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Ukraine

Fix: 'We are running out of time in Ukraine'

The facts in the Ukraine conflict need to be clarified by additional observers on the ground, says Eastern Europe expert Liana Fix. If that doesn't happen, she adds, all threats towards Russia will prove ineffective.

DW: It seems that the situation in Ukraine is not improving at the moment - on the contrary. Do you think that the conflict will further escalate?

Liana Fix: The chances are 50-50. Despite what people may hope, the Geneva agreement is not a first step towards de-escalation. Both sides interpret the agreement so differently that there is no common understanding of who has to implement which steps at what time and who is responsible for monitoring the measures.

Which groups - official and unofficial - are now playing a role in the conflict?

There are, indeed, organized groups of citizens in the eastern part of the country. They want eastern Ukraine's orientation to be more towards Russia. But there are fewer of them than in the Crimea conflict. Then, there are also the armed units in eastern Ukraine. They call themselves independent eastern Ukrainian militias. But they are probably getting support from Moscow. And there are nationalistic groups in Kyiv: There is the established Svoboda Party. Its popularity has significantly decreased, according to opinion polls. Additionally, there is the extreme right-wing Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector), to which Russia is devoting a lot of attention. But one should not overestimate its influence. The group's roots don't run deep, and it doesn't go back very far.

Are the right groups included in the negotiations?

Essentially, yes, because Russia exerts massive influence. But until Russia admits its role, the negotiations with Moscow about the separatists in eastern Ukraine will remain fruitless. In Kyiv, Yulia Tymoshenko has proposed a roundtable discussion in which the separatists could also take part. But there are huge concerns with acknowledging them as negotiation partners. It's not clear to what extent they represent the opinions of eastern Ukrainians. They could also just be a radical minority who want to provoke people and who aren't interested in a stable, long-term solution.

Which political options does the West have? What can still be done now?

Liana Fix
(Foto: Peter Himsel)

Liana Fix, expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, calls for more observers for eastern Ukraine

There is still the option of instituting economic sanctions against Russia. The third level of sanctions should come into effect only if it's clear that Russia is intervening militarily in eastern Ukraine. But obviously there's not yet proof of that. I think it's important to send more observers to eastern Ukraine to clarify on the ground who is doing what and which actions are supported by the population. The main question is where are the separatist groups getting their support? Absolute evidence of Russia's support is still lacking.

What role will the coming elections play?

The presidential elections on May 25, 2014 will be decisive for the stabilization of Ukraine. Until now, the Kyiv government has been accused of being illegitimate. But if a legitimized president is in office, he will have to be recognized as a partner in negotiations. Now, the question is whether the separatists in eastern Ukraine are interested in peaceful elections or allowing the polls at all. The chances of a pro-Russian candidate winning are not very high.

What role does Germany need to play in European-Russian relations?

The German government has acted in a measured way until now. But I question whether it's smart for Berlin to give up its main trump card by announcing hesitation about implementing economic sanctions against Russia. There are so few options available. That's why Germany, of all places, should keep that trump up its sleeve.

It has proven difficult to separate fact from fiction. Is this the main problem in the Ukraine conflict?

There are many facts on the ground, but these facts haven't been verified yet. No authority has been able to say beyond a shadow of a doubt that the troops in Sloviansk are Russian citizens. Journalists are helping to clarify the situation, but that's not enough for negotiations. The longer we exercise restraint and are uncertain of what exactly is happening, the easier it becomes for actors on the ground to create a fait accompli. We have already seen that in the Crimea conflict.

The longer we sit back and consider whether the soldiers are Russian, the more leeway we're giving those actors on the ground. It's a well-known play for time. But we shouldn't allow ourselves too much time because then we may find that a situation has been established in eastern Ukraine - as in Crimea - that cannot be reversed.

Liana Fix is an expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. She is writing her doctoral thesis on Germany's role in European-Russian relations. She also works for the Center for Central and Eastern Europe of the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

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