Sometime late on Wednesday night or early Thursday morning, as talks meant to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine were being finalized in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, Ukrainian army officials reported observing the movement of heavy weapons across the country’s border with Russia. They said they had identified some 50 tanks, 40 missile batteries, and numerous armored personnel carriers.
This might have been good news. One of the key elements the Ukrainian government was looking for in any deal to end the conflict with separatists in the east was the removal of heavy weapons from the front lines, and the withdrawal of all “foreign” military elements from Ukraine.
The word “foreign” was, of course, code for “Russian.” At this point, virtually nobody believes continued Russian claims that the Kremlin has supplied neither weapons nor soldiers to the separatists fighting to carve out an autonomous, Russia-supporting region in eastern Ukraine.
So again, it might have been good that tanks and missile batteries were crossing the border – except that they were going the wrong way. Those tanks and missiles, assuming the Ukrainian report was correct, were heading into Ukraine’s contested Donbas region, not out of it.
The report that Russia might be reinforcing its proxy army in eastern Ukraine is exactly why the level of confidence in the durability of the agreement struck Thursday in Belarus in quite low. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in many respects the main driver of the agreement, was herself cautious about drawing conclusions about its success. “I have no illusions – we have no illusions,” she said, admitting that much work remained to be done.
On the whole, the deal appears to favor Putin and the Ukrainian separatists, whom virtually everyone except Putin recognizes as the Kremlin’s client. Under the deal announced Thursday, there appears to be no provision requiring the rebels to relinquish any territory they currently control. Additionally, Ukraine will not have control of its own border with Russia anytime before the end of the year, and even then, only after granting significant autonomy to the rebellious east – something that must be enshrined in an amendment to the Ukrainian constitution.
The fate of the city of Debaltseve, a key transport hub that Ukrainian troops continue to control, was apparently left unresolved by the deal. The city remains under heavy pressure from separatists as well as units that the Ukrainian government insists are Russian troops stripped of their uniform insignia.
Ukraine will also be required to begin making pension payments and providing other social benefits to the region currently controlled by armed rebels determined to separate from the country. Also, Ukraine will have to grant immunity to those who fought against its military.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who will likely face a serious challenge in selling this agreement to his constituents, came away from the deal with two things: an agreement that will at least temporarily stop his soldiers from being killed, and a promise from the International Monetary Fund to provide the country loans to keep it at least a few steps away from the edge of bankruptcy.
The deal, worth some $17.5 billion over four years is in theory at least supposed to be boosted to $40 billion by contributions from other sources, including the U.S. and various European countries. Their willingness to participate has at this point gone unconfirmed.
The IMF deal will also, according to a statement released by IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, include “bold policy reforms aimed at restoring robust growth over the medium term and improving living standards for the Ukrainian people.”
She continued, “It is an ambitious program; it is a tough program; and it is not without risk. But it is also a realistic program and its effective implementation – after consideration and approval by our Executive Board – can represent a turning point for Ukraine.”
This language might not be the most encouraging news for the Ukrainian people who, in addition to watching Russia-backed separatists on their eastern border, can hardly have missed the lack of economic growth experienced by other European countries, including Greece and Spain, that have been subject to the IMF’s tough love in recent years.
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