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Leaders announce ceasefire plan in Ukraine conflict (Includes interview)

Since the announcement of the ceasefire plan coming out of the peace talks, which reconvened in Belarus this week, neither side has reported and decrease in fighting. Many believe that Pro-Russian separatist forces that have been increasingly aggressive over the last month are taking a final opportunity to consolidate their hold over the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk before the ceasefire takes effect. In the wake of this aggression, U.S. officials have begun discussing providing the Ukraine with lethal military aid in the wake of renewed violence in the eastern part of the country.

Even with the announcement of the agreement, the White House has said it will keep the option of providing lethal aid on the table pending the outcome of the ceasefire. The terms of the ceasefire agreement, which grants more autonomy to rebel-controlled territories and requires the removal of heavy weapon from the front lines, closely resemble the terms of the previous agreement, which was never fully observed even before its collapse over a month ago.

The four-month-long ceasefire that had lasted since the fall of 2014, came to an end in mid-January when rebel forces captured the airport in Donetsk. The collapse of the cease-fire was a catalyst for violence and conflict in the region, with rebel forces launching a rocket attack on a crowded market in the coastal town of Mariupol located on the Black Sea just a week later.

The peace talks in Minsk originally stalled after rebel envoys pushed for a revision of the previously agreed upon cease-fire plan, hoping for more favorable borders based on its recent territorial gains. According to the New York Times, “The assessment of some senior Western officials is that the Kremlin’s goal is to replace the [previous] Minsk agreement with an accord that would be more favorable to the Kremlin’s interests and would leave the separatists with a more economically viable enclave.”

In my interview with Professor Erik Herron, Eberly Family Professor of Political Science at West Virginia University and expert on Eastern Europe and the Ukraine, he states, “Since the agreement, the Ukrainian Security Service, Military Services have lost control of a substantial amount of territory in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, especially over the last few weeks.”

Professor Herron has studied the Ukraine extensively including as a Fulbright fellow in 2007 and recently received an NSF grant to study elections in Ukraine during the conflict. Professor Herron believes that there are a combination of reason for the increased success of separatist forces. “On the one hand you have a reinforcement of capabilities by Russia that has helped the separatist advance, but the other piece of this is that the Ukrainian military is not a particularly strong fighting force. It has been at this [conflict] for many, many months and its capabilities are declining.”

The peace talks had originally collapsed amidst heavy fighting around the town of Debaltseve, a major transportation center currently held by government forces, which lies between the two main rebel-controlled areas, military spokesman Volodymyr Polyovy told Reuters. Artillery fire and shelling of towns in the region continues to take the lives of civilians as residents are encouraged to flea the areas where fighting is fiercest, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry told reporters. Despite the announcement of the upcoming ceasefire, it remains to be seen if conflict in these regions will actually end.

Professor Herron believes this consolidation of territory by the separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine seems to have been a strategic effort to improve their position going into this most recent round of negotiations. “If there is a negotiated settlement, the Separatists and Russia want the separatist forces to control as much territory as possible, so that if this turns into a frozen conflict, the region the separatists control is actually viable.”

Before reaching the agreement, both sides had blamed each other for the breakdown in talks. Professor Herron believes that, “In terms of implementing talks, part of the problem was the lack of commitment on the side of the separatists and Russia to abide by any kind of ceasefire agreement. It doesn’t seem that they’re willing to do this, but also, [talks are] impeded by the difficult position the Ukrainian government finds itself in, where it does not want to cede or give up territory but it is not capable of regaining that territory now controlled by the separatists.”

Before the signing of the ceasefire agreement, the Government in Kiev had announced its plans to expand the size of its army to 200,000 soldiers in 2015. According to the New York Times, however, leader of the pro-Russian separatists, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, had said that the rebels plan to match the government’s expansion by increasing their ranks to 100,000 soldiers.

According to Zakharchenko, this ‘urgent’ mobilization will occur over the next 10 days; however, According to David Stern of BBC News, it is unclear whether the rebels have the propensity to accomplish this given that “the territory of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics had a pre-war population of a few million, and it is unclear how many people remain.”

According to Stern, the more alarming issue is that “Mr. Zakhartchenko’s statement could indicate something much more serious. The rebels have already threatened a full-scale offensive, promising to push to the borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and possibly beyond… Many in Kiev are now concerned the Donetsk leader may be preparing the ground for major intervention from Ukraine’s neighbor, Russia.”

While Professor Herron agrees with Stern’s position, reiterating that “the rhetoric is about escalation and a demonstration of strength,” he also believes that the announcement of these numbers can also be viewed as a strategic move meant to strengthen each side’s position going into the recently concluded talks. Although it is unclear how separatist activities affected the outcome of negotiations, it seems to have had the desired effect.

U.S. officials have been considering providing lethal aid to the government in Kiev as fighting has been increasing in recent week. The continued failure of economic sanctions to dissuade Russia from sending weapons and personnel to Ukraine has put the provision of lethal aid back on the table for U.S. policy-makers if the ceasefire plan is not successful in ending the conflict.

Although the Russian’s official line is that there is no involvement in Ukraine, according to Professor Herron, “evidence that you see coming from the region certainly indicates otherwise, that there are Russian troops and equipment on the ground.”

While he does acknowledge the symbolic importance of military assistance from the West, Professor Herron doubts the effect such aid will have on the situation on the ground if the ceasefire is unsuccessful. Herron says that “…in truth the U.S. has limited leverage on [the situation in Ukraine]. Even if the U.S. were to provide offensive weapons as a support to the Ukrainian military, what the U.S. can supply isn’t going to do enough to retake lost territory.”

According to Professor Herron, because it takes time to deliver and assemble weapons as well as train personnel in their usage, the influx of weapons to the Ukrainians from the U.S. could provoke more aggressive action from the separatists and could incite Russia to provide even more support to the separatists so they are able to solidify control of their territory before the Ukrainian forces’ increased capabilities can be translate to increased success in combat. The provision of aid could also lend credence to Russia’s claims that the forces that now control the government in Kiev are insurgents backed by the West.

According to Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, “Although [the U.S.’s] focus remains on pursuing a solution through diplomatic means, we are always evaluating other options that will help create space for a negotiated solution to the crisis.” NATO military commander, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, has already come out in support of providing defensive weapons and other lethal aid to Ukrainian forces in addition to the non-lethal equipment, such as body armor, gas masks and night vision goggles, already being provided.

Even with the ceasefire agreement, President Obama, who, throughout the discussion, has sought diplomatic and economic solutions over military solutions to Russia’s involvement in the conflict, has yet to make a final decision on whether to provide lethal aid, which could include weapons like anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems. Given the doubt surrounding the agreement, officials have decided to keep this option on the table in case violence in the region does not end.

According to the New York Times, key foreign policy officials, including chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, current Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, and Secretary of State John Kerry, who began his visit to the region last Thursday, have all stated that they are “open to new discussions about providing lethal assistance.”

A coalition of fourteen U.S. Senators, including Republicans Senator Rob Portman and Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, have called for greater assistance to Ukraine in the face of what Portman claims is a blatant act of Russian aggression in the region. In a letter to President Obama in support of providing lethal aid to Ukraine, Portman and his fellow Senators state:

Despite the welcome imposition of U.S. and EU sanctions and mounting international isolation, Russian President Putin appears willing to gamble his country’s economy and world standing to further his blatant military invasion of another nation… Such a dangerous international bully will only stand down when faced with credible resistance.

With the failure, so far, of economic sanctions and limited military aid to dissuade Russian from its involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, policy-makers like Portman believe that the only way to contain Russia’s aspirations to reassert its hegemony in the region is with a credible military deterrent.

Professor Herron notes that Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and the recent push for territorial consolidation are in line with previous strategies Russia has taken with many of the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Russia has been behind these types of adventures in the past. You can look at Ukraine’s neighbor Moldova, to the Transnistrian region and see this. You can see this in two regions in the Republic of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where Russia backed separatist have set up pseudo-states, and for those to be viable you have to have the resources that you need.

According to Professor Herron, the end game for Russia in the Ukraine conflict is to create a Ukraine that is chaotic and therefore unattractive to the West. In the face of the expansion of the EU and NATO into eastern European nations formerly controlled by the Soviet Union, Russia has used varying strategies of interference to maintain its influence in the region.

In eastern Ukraine, Russia would like to a create a state that is politically and economically dependent on Russia. “Russia also wants a Ukraine that if it appears to be nominally democratic, is not attractive to Russian citizens as an alternative to the regime in Moscow,” claims Herron.

While, in truth, Ukraine is only of peripheral interest to the U.S. and EU and is central to Russian interest, many policy-makers believe it is essential that someone stand up to Russia’s continued interference in the region. Professor Herron sees Russia continuing to play out this strategy moving forward, stating:

The particular place where this could play out is in the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, these were part of the former Soviet Union. Two of these countries have reasonably large Russian populations, Estonia and Latvia, and there have already been some provocations with Estonia and Latvia over the last year that has brought into question whether Russia will further provoke its neighbors… Its not impossible and in fact seems likely that Russia will do its best to infiltrate domestic politics and influence those countries in ways that citizens and the Western powers are not comfortable with.

Their large Russian populations and their strategic value to Russia as a buffer zone makes these former Soviet regions prime targets for Russian interference. Professor Herron also identified Kazakhstan as a possible flashpoint for conflict due to its large Russian population and areas of disputed territory, which many Russian believe should belong to them.

There have already been disputes along the border between Estonia and Russia. As recently as last September, Estonian officials claimed a security agent was abducted from their side of the border. While the Estonians blamed the Russians, Russian authorities claimed the agent was captured during a spying mission on the Russian side of the border.

In response to the potential aggression, Professor Herron forecasts that “[in the Baltic states] one thing you might see [on the part of the U.S. and EU], especially if the Ukrainian conflict turns into a frozen conflict, is increased exercises and more of a permanent military presence in places like Poland and the Baltic states.”

Ahead of the announced ceasefire, it remains to be seen whether this will mark the end of a conflict that has taken over 5,400 lives and displaced more than one million individuals. For policy-makers tasked with plotting a course of action in Ukraine, it is vital to examine Russia’s motivations and visions for its foreign policy in order to place its actions in the Ukraine within the greater context of Russia’s grand strategy.

As Putin’s regime in Moscow continues to take such gambles on the world stage and international opinion mounts against Russia’s activities in the region, it becomes more and more isolated both economically and politically. The explanation as to why Russia has involved itself in the conflict in Ukraine is part of a larger Russian strategy to reestablish and reassert its power in the region.

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