Europe, Russia OK with Ukraine peace plan. Why aren't Ukrainians?

Moscow gave guarded approval to the Ukrainian president's plan. But rebel opposition, military realities, and even resistance from western Ukrainians undermine its prospects.

Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters
Pro-Russian separatists ride in a car in the direction of the battle line in Seversk, located near the town of Krasny Liman, Donetsk region, on Thursday. Fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists looks set to continue, despite the imminent unveiling of a peace plan proposed by President Petro Poroshenko.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's 14-point peace plan, whose alleged text was leaked to the Ukrainian media overnight, has won support from European leaders and even the hedged, guarded approval of Russia's president and foreign minister.

But experts in Ukraine and Russia say it's unlikely the plan will ever get off the ground, due to fighting in Ukraine's rebellious east, blanket rejection of its terms by pro-Russian rebels, a renewed Russian military buildup along the embattled border, and stiff opposition to it among many of Mr. Poroshenko's own supporters in western and central Ukraine.

A late night phone conversation between Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin – the second this week – appears to have sketched out broad agreement, though the description posted by the Ukrainian leader differs remarkably in emphasis from that on the Kremlin's website. Poroshenko said Mr. Putin "expressed support" for the implementation of his plan. But Putin said only that he expected to see an immediate halt in Kiev's military operations in the east, followed a broad dialogue aimed at "resolving key problems that have caused strong protests by the people living in these regions."

Poroshenko is proposing a ten-day peace process, which would begin with a "unilateral ceasefire," the creation of a "guaranteed corridor" for Ukrainian and Russian rebel fighters to leave the battlefield, and an amnesty for any rebels who have not committed "serious crimes." During that period those rebels who do not leave will be expected to disarm. A six-mile "buffer zone" would be set up along the Russo-Ukrainian border to prevent any further infiltration of fighters and arms into the restive regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. Talks would begin on constitutional reforms to boost regional autonomy, and protected status for the Russian language – both key demands of Moscow and the pro-Russian rebels.

More controversially, the plan also requires that previous institutions of local government and law enforcement should resume control over Luhansk and Donetsk, a move that would effectively abolish the "independent republics" declared by the rebels.

Another likely sticking point is that Poroshenko has made clear that he is only willing to talk with "legitimate" political forces in eastern Ukraine. On Thursday he introduced his peace plan to a Kiev gathering of business tycoons and politicians from the restive east, but the meeting pointedly excluded any representatives of the armed rebels.

Experts say that Poroshenko had been waiting for the outcome of a Ukrainian military operation to retake control over the border – a necessity for the peace plan's success – before setting the plan into motion. There were conflicting reports about that Friday. Ukraine's Defense Ministry insisted that all formerly rebel-held border posts had been recaptured, while other Kiev officials and the rebels themselves denied it.

Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant, says that Putin's apparent nod of agreement to the Poroshenko plan is a tactical ploy that makes the Kremlin look like a peacemaker before the world, while maintaining all of Russia's options in the highly likely event that it fails.

"It's clear now that Putin does not want to annex Donetsk and Luhansk as Russia did with Crimea. A sure sign that Russia is not going to invade Ukraine is that rebels in the east are now openly blaming Moscow for betraying them," he says.

"Putin doesn't want to make any radical decisions now. The situation in Ukraine is not going to get any better. Putin is betting that plenty of opportunities will emerge in the near future for Russia to use its economic, military, and political influence to guide affairs in Kiev, but for now he has no interest in aggravating things," he adds.

The Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom cut off gas supplies to Ukraine earlier this week due to Kiev's refusal to accept Russian terms, an embargo that seems calculated to exert slow-but-growing pressure on Ukrainian leaders as their stored gas supplies run out and the winter months approach.

News reports suggest that although the rebels may be feeling the heat of Ukraine's military operation against them, they are not prepared to accept Poroshenko's idea of a brief ceasefire followed by rebel disarmament and acceptance of Kiev-imposed governing institutions.

Russia has denied claims by NATO that it is beefing up its forces on the Ukrainian border, perhaps in anticipation of greater chaos if the Poroshenko plan collapses. Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said Friday that only a contingent of Russian border guards has been strengthened, not military forces.  Russia alleges that the border has come under great strain in recent days, due to  territorial violations by Ukrainian forces and an alarming influx of refugees from strife-torn Donetsk and Luhansk.

If Poroshenko's plan to pacify eastern Ukraine fails, it could have unpredictable consequences for him among his own support base in the rest of the rest of the country, say experts.

"I believe the Poroshenko plan will be derailed, mostly because of the situation on the ground and the extreme reluctance of the [rebels] to accept it," says Alexei Kolomiyets, an expert with the independent Institute of Euro-Atlantic Integration in Kiev.

"Even in Kiev there is a lot of hidden opposition to it, which will erupt into the open if it fails. Very many people oppose it because we haven't struggled all this time, and made all these sacrifices, to compromise with Russia," Mr. Kolomiyets says. "People want the military operation to go forward to full victory, and Poroshenko will need to take this into account."

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