The Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatist rebels in the country’s eastern regions agreed to terms of a ceasefire on Friday, and it has mostly held through the weekend.
In the short-term, it gives all parties breathing room — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (from the beating his military was taking), Russian President Vladimir Putin (possibly from more Western sanctions), and the separatists (who will get to regroup in their strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk).
But the delicate balance is unlikely to hold for the long-term. There’s a simple reason why — the ceasefire includes a proposal for “disarmament,” but both sides differ on how to implement that aspect. The separatists want Ukrainian troops to withdraw from the conflict areas, a condition that Poroshenko will simply not accept.
“The ceasefire is unlikely to hold because it’s extremely hard to see both sides backing down sufficiently,” said geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group. “Pulling out all of their troops from the contested territory (their own territory, I might add) without Russian troop withdrawal or disarmament of the separatists amounts to ceding the territory to Russia and the separatists and is politically dangerous for Poroshenko at home.
“Russia swears up and down they don’t have any troops in the region. So how could they possibly withdraw them (and, more to the point, they don’t intend to).”
Bremmer expects a week — or two or three — of further talks and breathing room for all sides involved. For Poroshenko, the situation on the ground becomes stable seven weeks ahead of planned parliamentary elections. And for Putin, the situation moves closer to what many suspect he wants — a frozen conflict in the mould of Georgia and Moldova, in which Ukraine’s permanent destabilization means it can never fully move away from Russian influence.
But Ukraine’s economy is on the verge of a meltdown. And on top of it all is the fact that winter is coming, a trump card Putin holds over Ukraine and its other neighbours because of its supply of energy to them.
“So we can get some time for a breather, a week or three, perhaps even enough diplomacy for the Europeans to believe a settlement might be possible,” Bremmer said. “But that won’t create an opening for peace. And when the economics for Ukraine deteriorate — and the domestic Ukrainian politics alongside — it’s going to be hard to keep the guns quiet.”
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