As Russia enters Syria's war, Ukrainians ask what it means for theirs

Moscow has shifted its foreign policy gaze to the defense of Syria's regime amid a lull in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Some worry that the US could downplay Ukraine's plight in order to cooperate with Russia in Syria. 

Anton Volk/AP
Russia-backed separatists refueled tanks in a field near Torez, eastern Ukraine, late last month. The Ukrainian government said on Thursday it will pull out small-caliber weapons from the region in two days if the cease-fire holds.

Russia's military involvement in Syria has generated great unease among Ukrainians who fear Western cooperation with Moscow could lead to a weakening in support for Ukraine. Others hope that a distracted Russia, fighting on two fronts, may be more inclined to compromise over the rebel-held regions in the country’s east.

Many analysts in Kiev say Moscow's operation in Syria is a significant shift that has already been felt in Ukraine. As Russia began its Syria deployment a month ago the guns in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed rebels formed breakaway republics in spring 2014, suddenly fell silent. While many welcome the cease-fire, they are concerned about what could emerge from backroom talks between Russia and the West over Syria's war, given the high stakes in the Middle East. 

"This truce, which seems to be accompanied by a more constructive Russian position, makes people here wonder whether the West isn't wavering in its support for Ukraine in order to obtain Russian cooperation in Syria," says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. "There is still hope that this won't happen. But Ukrainians are very concerned."

When Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the podium on Monday at the United Nations General Assembly to make his pitch for a grand anti-terrorist alliance in Syria, the Ukrainian delegation walked out. 

President Petro Poroshenko spoke the next day at the same podium. "Over the last few days we have heard conciliatory statements from the Russian side in which, in particular, it called for the establishment of anti-terrorist coalition," he said. "Cool story, but really hardly to believe! How can you urge an anti-terrorist coalition – if you inspire terrorism right in front of your door?"

Vladimir Panchenko, a political expert with the International Center for Policy Studies in Kiev, says that a lot of Ukrainians agree with the need for an alliance to counter the spread of jihadism in the Middle East, but differ over what Russia's involvement means for their country.

"Maybe the more Russia gets dragged into it, the more problems it will have," he says. "But everybody here thinks there is already cooperation happening between Russia and the West in Syria, and that this is not going to turn out in Ukraine's favor."

Peace talks continue

On Friday, leaders of the four powers that framed the Minsk-II peace accord for eastern Ukraine – Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France – will meet in Paris to chart the accord's final implementation. The 12-point deal calls for military disengagement and steps to resolve the contested status of the rebel-controlled regions.

Russia has already indicated that it will prod its rebel allies to accept a new deal with Kiev based on regional autonomy in a decentralized Ukraine. Meanwhile, Western leaders seem more willing to urge Kiev to hold direct talks with rebel representatives, offer amnesty for separatist fighters, and restore economic links with the breakaway regions.

Earlier this week the two sides agreed on a comprehensive pull back of weaponry from the conflict's front line, a deal one rebel leader said "could mean the end of the war."

"There is certain progress in east Ukraine, but Russia still maintains all its levers of influence there," says Valery Ryabikh, an expert with Defense Express, a Kiev think tank. “Ukraine is a hostage to the situation as Russia moves into this new relationship with the West in Syria.”

Dmitry Posrednikov, deputy dean of Donetsk University, which lies in the rebel-held east, says residents there are hopeful that the Russian incursion in Syria will yield a better result for them at the peace talks. There is also local pride in Russia's actions, he adds. 

"It's clear that US policy has been a complete failure, both in Ukraine and in the Middle East, and now global leadership is passing to Russia,” he says. “The West has to work with Russia in Syria, because they can't solve the problems alone.”

Mr. Posrednikov says that the war in Ukraine has probably passed the point where either side can believe in victory, and that some kind of peace settlement is inevitable.

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