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Conflict

Kyiv caught between a rock and a hard place

The EU has imposed new sanctions in reaction to violence and a sham referendum in eastern Ukraine, but a solution to the Ukraine crisis may be on the horizon, says DW's Ingo Mannteufel. It's now up to Kyiv.

Over the past months, the Ukraine conflict has turned into an incredibly desperate political crisis. Hopes for a simple, rigorous solution are futile. Either way, there will be no clear winners in this conflict; actually, there will only be losers. The failure of the accord signed in Geneva before Easter shows how fragile a compromise based on set phrases can be.

Russian special interest politics

Russia's annexation of Crimea in violation of international law, followed by policies aimed at destabilizing eastern Ukraine, are proof that Moscow wasn't interested in de-escalation. But just now, it appears that a small window of de-escalation has opened a crack, despite the fact that the sham referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk and fresh EU sanctions ostensibly continue to escalate the situation.

Behind the scenes, Germany's foreign minister has relentlessly advocated the following solution: Roundtable talks that would bring together all of Ukraine's political groups, chaired by the OSCE, and led by former German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger and Ukrainian representatives.

One would assume that Russian President Putin agrees to the plan in principle.

His previous suggestion that the separatists postpone the "referendums" could be regarded as a concerted diversionary tactic lacking political sincerity. But compared to the farcical vote in Crimea, Moscow's reaction to these "referendums" has been relatively subdued. The official response to the separatists' request for annexation has so far been hedging. Most of all, there has been no clear public declaration by President Putin.

Steinmeier's mission in Kyiv

It will be crucial whether German Foreign Minister Steinmeier, who flew to Ukraine on Tuesday, can convince the interim government of [President] Turchynov and [Prime Minister] Yatsenyuk to agree to roundtable talks.

Understandably, there are quite a few misgivings.

One could argue, and rightly so, that the Kremlin is only interested in such talks at the moment because it has only now, and quite irresponsibly, built up a certain negotiating power on the heels of the pro-Russian separatists' illegal actions. A closer look at the suggestion of roundtable talks shows the devil is in the details: Under what mandate could the separatists participate in the first place? Will presidential elections take place as scheduled on May 25? Does that mean the annexation of Crimea is not recognized? Those are just a few of the questions linked to the roundtable idea. As a result, Ukraine's leadership faces a difficult decision.

Talks or annexation

But the alternatives aren't much better. These past weeks have shown how rigorously and violently Moscow is prepared to enforce its interests. Russia's implied agreement with the OSCE roundtable plan should not seduce people to believe that the Kremlin has moved away from its objectives. Political naivete is not called for when dealing with Russia. The opposite is the case: Even with roundtable talks and by using the pro-Russian separatists, the Kremlin still aims to secure a say on Ukraine's political future and would, if the opportunity arose, advocate the division of Ukraine.

If the proposal of roundtable talks chaired by the OSCE fails, the conflict in Ukraine can be expected to escalate further, while Moscow can be expected to entertain pro-Russian separatist ambitions. At present, Kyiv's political leadership is caught between a rock and a hard place.

Ingo Mannteufel heads DW's Russia Department.

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