The West is finding it easier to demand the implementation of peace agreements from Ukraine than to increase pressure on Russia, says Ian Bond, the director of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform and a veteran member of the British diplomatic service. According to Bond, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, knowing the position of his partners, finds himself in a very difficult position. Therefore, the solution to the problem of Russian aggression must be sought in the capitals of Western countries, which must be encouraged to take decisive action.
We begin our conversation with the question that is most frequently asked in Ukraine — is there a problem with the format of the negotiations when the most powerful Western players are not participating, most notably the United States?
Right now the problem stems from the fact that in this format Russia can pretend that it has nothing to do with the conflict in eastern Ukraine and that it is sitting at the negotiating table on the same basis as France and Germany, as a neutral country with no special interest in the matter, which sincerely wants to put an end to the bloodshed.
But in reality that is not the case. Russia is a party to the conflict. This is why the format is invalid. The format itself enables Russia to put pressure on the Ukrainian government but to remain on the sidelines, saying that the situation has nothing to do with the Russian government.
Would the presence of other countries in the negotiations give better results or would it only lead to Russia’s departure from the negotiating table.?
The questions is what would change if Russia did leave the negotiating process if Russia is not negotiating honestly anyway? I understand the position of President Petro Poroshenko, who is forced to hold on to the so-called “Normandy format” and the Minsk process because he knows the position of his Western partners, who are not yet ready to support him fully and to strengthen Ukraine’s defense capability. But this process is not producing any results because one of the parties is manipulating the process in order to prevent the achievement of any positive results.
Critics of President Poroshenko have reacted very sharply to his efforts to carry out that part of the agreement that has to do with amendments to the Constitution on the issue of territorial rule. In particular, they say that there is nothing special about the eastern region other than the fact that part of this territory is occupied by troops and mercenaries from neighboring Russia. They say that since Ukraine has no control over this territory and does not control the border, as is called for in the Minsk agreements, any legitimization of the control over this territory by people that Kyiv calls terrorists would be an unjustified concession by Ukraine to Russia and especially to Western partners, who are trying to pressure the victim and not the aggressor in this conflict.
I think they have grounds for their conclusion. But when it comes to President Poroshenko, I can understand his position, since, as I said, until he has full support of his Western partners, he may feel that he has no other choice than to demonstrate to these partners that he is doing everything in his power to carry out the agreements.
But the problem, in my opinion, lies precisely in the fact that, as you mentioned, the West is putting pressure on Ukraine, knowing that it has more leverage with Ukraine than with Russia.
But this can undermine the position of President Poroshenko, whom the (Western partners) assure of their friendship and support, because opposition to him and the way he wants to implement these decisions in parliament keeps growing.
Of course. But he does not have much choice. If he rejects the Minsk agreements because they are not being fulfilled by Russia, there will be voices in the West stating that they, supposedly, knew all along that this Ukrainian government is filled with unreliable neo-Nazis and that the Russians were right after all. And there will be many politicians in different parts of Europe who will interpret this situation that way.
But regarding the special status for occupied Donbas territories, it will be necessary to create some special conditions, even temporary ones, whether we like it or not. But here it important to be very careful even on the question of decentralization. Because the local governments have not changed; they continue to be weak and corrupt, so decentralization can only strengthen the corrupt local officials or gangsters. And that way control and the chance for legal structures in these territories will only weaken. Decentralization can be carried out only after cleaning out the corruption in the top leadership. Only that way will it be possible to build a strong society over the next 10-20 years.
Decentralization is no panacea. Because special status for the occupied Donbas territories means that all kinds of Pushilins, Zakharchenkos and other thugs and Russian agents that have crawled out from who knows what holes over the last eighteen months will receive permanent power in the occupied territories. Because when the Russians say that it is important to decentralize power, they really mean that power over the occupied territories needs to be centralized in Moscow and that they will decide who will govern these areas. And this will be fatal for Ukraine as well as for those people in the occupied territories who dream that sometime in the future there will be an honest government in this territory.
Actually, this is something many Ukrainian observers would agree with. They say that they could easily find a common language with the inhabitants of the occupied territories themselves if they weren’t fighting with Russia there. This is why they are questioning the German Foreign Affairs Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier who keeps saying that it is necessary to present these arguments to the Russians once again. They see that this approach is not working.
The German foreign affairs minister has always opted for a soft approach, so his statement does not surprise me at all. There are continuing problems on the German side, although Chancellor Merkel is a bit tougher, but still not enough in my view. However, things are still better than two years ago. But Steinmeier continues to think that if we keep explaining to the Russians they will finally understand they have chosen the wrong way. But I don’t think this will convince Putin.
If the negotiations do not produce results because of the format or other circumstances, what would be a more effective way to stop Russian aggression in Ukraine, since Western politicians are not ready to agree even to this description (of events)?
I think the description is completely accurate. The first thing the Western politicians should do is help Ukraine defend itself. This is a sovereign state that has a right to self-defense. I think we do not emphasize this enough. By deciding not to provide military means of defense to Ukraine, we have equated the victim to the aggressor. We need to provide help in training and in the military-industrial sector. And additionally, we can do more in terms of sanctions against Russia.
Americans are much more advanced in this than the Europeans. They always find the loopholes used by the sanctioned individuals to bypass the sanctions and they close them. We could do more in that direction. When the Prime Minister of Great Britain David Cameron talks about the importance of the fight against money laundering, it is important for all of the EU, for all the countries that have created comfortable conditions for laundering Russian “dirty money” to make the process of hiding money and avoiding sanctions more difficult for the Russians.