The Cable

Russian Credibility on Ukraine Low at U.N. Meeting

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly defied the international community’s wishes regarding Ukraine, first by annexing Crimea then by supporting a separatist movement that has the country on the brink of civil war. This week, the Russian government arrived in New York to demonstrate its sincerity about making peace with Ukraine. The Russian delegation proposed ...

: ERIC FEFERBERG
: ERIC FEFERBERG

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly defied the international community’s wishes regarding Ukraine, first by annexing Crimea then by supporting a separatist movement that has the country on the brink of civil war.

This week, the Russian government arrived in New York to demonstrate its sincerity about making peace with Ukraine. The Russian delegation proposed a Security Council statement endorsing a cease-fire agreement that Moscow and Kiev signed earlier this month in Minsk, Belarus. Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the agreement opens a dialogue with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that  "we hope will open a way to reconciliation of the protracted crisis in Ukraine." Poroshenko himself expressed confidence that the cease-fire could hold.

But Western powers were having none of it. American diplomats refused to endorse the proposed Security Council statement blessing the Minsk agreement. If America signed off, the statement would also have to call on all foreign forces to withdraw from eastern Ukraine and underscore Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. Given that Russian troops are the "foreign forces" in Ukraine, Moscow dropped its plan on Thursday.

The negotiations played out as President Barack Obama denounced Russian "aggression" in Ukraine and vowed to defend NATO members from similar Russian action and threatened the Kremlin with more sanctions during his address to the U.N. General Assembly Wednesday.

"Russia’s actions in Ukraine challenge this post-war order," he said. "Against the will of the government in Kiev, Crimea was annexed. Russia poured arms into eastern Ukraine, fueling violent separatists and a conflict that has killed thousands. When a civilian airliner was shot down from area that these proxies controlled, they refused to allow access to the crash site for days. When Ukraine started to reassert control over its territory, Russia gave up the pretense of merely supporting the separatists and moved troops across the border. This is a vision of the world in which ‘might makes right’ — a world in which one nation’s borders can be redrawn by another and civilized people are not allowed to recover the remains of their loved ones because of the truth that might be revealed."

Despite Obama’s tough talk, the U.S. and other world leaders had little interest in devoting their efforts and energies to forging a peace deal in Ukraine. The session’s high-level meetings were reserved for less acrimonious topics, such as the fight against Ebola and the menacing self-styled Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

Richard Gowan, an expert on the U.N. at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, said that Western allies likely calculated that there was little to be gained from a major hashing out of the Ukrainian crisis. "Every time you get discussion on Ukraine in the council it degenerates into a slanging match and everyone would just shout at each other," he said. It would have "undermined the impression of unity quite carefully forged over the last couple of days on other issues" like Ebola and counterterrorism.

But not everyone was avoiding the issue. In an interview this week with Foreign Policy, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Russia’s commitment to peace in Ukraine is hard to take seriously, given its track record of empty promises.

"It’s a fact that Russia still has active troops operating within Ukraine," he said. "So its clear to me that Russia continues to destabilize the situation in Ukraine."

Rasmussen said that while "we welcome all continuing efforts to find a peaceful solution, we have seen so many promises from separatists and the Russians in the past that their credibility is very, very low. There is obviously a very clear risk that this so-called cease-fire will just be a cover for establishing a protracted conflict in eastern Ukraine, as we have seen in other parts of the region.

"I think President Putin’s goal is quite clear: what we are witnessing now in Ukraine is part of a much bigger master plan," said Rasmussen, who is stepping down from NATO’s top job in a few days. "This is about establishing a zone of Russian influence in Russia’s near neighborhood covering the former Soviet space.

"Russia fuels these protracted conflicts in Transnistria in Moldova in Ukraine, in Crimea in eastern Ukraine and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia because Russia hopes that it will be difficult for these countries to seek a closer relationship with the European Union, not to speak about membership within NATO."

In late August, NATO responded to Putin’s aggression by announcing it would deploy troops to new bases in Eastern Europe, the first time soldiers serving under the NATO banner have been sent to a former Soviet bloc nation. It is creating a "rapid-response" force of some 4,000 troops that reportedly will be stationed in Poland.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a member of the U.S. General Assembly delegation, has traveled to Ukraine three times since joining the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2011. He has no doubt that Putin has expansionary plans and says that the U.S. should honor Porshenko’s request for heavy weaponry to combat the better-outfitted Russian and separatist forces.

"Blankets, night-vision goggles are also important, but one cannot win the war with blankets," Poroshenko told a joint session of Congress Sept. 18. "We cannot keep the peace with a blanket, and this is most important of our values, of our aim."

Rasmussen said Russia’s approach to Ukraine will "no doubt…have a reverse effect" on Ukraine’s loyalties. "Sentiments in Ukraine are now quite clear: a huge majority of the Ukrainian people distrust the Russians."

Ukraine’s pro-Western government has been gingerly trying to move closer to Europe. On Sept. 16, Ukrainian lawmakers, acting in concert with the European Parliament, ratified an association agreement and free trade pact with the European Union aimed at deepening relations. But facing the threat of further economic sanctions from Moscow, Ukraine postponed implementation until late next year.  

Apparently, that was not enough.

Putin recently demanded in a letter to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso that he reopen the trade pact negotiations or face "immediate and appropriate retaliatory measures."

That was just the latest volley in the tit-for-tat economic battle that simmering between Russia and the West, proving Moscow’s not ready to let Ukraine move closer to Europe. Putin is still using gas and trade to try to bring Ukraine into line. Russian, Ukrainian, and EU leaders met in Berlin Friday to try to hash out a gas deal that won’t leave Ukraine out in the cold this winter. Since Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March, the U.S. and Europe have leveled sanctions at Russia, targeting businessmen and companies close to the Kremlin, and Moscow has retaliated by banning Western food imports, for example. The whole conflict was set off late last year when protesters took to the streets and tossed out then-President Viktor Yanukovych for turning away from the EU pact after similar trade threats from Moscow.  

Jamila Trindle contributed to this report. 

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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