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Opinion

Opinion: High price for ceasefire in eastern Ukraine

The Kremlin will have achieved its goals - for the time being - if there is a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. But it wouldn’t mean the end of the conflict, writes DW’s Ingo Mannteufel.

All signs point to a change of course in Ukraine. After a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko mentioned an agreement of a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. Details and the roadmap to a possible truce remain unclear for now, however. There are contradictory signals coming from Kyiv, Moscow and the regions controlled by separatists. It would be great news for the local population if the fighting did indeed stop. But a ceasefire would have fundamental political consequences for the months of conflict in Ukraine.

A new frozen conflict

A permanent end of fighting would mean victory in this conflict for the separatists who are supported by Russia. They would cement their power in the controlled areas and could increase it further. That's the goal in Putin's seven-point-plan on solving the conflict. That would turn the situation in eastern Ukraine into a new "frozen conflict," of which there have been several in the post-Soviet area for the past 25 years: in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Ingo Mannteufel heads DW's Russian and Eurasian service

To Russian policymakers, those "frozen conflicts" are familiar territory and indeed ultimately very welcome. Russian interests can be defended in endless diplomatic negotiations via such proxy structures. And Russia can exert its influence on domestic policies in the concerned countries.

Tough power politics is what guides this strategy. Russia lost its most important political ally in Kyiv - Ukraine's President Yanukovich and the pro-Russian party of the regions - in the "Euromaidan" revolution which culminated in February. Since then, it has become clear that the Kremlin will use other means to influence Ukraine's political future. A ceasefire - which President Putin has called for repeatedly over recent weeks - would mean a secret victory for his Ukraine strategy.

Poroshenko, a loser

The fact that Ukraine's Poroshenko seems ready to accept a ceasefire is understandable after recent days' events: the losses of Ukrainian government forces and the land gains made by the separatists, who seem to be supported even by regular army units from Russia, appear to have made Poroshenko realize that the military solution to the conflict he has been aiming for since late June has failed. The additional front line opened by Russia near Mariupol in the very south of the Donetsk region has increased pressure on Kyiv.

If there was a ceasefire, the bloodshed would end at last. But politically, Poroshenko and his government would take a high risk, just ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for October. Many Ukrainians would feel offended, resenting the ceasefire and the resulting de facto capitulation. That is particularly true for the many nationalist voluntary units who have seen big losses in their own ranks over recent days. It's hard to imagine that those forces, politically difficult to control, will follow the political logic of a ceasefire. Intense domestic tensions would be the result. In the elections, radical parties could make significant gains. A partisan war in eastern Ukraine can also not be excluded.

Another loser

The European Union, and above all Germany, have pushed for an end to the fighting for weeks, campaigning for a political solution. But if the situation turns into a frozen conflict there is a risk that parts of the Ukrainian society will turn their backs on Europe. For weeks, Ukrainians heard rumors of a deal between Berlin and Moscow, according to which Poroshenko would end the fighting, and virtually hand over Donetsk and Luhansk to the separatists. Many Ukrainians therefore feel betrayed by the EU and especially by Germany.

Several European countries share the impression that the EU's answer to Russian aggression against a neighboring country was not resolute enough. A frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine would cause long-lasting aftershocks in the European Union. Relations with Russia and with Ukraine are probably strained for years. Europe will not be able to return to the status quo before the conflict.

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