(Originally published in The Conversation.)
The four-party talks on the crisis in Ukraine have apparently produced a significant breakthrough towards the diffusion of an increasingly dangerous situation.
According to a statement released by the foreign ministers, the agreement commits all sides to “refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions”, emphasises that “illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.”
It also grants amnesty “to protesters and to those who have left buildings and other public places and surrendered weapons, with the exception of those found guilty of capital crimes.”
The sides also agreed that the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine will assist Ukrainian authorities and local communities in implementing de-escalation measures and that the US, EU and Russia will support this mission, including by providing monitors.
Beyond de-escalation, the sides also reached an understanding about a transparent and accountable constitutional reform process to be initiated, including “the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies”.
Given the critical economic and financial situation, the sides also agreed to consider additional support to Ukraine as part of the implementation of the agreement.
So, this agreement represents a major step forward. Less than 24 hours ago, further violent escalation in eastern Ukraine seemed inevitable, and a full-scale Russian military intervention all but a foregone conclusion. Only hours before the talks in Geneva opened, Ukrainian forces killed three pro-Russian protesters, Vladimir Putin responded with a thinly veiled threat of intervention, and the US, Russia and Ukraine all significantly hardened their rhetoric. At the same time, the Ukrainian “anti-terror operation” never really got of the ground with troops after the initial re-taking of the Kramatorsk airfield either retreated or defected.
Setting a dangerous precedent?
From this perspective, the agreement marks a return to a more realistic assessment by all sides and presents everybody with a “win”. Ukraine has warded off the threat of a civil war and an imminent Russian military intervention. The West has managed to find some common ground with Russia that avoids any further escalation of the sanctions regime and may yet find a way to mend relations with Russia such that co-operation on other important international issues remains possible.
The big winner, however, appears to be Putin. Russia escapes, for the moment, further Western sanctions. Moscow avoids any explicit linkage of its co-operation on the crisis in mainland Ukraine with its illegal annexation of Crimea. For all intents and purposes, the text of the agreement is an implicit acknowledgement of the status quo in this respect. The Kremlin has also gained a commitment to a constitutional reform process that will most certainly consolidate its influence in and over Ukraine. Given the alternatives – a civil war in Ukraine, and quite possibly a war between Russia and Ukraine – this may, quite rightly, seem a small price to pay.
Today’s agreement thus sets a positive and a negative precedent at the same time. On the one hand, it demonstrates that Russia and the West have not lost their ability to make deals with each other that are by-and-large beneficial to both sides in light of the implications of non-co-operation. On the other hand, the agreement highlights the fact that this deal was made largely at the expense of Ukraine, and as such raises the spectre of further such deals now being within Russia’s grasp and reach.
A new status quo in the post-Soviet space is obviously in the making, and it has a distinctively Russian flavour to it.