Ukraine hits 'dead end' as lasting peace deal eludes leaders

The foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine on Monday called for incremental steps to de-escalate the fighting in eastern Ukraine. But the two sides have yet to agree on a long-term political settlement.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended a meeting of foreign ministers to examine the implementation of the Minsk peace accords in Berlin on Monday.

While just about everyone here says they're weary of the war against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, there appears to be little agreement on how to accomplish long-term peace.

Opinions in Kiev are divided between those who believe that the fighting is inevitable because there can be no compromises with separatist rebels, and others who hope the shaky ceasefire will be extended long enough – perhaps years – for Ukraine to undergo fundamental reforms.

The latter group got a slight boost yesterday after Russian, Ukrainian, French, and German foreign ministers meeting in Berlin called for all sides to withdraw heavy weapons, including tanks, mortars, and small-caliber artillery, from the front line. In a statement, they said the so-called "contact group," which includes rebel leaders, should be given more input into the negotiations.

"These are small steps forward, and maybe the logjam can be broken, so that we can actually feel our way forward to a political settlement. We know there can't be a military one," says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. "We are presently in a dead end."

Two ceasefires in the past eight months have sought to stop the fighting and map out steps toward a political settlement. But the latest deal, which was signed in February in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, has become bogged down over interpretations of its political prescriptions. Meanwhile, a surge in fighting in recent days has threatened to upend the fragile truce.

The blame game

Moscow maintains that rebel leaders should negotiate a settlement directly with Kiev before reintegrating their territories into Ukraine and accepting government rule. But authorities in Kiev say elections must first be held under Ukrainian law in the rebel-held region. Only then can discussions take place about a redistribution of regional powers and other disputed issues.

"If we stop the war, seal the border, and get all Russian troops and mercenaries out of there, we'll have lots of grounds to reconcile with people in [the rebel republics of] Donetsk and Luhansk," says Viktor Zamyatin, an expert with the independent Razumkov Center in Kiev. "But there cannot be negotiations with the rebel leaders. They are nobody under Ukrainian law. These territories are occupied by people who have simply declared their control. That will not be recognized."

Kiev and the West say the conflict is an undeclared war waged by Russia against Ukraine. Moscow – which denies overwhelming evidence that it has supported the rebels with arms and troops – calls it a civil conflict between Kiev and eastern Ukrainians.

"Unfortunately, the only way to deal with this is to ramp up the sanctions against Russia and increase the cost for [President Vladimir] Putin by sending more Russians home in body bags," says Alexiy Shevchenko, a former parliamentarian and civil society adviser to the present government. "The Minsk process leads nowhere. Sure, polls show Ukrainians strongly support the Minsk agreement, but they don't believe it will stop the aggression. They just think it's the only chance to end the war."

Missed opportunities

Some experts in Kiev agree that there was disquiet in eastern Ukraine after the overthrow of former President Viktor Yanukovych last year. They say the new government probably missed opportunities to initiate a political dialogue before sending troops east to fight Russian-backed separatists, who had supported Mr. Yanukovych. But most experts here staunchly insist the armed conflict was of Moscow's making.

"I think we could have solved this if it were not for Russia's interference," says Alexander Chernenko, a parliamentary deputy with President Petro Poroshenko's party. "Now, I fear things have become so complicated that it will take years. We have to hope that the ceasefire will last, and we can go through that long process. There cannot be a military solution, that's for sure."

The Ukrainian parliament has established a Constitutional Assembly of about 70 members. It’s expected to produce a plan to give greater power to the country’s eastern regions by next autumn. The scheme, which has been stalled for almost a year, would probably fall short of rebel demands for near-total autonomy. But it could provide a starting point for broader national reconciliation.

President Poroshenko has suggested the reforms might be put to a nationwide referendum to determine whether Ukrainians want to abandon the "unitary" model that concentrates power in Kiev.

"This is a really difficult path. It's risky and dangerous, and the whole country could fly apart while we're trying to do it," says Mr. Chernenko. "But this is all we've got, so we have to try to do it."

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