World leaders negotiate temporary peace in Ukraine

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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) and European Council President Donald Tusk embrace during the negotiation of a ceasefire between Russia and the Ukraine. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) and European Council President Donald Tusk embrace during the negotiation of a ceasefire between Russia and the Ukraine. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

European leaders concluded an agreement on Wednesday to cease hostilities for the time being in the Ukraine. However, uncertainty remains on whether both sides will uphold a lasting peace or retort back to armed conflict. 

The negotiators included Vladimir Putin of Russia, Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine, Angela Merkel of Germany and Francois Hollande of France, who came to the negotiating table in Minsk, Belarus, to find a resolution to the 10-month conflict. After a long night of negotiations, the leaders signed a 13-point agreement for a ceasefire taking effect on Sunday. 

The conflict began as ethnically Russian separatists in the Eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass rose up in arms against the Ukrainian government, following the abdication of previous Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who expressed closer ties to Russia. Separatists later proclaimed two independent states, the republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, yet no nation has recognized their legitimacy.   

It is estimated that more than 5,400 people have been killed and 1 million displaced since the conflict began, according to the U.N.

Many European leaders have accused Russia of sending soldiers and weapons to help the separatists against the Ukrainian military, but Putin denied this, insisting that they are pro-Russian volunteers.

The peace agreement touched on both political issues regarding the republic’s political power in the Ukraine and military issues of a ceasefire. Central to the agreement was the republic’s inclusion in Ukraine, rather than gaining independence or joining Russia, as the formerly Ukrainian region of Crimea did last year.

The agreement stated that Ukraine would reform its constitution to give the Donetsk and Lugansk republics a greater degree of self-autonomy, although the extent of that independence remains ambiguous.

The agreement also stated that Ukrainian and separatist soldiers would withdraw heavy weapons from the front lines; the Ukrainian-Russian border, currently controlled by the separatists, will be handed back to the Ukrainian military; foreign soldiers will leave the country; prisoners of war will be given amnesty; and a demilitarized zone will be established across the current frontlines.

A similar peace agreement was drawn up last September but later collapsed after both Ukrainians and separatists continued fighting.

A Ukrainian soldier takes aim at targets. Before the ceasefire, fighting had taken a heavy toll on Eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

A Ukrainian soldier takes aim at targets. Before the ceasefire, fighting had taken a heavy toll on Eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Putin came to Minsk with a degree of leverage over his Western counterparts. While Putin denied accusations of outright Russian military intervention, he has shown a clear fearlessness in the use of both military and diplomatic means to conduct foreign policy.

“Putin does not have direct control over the separatists who are fighting in Ukraine,” Richard Farkas, professor of political science at DePaul, said. “All he can do is to make a commitment to try to get them to accept the notion that they should stop fighting.”

The U.S., Germany, France and other allies have laid economic sanctions on Russia since reports of its military involvement in Ukraine became apparent last year. Although it is not certain whether these sanctions have put pressure on Putin, the Russian ruble has devalued by 10 percent in 2014 and could continue to 15 percent in 2015, according to Forbes. 

Putin wants a settlement to end the conflict, Farkas said. “The sanctions are real and his prestige has eroded, and he doesn’t see any gain for the Russian system at all.”

The U.S. was not directly involved in the Minsk negotiations, but President Obama has been outspoken for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. Obama also stated he will keep “all options open,” which could be referring to military aid to Ukraine. 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that sanctions could be lifted if the peace agreement proved to be permanent.

After an entire night of negotiation, leaders eventually came to a compromise in which parties from Russia, Ukraine, Donbass republic affiliates, Germany and France signed.

“Despite all the difficulties of the negotiating process, we managed to agree on the main things,” Putin said.

Under pressure from separatists and its Russian neighbor, Ukraine has far more to lose from an unfair settlement.

“Unacceptable conditions were offered,” Poroshenko said, “(but) we did not agree to any ultimatums.”

Western European leaders Merkel and Hollande seemed to be hopeful but aware that the conflict has not necessarily concluded.  “We have no illusions,” Merkel said. “A great, great deal of work still needs to be done. But there is a real chance to turn things around (for the) better.”