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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Young: Don't reward Russian aggression

Russian President Vladimir Putin heads the Cabinet meeting

Russian President Vladimir Putin heads the Cabinet meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia on Wednesday, July 30, 2014. Credit: AP / Alexei Nikolsky

The conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has taken a heavy toll in human lives and raised fears of war in Europe, has not been resolved with last week's cease-fire agreement between the Ukrainian government and the Moscow-directed pro-Russian rebels.

However, the accord is a chance to stop the fighting and work toward a resolution. What's more, if its terms are fulfilled, the result will be a major victory for Ukraine's democratic forces and a defeat for Vladimir Putin's imperial agenda. But the West must keep up the pressure to ensure that the Russian president's aggression does not prevail.

There has been considerable debate on whether the agreement -- signed in Minsk, Belarus, by representatives of Ukraine, Russia and rebel forces -- is a win for Russia or Ukraine. When the cease-fire was concluded, Bloomberg View columnist Leonid Bershidsky described it as Putin's victory, since it would end the Kiev government's military operation against the insurgency and preserve relative autonomy for the rebel-ruled eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. This, Bershidsky wrote, will give the eastern regions enough political power to block Ukraine's integration into the European Union -- the very goal Putin pursued from the start.

Yet when the terms of the deal became public, Russian historian Mark Solonin argued that it was a resounding defeat for Putin's project to turn eastern Ukraine into a pro-Russian autonomous region.

The agreement, in many ways similar to the one Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko proposed in June, provides only for a Ukrainian law on "temporary local self-government in some areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions." It also calls for elections in eastern Ukraine and for an end to the operation of "illegal military forces" -- subject to monitoring by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, whose access to the region was previously blocked by the insurgency. If this agreement is carried out, Solonin writes, it's the end of the Kremlin's proxy pseudo-states in Eastern Ukraine and a victory for Kiev and lasting peace.

Confusion over the meaning of the cease-fire is exacerbated by the fact that it came after a turn in the fortunes of war that appeared to favor Russia. When the Ukrainian army was apparently on the verge of crushing the insurgency in Donetsk, the rebels' major reinforcements in both personnel and weaponry almost certainly came from across the border. Within days, Ukraine's armed forces suffered major losses, with some units pushed back and others trapped. In this situation, it is easy to see Kiev as accepting a bad deal to avoid an even worse catastrophe.

However, Russia's position was not that advantageous either. It is doubtful the Kremlin could have continued the offensive against Ukraine without undertaking an open invasion and facing an escalation of Western sanctions. The influx of aid to the rebels may have been intended less to force Ukraine into a bad peace than to keep the insurgency alive to negotiate an agreement that would let Russia save face and play nominal peace broker.

The real question, independent Russian journalist and blogger Victor Davidoff told me in an email, is whether the cease-fire will hold. Putin's backup plan, Davidoff believes, is to create permanent instability in eastern Ukraine while continuing to maintain the pretense that the insurgents are not under Russia's control.

The West cannot go to war for Ukraine. But it can use its economic leverage, and aid to Kiev, to ensure Moscow cannot violate the agreement without paying a price. Anything less would reward brazen aggression intended not to defend Russia's national interest, but to protect Putin's authoritarian rule.