To end the escalating crisis in Ukraine, diplomacy has to succeed.
As the US, Russia, EU and Ukraine hold their first talks in Geneva since the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis, the Cold War-lite atmosphere masks a reputational crisis for the US, EU and Nato. The Ukrainian government’s response to the insurrection in the east of the country has turned out to be an embarrassment for Kiev. Soldiers dispatched to end the occupation of government buildings have been stalled by blockading rings of civilians and pro-Russian gunmen. Kiev’s apprehensions of a full-scale Russian invasion, should it act against the gunmen, have been eclipsed by the fiasco of its “anti-terrorist” operation.
With an estimated 40,000-strong military build-up on Ukraine’s eastern border — despite allegations from Kiev that the gunmen are actually Russian soldiers — Moscow has been using the spectre of intervention, its “right” to send in troops to defend the Russian-speaking population, to warn Kiev. The deaths of three protesters, fired upon by the Ukrainian military, are being used to the hilt in Moscow’s propaganda war.
The reason Ukraine matters is the “butterfly effect” the insurrection and prospective referendums — which, like the Crimean one, may cause Ukraine loss of territory and its break-up — can have on economic, energy and security matters across Europe. Nato has stepped up air and sea patrols to assure its Baltic member states, but to defuse the crisis, diplomacy has to succeed in Geneva. The EU, and particularly Germany, has been perceived to be too soft, even now divided on “Phase 3” sanctions targeting the Russian economy.
Nor has the Obama administration earned itself any admirers. Moscow has to regain its trust in Kiev and Western capitals, but the Ukrainian government, dominated by west Ukrainians, too must make an overture towards Russian-speaking citizens and make them stakeholders in preserving the state.