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Ukraine: Hollande has 'will' but is there a way?

Ben McPartland · 11 Feb 2015, 17:34

Published: 11 Feb 2015 17:34 GMT+01:00

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The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine will converge on the Belarusian capital Minsk on Wednesday for what Hollande says himself is “the last chance” to end the conflict in the east of Ukraine and impending "war".

It’s only six months since the last deal was struck in the same city but those accords failed miserably to bring an end to fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces.

In fact, as Merkel herself said, things have got dramatically worse since that day in September, with the death toll continuing to rise and talk of a new push by the separatists, whom Europe and the US insist are being backed by Putin.

Nevertheless Hollande said this week that he was going to Minsk with the “strong will” to achieve a peace deal at a summit that marks the climax of a recent Francà-German diplomatic push.

The French president said he and Merkel would be “active until the last moment of this meeting so that there can be a deal, a global settlement.”

'Even a ceasefire would be a major achievement'

But Merkel has sounded much less hopeful than her French counterpart.

“There is anything but an assurance of success, I have to be very clear about that," she said on a trip to Washington this week. 

Analysts too, believe any chances that a lasting deal might be struck, that might consist of separatists ceding territory in exchange for greater autonomy for Pro-Russian eastern regions, are slight.

The two sides remain deadlocked over certain issues are talks are complicated by the fact the separatists have gained some 500-square kilometres of territory in the last month alone.

Most agree that the best the French and German leaders could hope to accomplish is a ceasefire.

“It all depends on what we mean by a solution. The important thing is to stop the fighting,” Nicu Popescu Senior Analyst from the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris told The Local. "That would at least give diplomacy time to work." 

“But the previous ceasefire didn’t really work so achieving another one is a tough enough goal," he said.

Hollande himself has already spelled out the consequences if he and Merkel fail to bring the two sides together.

 "If we fail to find a lasting peace agreement, we know the scenario perfectly well -- it has a name, it is called war,” the president said.

READ MORE: 'Merkel is trying to find common EU position'

'War won't mean Nato troops'

Many would point out that the two sides are already firmly at war given the fact 5,400 people have already died in the 10-month conflict and even on the eve of Wednesday’s Minsk summit there was a surge in fighting.

So what does the French president mean when he talks of "war"?

“When Hollande talks of war we are obviously not talking about about NATO troops on the ground,”’ says Popescu. “The situation is very serious for Ukraine and it’s very serious for eastern Europe but we are not at the point where we should be talking about Nato going to war.”

For Philipe Migault, director of research at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) the upshot of any failure to convince Putin and Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko to sign a peace deal could see the war Hollande talks about, engulf the rest of Ukraine.

“We are at a moment in the Ukraine crisis where if we see a big defeat for the Ukrainian army, the crisis will simply spread to other parts of the country and Ukraine will go same way as Yugoslavia did in the 1990s,” he said. “The aim of these negotiations is to save Ukraine.”

If the talks fail to find the deal that many see as elusive, western allies appear divided on the next step.

Supplying arms could be next step

The US who back the peace effort whilst believing it has little chance of success, isseriously mulling over supplying Ukraine with weapons so it can defend itself and the integrity of its territory against the advancing separatists.

But Merkel and Hollande are against supplying arms to Ukraine’s beleaguered army believing it would only make matters worse and ultimately would be ineffective against Russian might.

It’s a view shared by Russian specialist Migault.

“Arming Ukraine will not mean Ukraine will win a war against Russia,” he said. “The Ukrainian army would need to be trained and they would need to become a coherent force and develop a strong mentality. The army is not disclipined, motivated or united so it’s not just a question of arming them.”

Obama seems to know that too. He accepts the likelihood of any Ukrainian military victory is slim but he may still favour arming their allies if Merkel and Hollande come away empty handed on Wednesday.

Story continues below…

Although certain EU countries, particularly those in the east, may also favour supplying arms to Ukraine, Brussels are more likely to go down the route of imposing further sanctions against Moscow.

Fighting may go on for months, or years

A raft of new restrictions were suspended on the eve of the talks in Minsk to try an boost the chances of success.

But Gustav Gressel from the European Council of Foreign Relations warns Russia is in a position to resist any sanctions for a long time.

“The Ukraine crisis needs to be resolved in some way, at least in terms of an end to the fighting, in a shorter timespan than sanctions will allow us to do,” Gressel told The Local.

“But if diplomacy fails, if Russia can hold on for longer, then it looks very bad for Ukraine. Fighting could last into the summer,” he said.

Others believe the worst case scenario will see the armed conflict in Ukraine go on longer than a matter of months.

"We will end up in a sort of proxy war," Jonathan Eyal, the international director of the Royal United Services Institute, a military think tank in London told CNN.

"A semi-permanent stalemate is the most likely outcome. It could last for years to come."

Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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