Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Did Diplomacy Win in Ukraine?

Not with a bang but a whimper, international tensions appear to have shifted away from the Ukraine, leaving regional powerhouse Russia and the interim government in Kiev to deal with what are most-definitely-not-but-kind-of-look-and-talk-like Russian forces in the east. Though the conflict certainly is not over, it looks like it will not be the likely cause of World War III anytime soon.

Russian-speaking troops are still occupying several areas in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea is firmly in Russian hands, but the US, EU, and Russia as well as Ukraine’s interim government came to an agreement to peacefully “defuse” the situation last week in Geneva. Yet Russia has not yet fulfilled one of its primary commitments to call on separatists in the East to surrender the buildings that they’ve occupied, and is now contemplating further military action.

All parties involved are, as usual, interested in playing the blame game. Ukraine blames Russia, claiming separatists are Russians in disguise. Russia blames Ukraine and the West, stating that Kiev has failed to uphold its commitment to securing areas inhabited by ethnic Russians. The US, meanwhile, is caught between a rock and a hard place. While the agreement removes some of the responsibility of the US to de-escalate the crisis, it may be making unwanted waves elsewhere in the world.

The US’s moves in Ukraine are being watched with baited breath, not only in Europe but also in Asia, where countries like Japan and the Philippines are increasingly nervous that their own regional hegemon China might take a page out of Russia’s playbook. If all they see are diplomatic agreements unfulfilled, military incursions willfully ignored, and a regional power allowed to run roughshod over its neighbors, things do not bode well for their own territorial disputes.

Behind the crisis is the man everyone loves to hate, Vladmir Putin, and his new worldview for Russian dominance. While ostensibly a pragmatist during his first terms in office, Putin has become increasingly ideological, recasting the new Russian empire as a grand civilizational project that spans borders and will unite Russia’s scattered people. Yesterday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “brushed aside” Russian pledges not to actually send Russian troops (openly) into eastern Ukraine, despite the Geneva agreement reached last week.

Whatever the next Russian move, the US is sure to be sucked back into the crisis if it re-escalates. Vice President Joe Biden is in Kiev this week and is expected to offer a technocratic aid package to assist Ukraine’s beleaguered economy and signify US support. The support might become more important to Kiev than the money, as Russia accuses its government of violating the Geneva agreement and losing control within its own borders. Whether the US is willing to continue providing it in the face of increasing Russian militancy remains to be seen.

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