November 24, 2016
Exclusive: The U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine in 2014 sparked a New Cold War with Russia, but a President Trump could roll back tensions with a creative strategy for resolving the Ukraine standoff, writes Jonathan Marshall.
By Jonathan Marshall
If Donald Trump wants to make a decisive and constructive mark on U.S. foreign policy early in his presidency, there’s no better place to start than by helping to end the brutal war in Ukraine that has claimed some 10,000 lives.
The Obama administration helped ignite that war by attempting to yank Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and into the Western security and economic sphere. Working alongside the European Union, Washington fanned mass street protests that led to a violent putsch against Kiev’s elected government in February 2014. Moscow responded by annexing (or, depending on your point of view, reunifying with) Russian-speaking Crimea, which is also headquarters of Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet, and backing pro-Russia separatists in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Since then, the two sides have fought to a bloody stalemate. Besides killing thousands of civilians, the war has sunk Ukraine’s economy and fostered rampant corruption. U.S. and E.U. sanctions have dragged down Russia’s economy and derailed cooperation between Washington and Moscow in other theaters. Rising tensions between NATO and Russia have greatly raised the odds of an accidental military confrontation between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.
The best hope for Ukraine — and renewed East-West cooperation — is the Minsk Protocol, signed by Ukrainian, Russian, and European parties in the capital of Belarus on Sept. 5, 2014. The agreement provided for a ceasefire, an exchange of prisoners, and a framework for a political settlement based on giving the Donetsk and Luhansk regions a “special status.”
That agreement broke down amid renewed fighting until the parties signed the Minsk-2 Agreement on Feb. 12, 2015. It provided for constitutional reforms, elections in the two republics, and restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over its borders. But Kiev has made no serious move to recognize the special status of its breakaway regions, and the two sides have engaged in sporadic hostilities ever since.
Presidents Obama and Putin exchanged what may have been their final, desultory words on the subject at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru this month. Obama “urged President Putin to uphold Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreements,” while a Russian spokesman said the two men “expressed regret that it was not possible to make progress in Ukraine.”
As current foreign policy messes go, however, the Ukrainian imbroglio may offer the greatest opportunities for a rewarding cleanup. Doing so will require both sides to acknowledge some fault and find creative ways to save face.
Fortunately, President-elect Trump has created an opening for such a settlement by reaching out to Putin during the election campaign and explicitly declining to bash Russia for its annexation of Crimea (which followed a hastily arranged referendum in which the official results showed that 96 percent of the voters favored leaving Ukraine and rejoining Russia).
There are also small signs of progress that give hope. A limited demilitarization accord signed in September led to a mutual retreat by the Ukrainian army and pro-Russia separatists from a small city in eastern Ukraine. The withdrawal was verified by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a party to the Minsk accords. Meanwhile, Ukraine, Germany, France and Russia are working on a new roadmap to strengthen the ceasefire.