would be a new long-term agreement with Gazprom, Here Dmitry Firtash, the millionaire living in Vienna and fighting an extradition request from the USA is also alleged to be acting as a go-between. Firtash’s previous gas dealings have contributed to his considerable notoriety in Ukraine, and the role attributed to him would do Ukraine’s leaders no favours.
The allegations are scandalous and have been categorically refuted in Berlin. The Independent’s source may have fed the paper lies, be ill-informed or even be actively seeking to tarnish the German chancellor’s image, It is, however, true, that the role Germany under Merkel and her foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was playing, at least until MH17, aroused bemusement and concern.
One positive note from the Independent article is that a spokesperson for the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office thought it highly unlikely that either the US or UK would agree to recognize Russian control over Crimea.
Cheering, but not enough. The G7 leaders’ July 30 statement largely returned to the pre-MH17 status quo in which the Crimea was not on the agenda, and evidence of ‘de-escalation’ of the conflict in eastern Ukraine sufficient to withdraw sanctions against Russia.
Ukraine’s newly elected president stated in his inaugural speech that Crimea is part of Ukraine and that this is not up for negotiation. In March of this year, the key arguments were linked with Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the danger to world order if countries could carry out land-grabs with impunity. Nearly 6 months later, another consideration is of immense importance. Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians, civic activists, members of certain churches and others are already facing repressive measures from the puppet government in the Crimea under Russian occupation. These are Ukrainians whom Ukraine is called upon to defend.
The above-mentioned critique of the Berlin Declaration warned that it would “exonerate Russia of its responsibility as the conflict’s initiator, and define the conflict instead as a purely internal one within Ukraine”, which the OSCE would be left to handle as a “frozen conflict,” for decades to come.
After the price paid by Ukrainians asserting their right to European integration, after the shooting down of MH17 and the ongoing carnage, the betrayal would be terrible.